New History of Wyoming

Chapter 5: Establishing the Territory and Granting Women Equal Rights

"For the first time in the history of our country, the organization of a territorial government was rendered necessary by the building of a railroad." —Inaugural address of Territorial Gov. John A. Campbell, 1869.

Wyoming had a tiny Euroamerican population before 1867. Except for pockets of soldiers garrisoned at a handful of forts around the state, the only other populated area was the gold mining boom town of South Pass City. With a population fluctuating wildly like most mining towns of the time, the town

Although administration over the area mattered little because of the tiny non-Native population, flags of a half dozen countries might have flown over land that is now part of Wyoming. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France brought the more than three-fourths of present Wyoming east of the Continental Divide under the United States. Until the treaty of 1818, west-central Wyoming was part of Britain’s Oregon country. The Mexican flag replaced that of Spain over southwestern Wyoming in 1821, with the portion finally becoming part of the United States in 1848. When Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez opened Fort Bridger, they filed a land claim in Mexico City because in that year (1843), the fort stood on Mexican soil. Farther east, a narrow ban encompassing a small portion of present Carbon County was mapped as the northern extremity of the panhandle of the Republic of Texas.

After American control over the area, present Wyoming became part of several adjacent territories. First was the territory of Louisiana (1805-1812), followed by the Territory of Missouri (1812-20). After that, for the next 14 years, Wyoming was "unorganized territory." In 1834, Congress designated it part of "Indian country," a designation it retained until it was included in the newly created Territory of Nebraska in 1854. For two years during the Civil War (1861-1863), the northern half of that area in present Wyoming was made part of Dakota Territory while the southern portion stayed with Nebraska. When Idaho Territory was created in 1863, all of the area previously part of both Dakota and Nebraska became the eastern-most portion of Idaho, reverting back to Dakota Territory the following year.

The west-central part of present Wyoming remained the eastern edge of Oregon Territory for a decade from 1849-59, but when Oregon became a state, that area was added to Washington Territory. In 1863, that portion, too, became part of Idaho Territory, a status it retained until Wyoming Territory was created in 1868.

Southwestern Wyoming—the area encompasses present Uinta County and the southern three-fourths of Sweetwater County—was part of Utah Territory from 1850-63. The Sweetwater County portion was added to Idaho and then Dakota territories, but present Uinta County remained with Utah until 1868. (Thus, Wyoming was part of Oregon, Washington, Dakota, Nebraska, Utah and Idaho territories, but never part of Montana or Colorado). The practical effect of government organization was minimal although, for a time, Fort Laramie served as county seat of Nebraska’s sprawling "Cheyenne County."

When most of what is now Wyoming became a part of Dakota Territory in 1864, all of it was "Laramie County" with the county seat at Fort Sanders, just south of present Laramie. Dakota made only one division—drawing a boundary halfway across and, in December 1867, designating the western portion "Carter County" with South Pass City as the county seat. At the same time, the five-month-old town of Cheyenne was made the county seat of Laramie County.

The two "western counties" of Dakota Territory never were considered a viable part of the rest of the territory. While Dakota population centers were located east of the Missouri River and catering to farmers settling in those areas, the two western counties were home only to miners in the South Pass area, railroad construction workers along the southern edge and soldiers at the scattered frontier army posts. Seeing little in common and numerous potential expensive problems to deal with in those counties, the Dakota governor and legislature memorialized Congress to rid their territory of the troublesome western portion.

Congress considered creation of a territory as early as 1864 before the area became part of Dakota Territory. With the additional urging of the Dakota legislature, Congress authorized the territory in 1867. Congressmen suggested a number of names—Sweetwater, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone—all with indigenous connections. The name "Lincoln" was suggested to honor the recently deceased President. Rep. James Ashley (1824-1896), chairman of the House Committee on the Territories, suggested a name that meant "on the broad plain." Not having been in the area, Ashley, an Ohio Republican born in Pennsylvania, nevertheless proposed a name he claimed aptly described the area—Wyoming, the Delaware Indian word for "on the great plain."

The Northwest Ordinance provided guidance as to organization of the territory and, once a territory is established, the ordinance gives Congress nearly exclusive oversight of territorial laws and the Executive Branch almost exclusive power over appointment of officials. But at the time was created in July 1868, Congress and President Andrew Johnson were locked in an impeachment debate. When Johnson sought to appoint territorial officers for Wyoming, Congress blocked the appointments. Thus, even though Wyoming was a territory on paper in 1868, it wasn’t until the following year, when U. S. Grant was President, that territorial officers were appointed and confirmed.

Territorial officers were commonly friends and political supporters of the President, but not prominent enough for cabinet posts or ambassadorial appointments. Many appointed in the 19th century to various territorial posts in the West turned out to be either corrupt or incompetent. Wyoming Territory, however, had the good fortune not to have many of these types. Certainly, the first group of officers and judges appointed by Grant in 1869 were generally capable and honest.

On April 3, 1869, Grant announced he had appointed Ohio-born John A. Campbell to be territorial governor. Edward M. Lee gained appointment as the second-ranking territorial officer—secretary of the territory. Campbell, born in Salem, Ohio, in 1835, had known Grant when both men served as generals in the Union Army in the Civil War. In fact, Campbell served in Grant’s command. Lee had served as a cavalry officer under the commands of Kilpatrick, Custer and Sheridan. Taken prisoner

during the war, he spent more than a year in Libby Prison in Richmond. After the war, he was elected to the Connecticut legislature. A young Delaware-born lawyer, Joseph M. Carey, was named territorial attorney while Massachusetts native Church Howe was U. S. marshal. The three territorial judges also were appointed by the President. John H. Howe was chief justice; W. T. Jones and John W. Kingman, associate justices.

Campbell was 33 years old; Lee, 31. Both were bachelors. Campbell came West to Wyoming in the late spring of 1869. In May, all of the appointed officials got off the train in Cheyenne, where Campbell pronounced as the "temporary capital," a designation that would remain. While the others set up their offices, Campbell organized the election for territorial representatives to the first legislature.

Most people in the newly established territory were dependent for their livelihoods on the Union Pacific Railroad. The territorial government had similar reliance, given that the railroad’s huge land grants made it, by far, the largest private landowner in the territory with some 4.2 million acres.

The second most significant industry (behind transportation) in the early territorial days, coal-mining, was dominated by the Union Pacific. At first, the railroad contracted with private companies to operate mines along their line and on their "checkerboard sections." At the time the first legislature was elected in 1869, however, the biggest mining operations were not along the railroad, but the residues of gold-mining and prospecting in the southeastern Wind River range centered around the boomtowns of South Pass City and Atlantic City. Some historians estimate that more than 3,000 people occupied the South Pass City area at the height of the boom in 1868. The prospecting brought men from throughout the West. Many had been chasing "booms" since the California gold rush a generation earlier. Just as in the California gold rush, mining for gold was far more risky as a source of fortune than selling goods to those who were doing the mining. "Mining the miners" made more people rich, in most places in the West, than the actual mining. Dozens of saloons opened in South Pass City to quench the thirst of miners. One saloon operator was a 47-year-old former Union Army officer from Virginia, William Bright (b. 1822). Living with him in the mining town was his wife, Julia (Stewart) Bright, 20 years his junior, a native of Washington, D. C. (fn. 1880 U. S. Census, Colorado. Listed in Leadville, Lake County, Colo., William H. Bright as head of household, Julia, Julia’s mother, Mary Stewart, and a 20-year-old housekeeper).

Bright was one of seven candidates running for three seats allocated to Carter County in the Council, the upper house of the new Wyoming Territorial Legislature. Like the other successful candidates, George Wardman and W. S. Rockwell, Bright was a Democrat. He was third highest vote-getter with 747 votes; Wardman led the field with 828, outpolling Bright even in South Pass City. Rockwell, second with 789 votes, outpolled all opponents in his home precinct, Atlantic City. Even though Bright was third in the county, he enjoyed a comfortable advantage over A. B. Conaway who gained just 588 votes.

Years later, when he was an elderly man, H. G. Nickerson, who finished fifth in the race, told Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard the "inside story" of the election. He implied that the election race was between only he and Bright and, therefore, a pivotal incident was a "tea party" sponsored before the election by Esther Hobart Morris, the wife of another South Pass City saloonkeeper. Beyond the indications that Morris and Bright never met before the legislative session concluded, the multi-candidate nature of the election also casts doubt on Nickerson’s story. The "tea party" story became legendary, but by the time Nickerson told the tale, both Bright and Morris were conveniently dead and none of the other people involved were left to dispute the story. Almost certainly, the tea party never happened—nor did Esther Morris have any role whatever in drafting the bill that Bright introduced in the first legislature to give women equal political rights. It is an open question as to what role Julia Bright might have had in influencing her husband on the bill. Many contemporaries believed she had a considerable impact.

Bright introduced the suffrage bill. The bill passed both houses and on Dec. 10, 1869, Gov. John A. Campbell signed the Suffrage Act, giving women full political rights in Wyoming--the first government anywhere to do it. Years later, the Wyoming legislature designated December 10 as "Wyoming Day," in recognition of Campbell’s historic signing.

Esther Morris did make a significant contribution to history, however. She was appointed by the county commissioners to be Justice of the Peace in South Pass City in 1870. She became the first woman to serve as a judge in the United States. In the same year, Laramie resident Louisa Ann Swain became the first woman to cast a vote in a general election in the United States.

In Laramie in 1870, the court drew names for the district court jury pool and included on the list were the names of many women. They became the first women ever to be called to jury service. Among those serving was Eliza Stewart who had been Laramie's first schoolteacher.

Territorial Life

Daily life in territorial Wyoming amounted to a physically hard existence for most people. No paved roads or streets existed, sanitation was poorly engineered, and city services in the few small towns were meager. In Cheyenne, wealthy cattlemen and a few professionals built mansions, patterned after homes in the East, along what was to become Carey Avenue (then Ferguson Street) and known locally as "millionaires’ row.")  They  joined the Cheyenne Club where members were fed on imported china, drank expensive wines from crystal glasses, and heard music played on a grand piano by a trained impresario. Consumer goods from the East were readily available, but only in Cheyenne and the other towns along the Union Pacific Railroad. The farther from the railroad, the more difficult it was to get goods shipped.

For those living far from the railroad, diet was very basic with much game meat, canned goods, biscuits and few vegetables (only during the growing season) served for most meals. Officials noticed the gross abuses of hunting and fishing by passing the territory’s first game and fish laws in the 1st session of the territorial legislature.

Wyoming’s First Game Laws, 1869

Game Law. Chapter 12.

Sec. 1. It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to offer for sale any elk, deer, antelope, mountain sheep, or young of their kind between the first day of February, and the fifteenth day of August in each year.

Sec. 2. It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to kill, trap, or ensnare any pheasant, quail, prairie hen or prairie chicken, or sage hen, in this territory, from the first day of February until the fifteenth day of August of any year.

Sec. 3. It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to take, ensnare or trap trout in the waters and streams of this territory otherwise than by hook and line or such other mode by which fish can be singly obtained.

  • Sec. 4. Any person who shall violate any section or sections of this act, shall forfeit and pay the sum of fifty dollars, one-fourth to go to the informer and the remainder to the public schools within the county where the offense was committed…..

  • Approved December 1, 1869.

  • General Laws, Memorials and Resolutions of the Territory of Wyoming Passed at the First Session of the Legislative Assembly (Cheyenne: S. Allan Bristol, Public Printer, 1870), pp. 289-90. 



    People living in the "Union Pacific" towns had access to fresh oysters in season as well as a wider variety of canned meats and vegetables. Every town of any size had a bakery and a restaurant. The railroad stops had modern hotels, most with quality restaurants on the bottom floors.


    Even though there was a higher incidence of women in the railroad towns than away from the tracks, the society was geared toward men. In 1870,  men outnumbered women by a ratio of six to one. Many women stayed home caring for children although there were a number who operated businesses such as dress shops and curio stores. Prostitution was common in most towns in the territorial period although, by the 1880s when the "railroad towns" were maturing, brothels no longer operated in the main business districts. Few made any effort to ban prostitution, but in 1884, the legislation passed a law making those "keeping a bawdy house" subject to a misdemeanor. The effect was move houses of prostitution to an edge of town or into a "red-light" district so that "respectable women" would not have to encounter the denizens of the "demimonde."


    Drinking alcohol was commonplace in 19th century America. Gov. John A. Campbell, in his message to the second territorial legislature, commented on the need to establish rules for alcohol consumption if they didn’t wish to adopt an all-out ban:

    The expenses of the courts in conducting criminal prosecutions for offenses against the territorial laws during the past two years, have absorbed a large share of the revenue collected. I have been assured by officers of the court that in every case that has been tried, in at least one of the counties, the origin of the crime could be directly or indirectly traced to the use of intoxicating liquors. I believe that a close investigation would show that at least 9/10s of the crimes in the territory can be traced to this cause. No comments of mine can add weight to the terrible significance of these facts. The remedy is at least partially in your hands, and I trust you will not hesitate to meet faithfully and fearlessly the responsibility. If it is impossible to prohibit or restrict the sale of intoxicating liquors, it is at least practicable to compel the vendors to make some return to the treasury for the expense they cause.

    Gambling went along with drinking in most Wyoming towns. "Casinos" provided a vast array of games of chance. Just as with alcohol, the territorial legislature passed laws to regulate gambling. One law made it illegal to play three-card monte on transcontinental trains passing through the territory.

    Theatrical entertainment featured some of the most famous acts of the day because traveling thespians often passed through on the transcontinental train. Some reasoned that since they had to stay overnight somewhere on the continental trip, why not make extra money by performing in the town? Consequently, all of the towns along the Union Pacific built "opera houses."  Despite the name, vaudeville acts were more common than operas.

    The more popular acts also were popular in the East. In essence, people recreated the culture from where they had come. Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth played Hamlet on stage at the Cheyenne Opera House in 1887. Sarah Bernhardt appeared their later the same year. P. T. Barnum’s circus played at several Wyoming towns en route to the West Coast in 1870. In July 1880, Barnum’s circus returned, again following the Union Pacific Railroad route with performances in several towns. Legendary beauty Lily Langtry performed at the Cheyenne Opera House in 1884, but she was in town primarily to visit her friend Moreton Frewen. Oscar Wilde made a brief appearance in Cheyenne  in 1882. Traveling thespians frequently did one-night shows in Cheyenne, usually because they were staying overnight in town en route by train either East or West so, consequently, earned some extra money by putting on a show. The Fourth of July was the most universally celebrated holiday, but schools were the focal point for commemorating other occasions.

    For the average worker, Wyoming was a very unstable place to live. The primary industries were mining, ranching, and the railroad. All three were subject to fluctuations of a "boom-and-bust" economy. Workers in all three industries were subject to dangers that could be life-threatening at worst or career-ending at best. Highest paid were machinists and other skilled workers employed at the various Union Pacific Railroad roundhouses and machine shops. Train engineers and conductors also earned good wages. Track repairmen and freight loaders—the unskilled workmen—fared much worse.

    Similar pay scales separated ranch foremen from the itinerant cowboys who occupied the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladder.  With little money and poor educational backgrounds, cowboys were considered wage workers who were expected to provide hard physical labor in seeing that cattle were cared for. Work was irregular. Sometimes, workers were at a premium, but most of the time, many were forced to "ride the grub line"—move from ranch to ranch, ostensibly seeking work, but arriving in time for a free meal before returning to the road.

    The job was hardly romantic and probably few considered themselves romantic Western figures or "independent" men on horseback. It was an existence and, for most of them, the only life they knew. In Wyoming, many cowboys came from agricultural backgrounds—sons of small farmers in the Midwest and border states. In the 1870s and 1880s, a number were Mexican-American or African-American.  Many communities disliked having cowboys in town because they were thought to be particularly violent, rough, and often drunk. Nonetheless, in territorial times, many of the "main street shoot-outs" were perpetrated by railroaders in the "Union Pacific towns."

    Some of the more stable jobs were in government—federal, territorial or county. Every town tried to gain designation as county seat, location of a federal land office, or home to a territorial institution. Jobs in those facilities paid well and rarely went to anyone outside of the community. Because they were subject to federal government appointment, post office and land office appointees retained their jobs as long as the President who appointed them remained in office. These and other "patronage jobs" went to party loyalists who knew their very jobs depended on helping elect fellow party candidates. Newspaper publishers were highly partisan, knowing that the chief source of revenue came, not from store advertising, but from the "legal advertising" that was awarded by local politicians to the paper working for the incumbent party.

    The territorial House and Council were non-paying positions, beginning a still-existing tradition in Wyoming of a "citizen legislature." The territorial legislative sessions were authorized for 60 days every two years, but most sessions lasted fewer than 40 days. The lack of remuneration (except for per diem expenses) meant that few Wyoming working people could afford to take time off from work to serve. Even in territorial days, most legislators were ranchers, lawyers, or self-employed businessmen. There was a high turnover with only a handful of men serving more than one or two terms. Two Albany County legislators were exceptions—W. H. Holliday, a Democratic furniture/lumberyard owner, and Republican lawyer Stephen W. Downey. Holliday served one term in the House and five terms in the Council; Downey, three in the Council and two terms in the House.

    Wyoming voters had a say in selecting only one territory-wide officer—the Delegate to Congress. Even that position had little stability with only the final delegate before statehood, Joseph M. Carey, serving more than two terms. (Carey had been the first territorial attorney and, later, an appointee to the Territorial Supreme Court). The first three men elected to the position each left the territory at the expiration of his term, one to Utah; the second, back home to Indiana; and the third, to Deadwood, S. D.

    Local officials were elected by the population, but territorial officers were appointed in Washington. Consequently, few officials gained much trust or allegiance from local citizens who saw them as political hacks, appointed to pay off political favors and who had no regard for working in the interest of the territory.  Most of the territorial governors had not been to the territory prior to their appointments. Some had never before been West. Local people resented being governed by individuals they believed had no understanding of the west or Wyoming.

    In 1885, Francis E. Warren, a mercantile store owner and former mayor of Cheyenne, became the first locally appointed territorial governor. He and the territorial delegate elected the following year,  Joseph M. Carey, became the two most powerful figures in Wyoming’s political history. They were to dominate the political stage at the beginning of statehood and determine the state’s political fortunes into the first 30 years of the state’s existence.  Both men were members of an organization that gained substantial power in the territorial period—the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. Only the Union Pacific Railroad exercised similar influence over the territory’s politics.


    John Hoyt on Suffrage, Constitutional Convention

    "Wyoming stands at the front, she stands upon the summit of this pinnacle, in the progress of women. For 20 years the women of this territory have taken part with the men of the territory in its government and have exercised this right of suffrage equal with them, of the results of which we are all proud. No man has ever dared to say in the territory of Wyoming that woman suffrage is a failure. There has been no disturbance of the domestic relations, there has been no diminution of the social order, there has been no diminution of the dignity which characterizes the exercise of the elective franchise; there has been on the contrary an improvement of the social order, better laws, better officials, a higher and better civilization. We stand today proud, proud of this great experiment…."

    John Hoyt, during debate in Constitutional Convention on whether to include women suffrage in the document, Proceedings and Debates, p. 354. 14th day of session, Sept. 17, 1889.