History of Wyoming/Territorial Days: Railways, Suffrage and Cattle, 1868-1890

Territorial Days: Railways, Suffrage, and Cattle, 1868-1890




In the early 1860s the western half of the United States was open territory, which was sparsely populated. Most of these inhabitants were Native American from the many different tribes that resided in Wyoming. In an effort to get more American settlers to settle in the west President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act on July 1 1862. This law made the Union Pacific a legal corporation, and it gave the necessary land to build railway in the western territories. On July 25, 1868, President Andrew Johnson signed the Organic Act, an act of the United States Congress, creating Wyoming Territory. This new area would take land from the Dakota, Idaho, and Utah Territories.

The First Governor to be appointed was John A. Campbell, on April 3, 1869. The first territorial legislature of Wyoming convened on October 12, 1869. In Governor Campbell’s inaugural address to this first legislature he said, "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”. While the Union Pacific Railroad entered into Wyoming in 1867, the creation of the territory two years later occurred partly due to the necessity of raising funds for the construction of the railroad.

It was not until after Wyoming officially became a territory that the railway was extended to the western border. The railroads proved vital in establishing industries including coal and timber production, as they could haul copious amounts of freight to the Eastern United States. Furthermore, the railway significantly improved the ability of settlers to gain access to the territory, and thus contributed to a significant increase in Wyoming's population.

For all the benefits that the Union Pacific Railway gave economically to the Wyoming territory, there were a lot of controversies after the construction of the railroad. After the railway was built, the Interstate Commerce Commission conducted an investigation into the Union Pacific not their selling excessive land to businesses, opting instead to keep the land and run a monopoly on the coal industry. The report was very critical on the Union Pacific, specifically one paragraph saying "It seems that the conditions which attended have all been evaded, disregarded or vitiated by fraud or lapsed over time." Funding for the Union Pacific Railroad was raised by both public coffers and private investors.

By 1880 the population was 20,789, of which one-half resided in the seven towns than lay along the Union Pacific. There was much tension between the American settlers who resided in this southern area of Wyoming near the railroad towns and the Natives who occupied much of the northern territory and uncharted non-Wyoming territory. Problems between aboriginals and settlers continued even after the territorial government was implemented. There was also tension between American settlers and new Chinese settlers. This tension eventually grew into conflict and lead to the Rock Springs Massacre. on September 2, 1885 striking coal miners working for Union Pacific mining killed 28 Chinese strike-breakers, along with wounding 15 others and destroying property valued at $147,000. These tensions ultimately led to violent conflicts, which inevitably resulted in loss of life and trust between all parties. Conclusively this prevented business from occurring, slowed settlement in northern Wyoming, and caused the territory much difficulty in the highly significant task of bringing in new settlers.

The Wyoming Cattle Boom


Stemming from the Wyoming Cattle Boom of 1868 to 1886, Wyoming to this day is referred to as the Cowboy State. Popular belief surrounding the origin of the Wyoming Cattle Boom can be attributed to Seth Wood, a government trader. It was believed that Seth Wood left his cattle out on the range over the winter season, when he returned to retrieve what was left of his cattle he was surprised to find the vast majority had survived the winter off of grazing alone.

The battle of the Little Big Horn 1876

The coupling of Wyoming's mild winters and nutrient-rich lands allowed for herds of cattle to roam the terrain year round. This was beneficial as there was little human intervention required while also absorbing additional costs including feed and shelter. While some still credit this to be the origin of Wyoming’s Cattle Boom, others suggest a mass cattle migration from Texas along with increased economic opportunities as another plausible credited source.

Due to the vast amount of open space and government land available for purchase, Wyoming was an ideal location for the raising of stock. Although the expansion of the cattle industry from Texas was initially limited by danger from savage Indians and the necessity to remain near urbanized markets. However, the cattle industry was able to expand when the railroad companies began building westward giving rise to new markets for beef. Also, ranchers were able to use capital investments from New York, Boston and London. Furthermore, with the defeat of the Indians at the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, and the subsequent forced migrations to reserves, vast lands that were previously occupied were now free for the taking. Coupled with the extermination of the bison from previous decades, Wyoming provided the cattle industry with large areas of land suitable for grazing. These factors, along with the increased demand for beef in the East, contributed to the Great Cattle Drives in the 1860s. Businessmen bought cattle in Texas and drove them north to Wyoming along the Texas Trail. During this time the ranchers took over most of the land and bred profitable cattle to keep up with the high demand for beef. Within twelve to fifteen years the movement was largely completed and the cattle kingdom was at its height of big business characterized by large herds and control over capital and territory. However, by 1890 their big businesses were threatened by a more profitable sheep industry that would eventually spark hostilities between the two. In the early 20th century the sheepherders won the right to range on all parts of public domain but at a cost of thirty-five thousand dead sheep and the deaths of fifty sheepherders by cowboys.

Other origins of the cattle boom can be traced back to 1849 when 350 soldiers were encamped in Wyoming due to clashes with the Plains Indian Tribe. This presence of the soldiers increased the demand for beef in Wyoming but it wasn't until the Civil War that the demand spiked. During the Civil War demand for first barrelled and then tinned beef sky rocketed. As the South continued to call for more men to step up and bear arms to fight for the Confederate cause, countless herds were left unattended which adversely flooded the market for Longhorn cattle, dropping the price to $9.46 per critter.

Wyoming Cattle Bunk House circa 1870-1890

In Wyoming, however, the price per unit stayed high at $86.00 per critter. Furthermore, the innovation of refrigeration cars on the railroads and refrigerated compartments on ships allowed for more beef to be transported throughout the US and overseas. In fact in 1876, Britain imported 1,732 tonnes of beef, 80% of which was from the United States, and a substantial amount of that from Wyoming. Within two years, the amount inflated to 30,000 tonnes.

The increased demand for Wyoming beef led to the formation of the Wyoming stock raising business. Prominent names such as “F.E. Warren, Joseph Carey, Charlie Hutton and the four Swan brothers” invested in extensive resources of land and livestock. In 1872 “Cattle Growers founded one of the most powerful organizations in the West, The Wyoming Stock Growers Association”.

The increased sale of cattle brought enormous wealth into Wyoming. In May 1870 the cattle price peaked at $6.47 per “hundred-weight” and over the next 10 years the price would fluctuate while never falling below “$4.00”. Large economic profits provided investors and cattle rustlers with extreme wealth. In the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming 8 millionaires were among the 3,000 inhabitants. “It became one of the first cities in the US to have street lighting”. Eventually the cattle boom slowed down and stopped as a result of “The Homestead Act of 1862, The Timber Act of 1872, and the Dessert Land Act of 1877”, which handed out or sold government land, and would eventually lead to most of Wyoming's land being owned by private investors. These Acts along with inclement weather in the “winter of 86-87” lead to the silencing of the Cattle Boom in Wyoming.

Cattle Downfall


Prosperity in Wyoming was beginning to fade when the winter of 1886-1887 hit the cattle farms. This terrible winter decimated the cattle population and negatively impacted the growing economy of Wyoming. One third of all northern cattle were killed due to hurricane blizzards, heavy snowfall, and very cold rain. Additionally, the surviving cattle were in horrible condition. The left over cattle were sold for very little and profits began to plummet due to the poor quality of the product. The harsh winter was the beginning of the end for the cattle boom. Although the cattle boom was in fact ending and new sources of economic wealth were surfacing, it still had a significant impact on the creation and maturation of Wyoming in the 1880s.

The Rock Springs Massacre

File:Rock sprigs

With the growing mining industry, the Union Pacific Railroad had been establishing its route through Cheyenne, Wyoming. The increase in demand for coal mining increased the importance of railroads through the distribution of raw materials. Immigrant workers mainly from China, were brought to Rock Springs, WY to mine coal, however tensions between the white and Chinese miners rose and lead to 23 Chinese miners being killed on September 2, 1885. This massacre was a crucial moment in the history of Wyoming, as many of the 600 Chinese miners wished to return to the west coast because they feared for their lives. Governor Francis Warren tricked the Chinese into returning to Rock Springs and arranged with the mine company to ensure work be resumed. This reestablished the flow of coal and ensured Wyoming’s future as an important part of the railroad system. Though devastated and homeless the Chinese miners continued work and were a huge part in allowing the territory to grow into the state it is now. Governor Warren viewed Chinese workers as a need for the Wyoming economy to avoid devastation despite the issues between races.

The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad

Railroad Station in Green River Wyoming circa 1871

During the Wyoming Territorial days, the area attempted to draw people in by temptation of what was at the time thought to be the greatest and most triumphant industry in the world; the railway. Hundreds of settlers came to Wyoming in hopes of finding a place that was located moderately close to a rich water source, coal deposits, and most importantly to a thriving business scene that offered an abundance of labour opportunities.

After Wyoming's statehood in 1890, the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad Company emerged as the new railroad line within Wyoming. Throughout the state, this railroad underwent several name changes including Grand Island Railroad Northern Wyoming Railroad Company, and the Big Horn Railroad Company due to separate construction financing around the state. Eventually the company would resume their original namesake, the CB&Q. As the west continued to expand, many investors and business elites saw the need for increased railroad transportation. The railroad allowed for migrants to travel westward, as the West was the land of opportunities for land ownership and jobs.

Investments for this railroad were made by John Forbes of Boston, and the line was administered by Charles E. Perkins. Perkins, being a major contributor to this railroad in Wyoming and the greater Midwest, was elected as the railroad's President in 1881. Perkins thoroughly planned the railroad, from how much operators would be paid, to which engines would be the most efficient for operation. Perkins encouraged investors and settlers to buy the land the railroad owned, in which it was sold to the highest bidder. By the time he retired from the railroad, Perkins doubled the track mileage from 2838 miles, to 4874 miles.

The CB&Q railroad line ran from East to West, and as investment and demand in the East continued to grow, materials such as timber and coal were required. By 1892 the line eventually would make it to Sheridan, Wyoming where it was instrumental in the exporting the towns coal. Lumber production also exploded in Sheridan as lumber was essential for its use in railroad construction, acting as the ties under the tracks.

1897 Poor's Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad

The railroad expanded due to the growing number of coal mines in the state. By 1901, Perkins connected the lines between Toluca, Montana and Cody, Wyoming to carry more coal and other commodities. This railroad line was demonstrating it's importance to this state almost immediately.

As this railroad became busier the state grew accordingly. The CB&Q railroad alone reportedly brought eight-thousand families to Wyoming between the years 1906 and 1913, families hoping to take advantage of the resources Wyoming offered. In fact, in the year 1880 the population was recorded at 20,789 citizens, more than double the 9,118 population of ten years previous, and only a third of the population that would exist by 1890. The railroad was able to settle most of Wyoming. The expanding settlement allowed for the development of industries, and converted land for agriculture use which allowed the state of Wyoming to prosper financially alongside the East Coast of the United States where most of the raw materials would be sold.

As diesel-operated engines became available, the CB&Q Railway was at the forefront of pioneering them and begin phasing out coal-operated steam engines. This new investment in diesel engines would harm the coal production in Wyoming towns as it was slowly becoming irrelevant in the diesel era. Unfortunately, for the CB&Q and many other railroads they experienced a large decrease in passengers that were no longer interested in locomotive transportation. This would decline until the United States would enter World War II.

Saloons and Liquor on the Western Frontier


Drunken cowboys in a bar, brawling, yelling, gambling, and being altogether wild and rambunctious is an image often associated with the nineteenth century western frontier. This image is partly true, as alcohol was a major part of life and business in the Wyoming Territory. Once finished the day’s work on ranches, mines, or railroads the men of Wyoming, who outnumbered the female population six to one, filled the saloons night after night. After the refreshments, night time dances were known to last into the morning. The drinks of choice were bourbon whiskey and beer, and on special occasions the wealthy entrepreneurs from the east would enjoy champagne and red wine. The largest service industry in Wyoming was selling drinks. In 1870, Cheyenne, with a population of just 1,450 had twenty-seven saloon- keepers, four brewers, seven wholesale liquor merchants, nine bar keepers, and five liquor store merchants. Saloons were carefully run business establishments, each designed for a particular clientele. Some were for the ranchers, others the miners or soldiers from nearby areas after a hard long work day on their jobs, and some for the upper middle class communities. Owning a bar or saloon was a lucrative business, and many of them became well respected leaders in the territory. Luke Murrin, who ran a gambling saloon, became Mayor of Cheyenne, J.W. Connor was elected mayor of Laramie, and Harry Hynds opened saloons all over the west and was involved in real estate, hotels, and oil. Hynds was so well respected that in attendance at his funeral were US senators, congressmen, and federal judges. A final example, Judge George Ashdown began in Sundance, Wyoming by opening a saloon; he later became a respected sheriff and justice of the peace.

Cheyenne was a unique case in Wyoming. Its Cattlemen and settlers were becoming very wealthy in the 1880’s. During the decade, Carey Avenue a main street, became known as ‘Millionaires Row’ which had over forty mansions constructed on site. The mansions were built in the Romanesque style, which was popular in the eastern part of the country. Other Wyoming cities did not have this kind of extravagant architecture.

In 1879, a lavish clubhouse was erected in Cheyenne by a group of new residents to the territory from distinguished society in the East. This group, was looking to profit off of the cattle business, but were unaccustomed to ranch life. Their club, ‘The Cheyenne Club,’ had all of the amenities and comfort they were used to. A code of ethics had to be obeyed to ensure only gentleman entered. Gambling, fighting, and excessive drunkenness were means for suspension or expulsion from the club. The influence of the territory crept in however, as documents show that the club finished immense amounts of rum, gin, and whiskey. John Clay, one of Cheyenne’s prominent socialites and President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association wrote, “Looking back it seems worse than wicked to think of the bad whiskey and very poor beer we managed to drink and digest in those days.”

Liquor sale and consumption in the Wyoming territory were an important part of economics and lifestyle. Cowboys, soldiers, and miners alike were enjoying life, intoxicated on the western frontier.

Women's Suffrage in Wyoming


Prior to, as well as after, the enfranchisement of women in the Territory of Wyoming there was very little organized suffrage activity unlike a large portion of states and territories within the United States. For the most part Wyoming was a sparsely populated territory where cattle-raising was the main occupation for its inhabitants and men outnumbered women six to one. Encouraged by his wife and several other women (such as Esther Morris) William H. Bright, President of the Council of the Wyoming Territorial Legislature, introduced his bill “An Act to Grant the Women of Wyoming Territory the Right of Suffrage and to Hold Office” on November 12th, 1869 bringing women’s suffrage to the forefront of Wyoming’s political agenda. As a Democrat, Bright believed that the Republican Governor, John Campbell, would veto the suffrage bill and politically attack him in order to obtain more popular support in the state.

Women Seen at the Polls in Cheyenne Wyoming circa 1888

Bright argued that such a bill would generate positive publicity and entice women to migrate to Wyoming in hopes of balancing the gender ratios, as well as aid the growth of families and population. Wyoming also needed a population influx if it ever hoped to qualify for statehood, and Bright believed this was a good way to attract more residents. The Bill for Women’s Suffrage in Wyoming was signed into law on December 10, 1869. In 1870, Grandma Swain became the first female in the United States to cast her ballot in an American election. From this point onward, Women’s Suffrage became an adopted Republican principle and over time the party benefited from it.

Not only did this new law allow women the right to vote and hold office, but it also meant women were now on the list of prospective jurors, had state control over their own property and protected them against discrimination as teachers. Two months after the bill was passed, three women were commissioned justices of the peace; the only one to have served was Esther Morris "the mother of suffrage in Wyoming” and the first woman justice on record who held office for eight months in South Pass City, Wyoming. By April 1870 women began to serve on grand and petit juries in Laramie; by 1871 women were sitting alongside men on juries in Cheyenne. Legislature passed in 1882 allowed women to not only acquire land and hold real estate (as granted by Bright’s original bill), but also convey their property without their husband’s concurrence. There was very little suffragist activity in Wyoming until 1889 when Wyoming applied for statehood. Many opposed granting the territory statehood believing that it went against being an Anglo-Saxon and that politics was a masculine space, reserved for Anglo-Saxon men only. Despite this, Wyoming was granted statehood on March 28th, 1890 with a vote of 139 to 127 making it the only full women suffrage state in the Union and earning it the nickname “the Equality State.”

This suffrage movement led to female employment opportunities, most of which being teaching in one of the territories rural schoolhouses. As a result women played an important role in, what was known as, "country teaching." From the foundation of the Wyoming territory in 1868 until the Second World War and after, "country teaching" became a widespread form of employment for women. Despite Wyoming’s long history of male abundance and female scarcity, more than eight women have been employed for every man hired to teach in the territory and then eventual states’ public schools.

However women in Wyoming were not expected to make teaching a long-term career. Indeed, teaching was assumed to be a temporary pursuit that was more so seen as preparation for marriage. This reality unfortunately led to inadequate salaries, low status, no room for career expansion and discrimination against married women, which in turn prompted high rates of teacher turnover and general inexperience.



While the years between 1868 and 1890 did not see Wyoming acquire statehood, they were formative to the primary economic and political institutions of the area. The expansion of the Union Pacific Railway to Wyoming's western border caused an influx of settlers and the resulting economic boom in the territory. Wyoming was also instrumental in the movement for women's suffrage, becoming the first territory or state to grant women political and legal rights. Finally, the cattle business was essential to the establishment of a successful economy in Wyoming. The territorial period was important in the development of Wyoming as a unique political, economic and territorial entity, and was instrumental in the continued growth of Wyoming into the period of statehood.