History and Opinion
By Phil Roberts
Chapter 1: Original Residents and Early Explorers
Some of the earliest “residents” of Wyoming were dinosaurs, but they disappeared millions of years before man appeared on earth. Dinosaur remains are found throughout Wyoming and several sites have international importance. One such site, near Como Bluff on the Albany-Carbon county line, was one of the earliest dinosaur digs in the world. Specimens from that site are found in the finest natural history museums in the world. Except for the stories of the paleontologists who found them, dinosaurs will not be addressed in this course. No human being ever encountered a live dinosaur--in Wyoming or anywhere else. Dinosaurs had become extinct 65 or so million years ago.
Anthropologists believe that humans occupied parts of what is now Wyoming perhaps as early as 14,000 years ago. Evidence of human habitation may be found at archaeological sites throughout the state.[i] Mammoth remains were found in 1907 at the Colby site in present Washakie County, but not fully investigated until a University of Wyoming team excavated the site in 1974-75. Evidence of human habitation as long ago as 11,000 years was discovered as well as 463 mammoth bones. Two couples (Dave and Jamie Egolf and Mr. and Mrs. Roderick Laird) discovered a site on the west edge of Casper where people utilized a bison tap for killing and butchering some 10,000 years ago. Known as the Casper site, it was excavated by a UW team in the early 1970s. The Frederick-Hell Gap site in Platte County was excavated by Harvard archaeologists who dated human use to 12,000 years ago. The location is now a state archaeological site. Many other sites throughout the state demonstrate early habitation by humans. These include Spanish Diggings (Platte-Goshen-Niobrara), Medicine Lodge Creek (Big Horn County), Mummy Cave (Park County), and Vore Buffalo Jump (Crook County) where, 3,500 years ago, prehistoric people stampeded some 20,000 bison into a trap.[ii]
The Medicine Wheel, some 25 miles west of Burgess Junction in the Big Horn Mountains, is a circle of stones some 75 feet in diameter, connected with 28 “spokes” of stones. Numerous theories have been offered about the function and builders of the unusual site located on a mountain. It likely is the remnant of a prehistoric native ceremonial site.[iii]
Prehistoric people disappeared from Wyoming about 4,500 years ago, according to some anthropologists. Likely, climate changes forced many inhabitants to abandon the region in search of game. Lengthy periods of drought contributed to the disappearance. For the next 2,000 years, the region was likely uninhabited. Gradually, the climate improved and people began to return to the area. The Native Americans from the historical period did not enter Wyoming until the century prior to Columbus’ landing in the New World.
The Shoshone (sometimes spelled Shoshoni) tribe arrived in what is now Wyoming about 1400. They came into the area from the southwest and, by the early 18th century, they had horses—earlier than any other Wyoming area tribe—obtained through trade networks from the southwest following the Pueblo revolt.[iv] These Eastern Shoshones are a relatively small branch of a much larger tribe occupying much of the Great Basin, ranging as far north as Montana. The Shoshone population in Wyoming in 1800 was estimated at 2,000. For much of the 19th century, Chief Washakie was Shoshone leader. Much of what is now southwestern Wyoming was recognized as Shoshone lands through the two Fort Bridger treaties.[v] Chief Washakie's significance to Wyoming history was memorialized in 2000 when his statue, one of the two authorized by Congress to represent Wyoming, was placed in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.[vi]
The “sheepeaters” were main occupiers in the historic period of what is now Yellowstone National Park. They had a population of no more than 400 by the end of the 18th century. Some archaeologists believe they were a small Shoshone branch, so called by other Shoshones because of their diet of big horn sheep. Togwotee, who guided General Sheridan’s expedition in 1882, was a sheepeater.[vii]
At the time of the first White exploration into Wyoming, the Crow dominated the northeast and central portions of what is now the state. They had come to the region about 1500 from the northeast. Known as the Absarokas (“bird people”), they were famous for their flamboyant horsemanship and distinctive clothing designs using porcupine quills. Prior to white contact, the Crows battled the Sioux and the enmity continued into the 19th century. Many served as U. S. Army scouts during the U. S.--Sioux wars of the late 19th century. Population in 1800 was estimated at 4,000.[viii]
Some historians believe that Kiowas occupied the Black Hills on the Wyoming-South Dakota border at the time of first White explorations in the 18th century. Some date Kiowa presence to the early 1600s, but they were no longer in the area after the 1760s.
The Lakota (Sioux) were formerly woodlands people who occupied lands in what is now northern Minnesota until they began migrating southwest in the 18th century. By 1765 they had displaced the Kiowa and Cheyenne in the Black Hills. In 1822 they joined with the Cheyenne in driving the Crow from what is now northeastern Wyoming. The Lakota consisted of seven major divisions---three residing in Wyoming. The Oglala were the most numerous in Wyoming. Crazy Horse and Red Cloud were principal leaders of the sub-tribe. Spotted Tail led the Brule, the second largest sub-group. Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa from the third largest sub-group. In 1800, the Lakota numbered about 25,000 in the seven divisions. Those in Wyoming numbered close to 10,000—Oglala, 3,600; Brule, 3,000; and Hunkpapa, 2,900.
The Blackfeet lived in northwestern Wyoming around 1800. Thousands died in epidemics in 1781, 1837, and 1869. The worst occurred in 1837 when two-thirds of the population of 9,000 died of disease. After the early 19thcentury, the surviving Blackfeet in Wyoming migrated north to join fellow tribesmen in what is now Montana.
The Cheyenne lived in northern Wyoming until about 1832 when a large part of the tribe moved south to the Arkansas River area of Colorado. The remaining group, known as the Northern Cheyennes, were captured by the Army after the Little Bighorn battle in 1876 and forced to move south to share a reservation with their southern cousins. The conditions there were so deplorable that two years later, Little Wolf and Dull Knife led 300 Cheyennes north some 1,500 miles to their original homes. They eluded some 10,000 soldiers, but eventually were recaptured and sent to Fort Robinson, Neb., for “processing” back to Oklahoma. Dull Knife led an escape and the group took refuge with the Lakota. On their recapture, they were sent to their own reservation in the Rosebud Valley of Montana.[ix]
Arapahoes probably subsisted on farming in the Red River Valley of present-day Minnesota, according to some historians, until the Lakota forced them southwest across the Missouri River. They formed a long-time alliance with the Cheyenne who also were moved west by pressures from the Lakota. Later, the Arapaho divided into two groups. The Southern Arapaho moved south while the Northern Arapaho stayed in what is now northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming where they were living at the time of first White contact in the area. Their name derives from what the Cheyenne called them—“blue cloud men.” They called themselves “our people.” In 1800 the estimated population of the northern group was 3,700 and the southern group, somewhat smaller.[x]
Legends persist that Spanish conquistadors might have explored Wyoming, but no evidence of such explorations exist. The legends stem from discoveries of swords, metal pieces, and supposed evidence of Spanish mining techniques in various locations around the state. A Toledo-made sword was found in a field in Sheridan County. Like the other implements of Spanish origin, it probably came there from New Mexico through the Native American trade network. Evidence fails to confirm the legends of “skeletons wearing Spanish armor” supposedly found in Wyoming caves over the years.[xi]
The identity of the first European explorer to set foot in Wyoming is also disputed. Journal entries from the diary kept by the Verendrye brothers in 1742 mention “the shining mountains” that some historians believe were the Big Horn Mountains.[xii] The entries, according to some historians, imply the two French-Canadian trappers may have entered northeastern Wyoming. Other historians, however, have discounted that possibility, noting that the entry probably referred to the Black Hills of western South Dakota, placing the two men several hundred miles east of present Wyoming.
No 18th century record exists of European travelers stepping foot into what is now Wyoming, but it is possible that unnamed, non-record-keeping French-Canadian trappers may have come into the area. It was during a time of extensive exploration for furs as well as for better routes across the continent. Precursors to Lewis and Clark include American John Ledyard who attempted to cross Siberia in 1788. The Connecticut native planned to travel across the Bering Strait and into western North America, but he was turned back by Russian authorities.[xiii] Scots-Canadian Alexander Mackenzie traversed Canada to the Pacific in 1793.[xiv] Like Lewis and Clark a dozen years later, the route was far north of what is now Wyoming.
The journal accounts of French-Canadian trapper Francois-Antoine Larocque prove that he explored parts of northern Wyoming in 1805. He led a group of Canadian trappers up the Powder River and Clear Creek, near present Buffalo, prior to returning to Canada.[xv] Almost certainly, unknown trappers explored the area, but no written accounts were kept.
The first American exploration of the West was the celebrated expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.[xvi] From 1804-06, the two “captains” traversed the American West, recording for President Thomas Jefferson all manner of details about the territory the President had obtained through the Louisiana Purchase. Even though the expedition never entered Wyoming, two individuals associated with the expedition figure into Wyoming history. One of these is the well-known Native American woman, Sacajawea, who joined the expedition in Mandan country (present North Dakota) and, with her young child strapped into a cradle board on her back, went West with the expedition. While she did not serve as a guide for the party, as the myth popularized by such historians as Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard asserted, Sacajawea nonetheless was important to Lewis and Clark’s success. At critical points, her knowledge of the flora and fauna saved the party from hunger and her fluency in native languages were crucial at a time when Native warriors posed the biggest threat to the expedition.[xvii]
Sacajawea’s Wyoming connection remains controversial. Most historians believe she died as a young woman in what is now South Dakota, leaving the responsibility of educating her young son to Captain Clark, then governor of Missouri Territory. Fremont County residents, however, point to Sacajawea’s grave in a cemetery on the Wind River Reservation, arguing that the woman buried there was Sacajawea. They argue that she had lived to old age, dying in the 1880s under the later-adopted name of “Porivo.” Dr. Hebard endorsed that account, basing much of her evidence on the oral testimony of the Rev. John Roberts, Episcopal priest on the reservation, who had arrived just a couple of years after the woman’s death.[xviii]Wyoming historian Dr. T. A. Larson took issue with Hebard’s conclusion, pointing out that evidence for the Dakota death seems to preclude the hearsay accounts Hebard believed.
The second member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Colter, became the first white American to step foot in what is now Wyoming. Unlike his former employers, Colter came to Wyoming, not as an explorer, but in search of trade with Native people for and for furs.
[ii] Medicine Lodge is a designated State Archaeological Site in the Big Horn Basin near Hyattville. Vore Buffalo Jump, located north of Interstate 90 in Crook County near Beulah, is operated by a private foundation and open to the public during the summer months.
[v] For the current activities of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, see http://easternshoshonetribe.org/ For the first Fort Bridger Treaty, see http://easternshoshonetribe.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Pages-fromFortBridgerTreaty1.pdf
[viii]Frederick E. Hoxie. Parading through History: The Making of the Crow Nation in America, 1805-1935. (Cambridge University Press, 1997). See also: Joseph Medicine Crow and Herman J. Viola. From the Heart of Crow Country: The Crow Indians' Own Stories. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, 2000).
[ix] For essays on Northern Cheyennes, see Marjane Ambler, Richard Little Bear, Dave Wilson, Linwood Tall Bull, Joan Hantz, Carol War, Bill Wertman. We, the Northern Cheyenne People: Our Land, Our History, Our Culture. (Lame Deer, Mont.: Chief Dull Knife College, 2008).
[xi]Sheridan County resident Glenn Sweem reported finding part of a 16th century Spanish sword near Dayton, Wyoming, in the early 1960s. The author has viewed the item and heard the arguments made by many local historians that the presence of such artifacts proves that Spaniards had traveled in Wyoming much earlier than French-Canadian fur trappers. The author, however, leans toward the view taken by other historians that the items likely made their way into Wyoming via the active Native American trade networks.
[xii] Lawrence J. Burpee (editor). Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la La Vérendrye and His Sons, with Correspondence between the Governors of Canada and the French Court, Touching the Search for the Western Sea. (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1927, pp. 406-432. (The work is in the original French, but translations are available).
[xiv] Mackenzie's journals first appeared in print in 1801. For a recent reprinting, see The Journals of Alexander Mackenzie: Exploring Across Canada in 1789 and 1793. (Torrington, Wyo.: Narrative Press, 2001).
[xv] Francois Antoine Larocque. Journal of a Voyage to the Rocky Mountains. (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1910). A facsimile edition is available from the Library of Western Fur Trade Historical Sources website, mtmen.org along with documents involving other aspects of the Rocky Mountain fur trade during the early years. Quoting from the American Mountain Men homepage, "This website is an on-line Research Center devoted to the history, traditions, tools, and mode of living, of the trappers, explorers, and traders known as the Mountain Men."
[xvi] A good analysis of Lewis and Clark’s relationship with native peoples may be found in James Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. (University of Nebraska Press, 1991). The popular biography of Lewis is Stephen Ambrose. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). For Clark, see Landon Y. Jones. William Clark and the Shaping of the West. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004).
[xvii] For a critique of Hebard's methods, see Mike Mackey. Inventing History in the American West: The Romance and Myths of Grace Raymond Hebard. (Powell, Wyo.: Western History Publications, 2005). See also: http://www.wyohistory.org/essays/grace-raymond-hebard
Primary Document: Exploration
Robert Stuart, Voyage from the Mouth of the Columbia to Saint Louis, on the Mississippi, in J. B. Eyries and Malte-Brun, New Annals of Voyages, Geography and History. (Paris: 1821).
Stuart's journal was originally published in French. In this segment, translated into English, Stuart describes events from November 1812 to January 1813, including the group's construction of what is considered to be the first cabin built by a Euro-American in what is now Wyoming, its abandonment, and the party's relocation downstream along the banks of the North Platte near present Torrington. The entire journal is available from the very valuable website of the Library of Western Fur Trade Historical Source Documents, www.mtmen.org
"...When seeing that the river still continued to flow northeast, we no longer had any doubt that it was River Platte. Accordingly, we held a general consultation, and we were unanimously of opinion that lower down, we would meet the Cheyenne ... who often live on its banks. Now, as many Sioux lives in their villages, those of that nation who live along the Missouri [may or may] not to be aware of our approach, and [might be possibly] in ambush waiting for us on the banks of this river. On the other hand, we were all convinced that it was impossible to continue the journey on foot in this severe season, through a huge country where grasslands afford heating are so precarious. Therefore, it was necessary to find a suitable place for us to establish [camp] during the winter. Our camp yesterday presented us all kinds of benefits; firewood and timber is plentiful, and the neighboring country is well supplied with game. We're back to stay there until the time when navigation would be reopened, although persuaded to spend all bad season in peace, away [from] inconvenient visits [by] our wild neighbors.
"Since leaving Astoria, we had [traveled] 2,174 miles. Part of this long distance had been traveled in vain; because after going south to Miller's River [Bear River], we were back to the north, then we were returned to the south, and we had finally found us little far east of the River Miller's whose mountains separated us.
"After eight days [we] built a hut in ... 18 feet long by 8 feet wide; the walls [were] 6 feet tall. The fireplace was in the middle, like the Indians; we covered it and ... all sides with buffalo hides, so we were well protected, the cold was at first extremely rigorous, and the river froze so hard that we could walk on its surface, which greatly facilitated the transport of bison that we had killed; on the fourth day, we had shot forty-seven. [On the 12th], the weather relented, Canadians went hunting and brought goats and black-tailed deer, whose skin we was very necessary to make soft leather. They also killed a polar bear.
"The mountains that we were far south of--their flanks were covered with a thick forest of firs and red cedars [growing from] slots in the rocks. On the upper parts, in the vast spaces pines grow among mixed aspen. We see, in different places, steep precipices and cliffs cut peak, which provides a secure retreat to the countless herds of goats, whereas the peaks and wooded ravines serve asylum for bears and black-tailed deer. This channel, which is not very high, stretches to the horizon to the east, south and southwest.
"The secluded location of our hut, we falsely assumed it was well hidden, and we imagined we'd be free of active research and curiosity of Indian spies: So what was our surprise when, on 10 December, we heard [there were] Cree Indians in our neighborhood! We seized them immediately and took their weapons; Then we saw a troop of twenty-three Arapahoes. When the first moment of mutual astonishment was over, they advanced a friendly air, saying they were [pursuing] ... the four Absarokas, who had recently stolen a large number of horses and made prisoners of some of their wives. They now found themselves on the banks of a river, six days' journey north. "We are going to avenge us," they added. Two days earlier, having heard the sound of guns, they soon came upon two of our people who had killed a deer, which led them to our cabin. They were gone for sixteen days from their village, located on a large river which is east of the one on which we find ourselves....
"The conduct of these Indians was smoother and quieter than we naturally would have expected from a detachment of war. They raised two [teepees], in which, except the chief and his lieutenant, they retired early to rest. The latter two were allowed to sleep in our cabin. We took turns throughout as the night watchman. These Indians ate with extreme voracity; they went on the 11th, early, taking away much of our best meat, that we gave them willingly. They had also asked us for ammunition but we did not give them any; they did not insist.
"We were not sooner rid of the unpleasant visit of our hosts, we were thinking of the danger of our position since we were not far, on one side but two days of the Absarokas, and on the other, five from the knaves who had robbed Mr. Miller and his hunters on the Big Horn. Even though Indians showed the proper conduct, under the present circumstances, they had not calmed our suspicions that...they could return in greater numbers and surprise us when we would be less on our guard. It was decided, therefore, to abandon our [cabin] as soon as we would have prepared enough leather for our needs.
"The Indians had been kind enough to leave us our faithful horse, not enough for us, but because it would have been, for them, more inconvenient than useful...[to steal it].
"We resumed our journey on December 13. The snow was fifteen inches deep. The country was bare; one beheld a small number of poplars along the river; bison [had eaten the grass]. The only food we could give our horse consisted of poplar bark and willow buds. Our walk was very tiring, because the snow had not enough strength to support us; our feet found themselves in very poor condition. All these inconveniences have made us think about camping for the rest of the winter, in the first appropriate place. We thought it was better to risk dying, sword in hand, rather than die of fatigue.
"As we advanced, we find the deepest snow in the valley where the river flowed...there are large enough trees to make canoes; the mountains, which rise above our cabin, run parallel to the river and a short distance from its edges were nothing more than mediocre hills; but, about 50 miles south, we could see another high range.
"We crossed several streams. On the 17th, we crossed the river that flowed south to the mountains; poplars were ornamenting its edges and other trees, less tall, seemed to be tangled alders. After encountering, left, a tributary, shaded by beautiful trees, the river continued turning from the northeast, and south from the rocky mountains. Believing we could shorten our way by going overland, the country suddenly became so uneven and rough that we had to return to the banks of the river and follow its windings on the ice. Sometimes we were walking on level ground. Finally, on 21st, we left the hilly banks. They are formed of rocky mountains with steep walls bordering the river; in crevices grow cedars and pines; in the land beyond, we see ash and white oak. Since we left the mountains, the snow disappeared almost entirely. The temperature resembled that of a very mild autumn; ash trees were most common, soils were better and more extensive woodlands; the river corridor more directly east. On the 23rd, we arrived in a place where [the river forms] a sandy bottom, and divides into several channels.
"We had to travel 254 miles, running generally east southeast. On the 24th, we resumed our journey, the river basin expanded a lot; the grasses were eight inches tall: we encountered multitudes of bison, among them some wild horses. As we advanced, the mountains to the south [came into view]; they are extremely rugged; we can distinguish some cedars. Bison were now rarer, snow was fifteen inches deep, though none had fallen since we left our cabin. Further afield, the mountains south drooped into hills.
"The cold had become excessive on the 27th.... So, considering that the day before, our view was extended up to at least 50 miles to the east, without discovering a single tree, and even if there would be driftwood along the river, as we had already met, the deep snow caused us to imagine what would be our misery if we were surprised in these immense plains by a snow-storm. We worried about it each day. The country before us was so inhospitable that even the animals grew tired. We therefore had nothing better to do than to turn back to a place where we would be sure to be able to hunt buffalo to feed us, and wood for building canoes, until the ice went off the river and opened again for navigation.
"Here the bed of the river was a mile wide and a half, consisting of quicksand, and divided into innumerable channels; its low banks were absolutely bare. All these characteristics were so different from those we had seen of the river earlier.... But since it headed south, too, we definitely knew we had found ourselves on the banks of the great River Platte.
"Having returned on the 30th, almost to where we camped on the 23rd, we will extend our stay, because we found everything we could desire. Our cabin was completed on January 6, 1813. The same day we began to shoot and shaping trees to build our boat.
"On March 7, seeing that the river was thawed for several days, and the good weather appeared likely to last, we placed our canoes next to the edge of the water, in order to be ready to go the next day. A wild goose that we saw in the afternoon, and we killed for our dinner, our predictions confirmed the approach of summer...."