Magazine article American Heritage


Magazine article American Heritage


Article excerpt

Wyoming has spent most of the 126 years since it was recognized as a United States territory trying to catch up with the future. Now the Equality State is ready to celebrate its past. Two recent anniversaries have excited new interest in the state's history.

In 1990 a series of parties marked the centennial of Wyoming's statehood. The forty-fourth state had been granted territorial status in 1868, but it required another twenty-two years to convince the federal government to take the next step. One worried congressman asked, "Can a place that allows its women the unrestricted right to vote, hold public office and sit on juries be trusted with full partnership in the Union?" When Wyoming finally achieved statehood in 1890 it was thus considered a victory for women's rights. Later the state saluted its female activists by raising a statue of Esther Hobart Morris, the leader of Wyoming's suffrage movement, in front of the capitol in Cheyenne.

Last summer Wyoming participated in another major anniversary--the sesquicentennial celebration of the opening of the Oregon Trail. Once again places like Fort Laramie, Register Cliff, Fort Caspar, Independence Rock, South Pass, and Fort Bridger saw the dusty tumult of a major wagon train on its slow journey west, following indelible ruts cut across the state a century and a half ago.

The half-million emigrants who traveled across Wyoming in the mid-1800s were people on the way someplace else. They didn't want to stay in the high desert and mountain country any longer than necessary, but they couldn't bypass it either. South Pass, located at the southern end of the Wind River mountain range in central Wyoming, was the key that opened the American West to the surge of overland traffic and the commerce and settlement that followed in its wake. Nowhere else on the continent was there a place where wagons could negotiate the barrier of the Rocky Mountains on a grade that draft animals could handle or a natural road over the Continental Divide providing sufficient food and water to sustain emigrants and livestock.

The trails that lead up the Platte and Sweetwater valleys through South Pass and beyond are almost as well marked today as they were in the late 1860s, when the last big wagon trains rolled past. More intact sections of these trails exist in Wyoming than anywhere else, and with a bit of planning you can still follow them. Out in the middle of the state's big, unspoiled Wind River country where the phrase "walking in the footsteps of the pioneers" takes on a whole new meaning, you almost expect to spot the next wagon train approaching over a rise to the east.

Many miles of the old Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express trails wind through public lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. B.L.M. personnel are well versed in Wyoming's historic trails and are more than willing to assist trail enthusiasts, "rut nuts" as they are sometimes called. Good maps and pamphlets describing self-guided tours of large sections of the old wagon roads are available. It's wise to contact the B.L.M. offices in Casper, Rawlins, Lander, Rock Springs, or Kemmerer before heading out into the open country in search of the past.

Each year a variety of pageants and other events commemorate life along the old trails. At Bozeman Trail Days held at Fort Phil Kearny on June 18 and 19, guided tours feature both white and Native American interpretations of the Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Massacre sites. Other programs cover archaeological and historical features of the fort, and a gala chuckwagon dinner closes the event. Visitors to Fort Laramie on the Fourth of July will be treated to a range of living-history programs examining the Great Plains from the time of the fur trade through the Indian wars. On the same weekend Lander celebrates Pioneer Days with a historical pageant and one of the nation's oldest and best down-home rodeos. …

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