Wyoming is 124 Years Young, Beginnings Auspicious

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Bill Sniffin
Bill Sniffin

Should women work in coal mines?
Should there be a severance tax on coal?
Should you be literate in order to vote?
Should women be allowed to vote?
Should the state own rights to all the water?
How many people do you need to become a state?

Those were six of the vexing questions that befuddled early members of the Wyoming State Convention who were preparing Wyoming to be voted on to become a state by the U. S. Congress in 1890.

That was 124 years ago this month.

Each year the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic site in Laramie holds a statehood birthday celebration on July 10. I was one of the speakers at this year’s event and part of my job was to go back in time and be able to tell the crowd some of the earliest history of the state.

Back during that first state convention to consider the application to Congress to become a state, the members were nervous about whether their idea of allowing women to vote should be carried on in their petition. It would be 30 more years before the nation passed an amendment allowing women to vote. Wyoming had been allowing it for over a decade.

After much debate the men (no women were involved in that first state convention) decided they should keep that in their petition.

Perhaps one of the more crazy questions was should women be allowed to work in coal mines? After much debate and a strenuous argument from one of the new Wyoming men who had moved here from Kentucky, it was decided that women could not work in coal mines. It would be 1978 before the law was changed so women could work in the ultra-modern strip mines that are so ubiquitous in Wyoming today.

Perhaps the most amazing and perceptive issue to come out of that convention was the idea of putting a severance tax on coal that is shipped out of state.

It had a lot of support until a legislator (who also happened to be an attorney for the railroad) successfully argued that it would be bad for the state to collect so much money. He argued it was more important to keep government “lean.” So it was 79 years later before a severance tax was finally enacted on the state’s coal.

Today all across America there is a continuing effort to allow people to vote without making them take literacy tests. In early Wyoming territory such tests seemed like a good idea.

Then it was proposed that there were lots of newcomers coming into the state that could read and write. Meanwhile, a great number of the old ranchers in Wyoming were illiterate. A persuasive argument was presented that this was not fair to those old cowboys. The measure failed.

A lot of the delegates felt strongly that the state should own every drop of water inside the state boundaries. Sure, individuals could have various junior rights but the state would always have senior rights.

This prompted a number of vicious fights over the years which prompts me to repeat the old adage: “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

But the water right issue passed.

And finally, the biggest issue that could have prevented Wyoming from becoming a state was the lack of population. Like today, the state was destined to become the least populated state in the USA if it achieved statehood.

Leaders claimed to Congress that more than 60,000 people lived in Wyoming, about the population of today’s Cheyenne area. However, one of the former territorial governors, Thomas Moonlight, was on record as saying there were just 55,500 people in the territory.

Somehow Wyoming’s leaders convinced Congress that hordes of people would soon be swarming into the Cowboy State (it was not named that, yet, by the way) and everything would be fine.

F. E. Warren, who was probably the state’s most important leader, was cracking the whip on the folks at the convention, stating repeatedly that “time was of the essence,” if they were going to get Congress to act on their request.

As much as we all love our state constitution, we learn that much of it was stitched together from different articles of other states’ constitutions.

The proposal was finally finished and submitted to Congress who approved it and Wyoming became a state on July 10, 1890, almost a century and a quarter ago.

 

Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at www.wyomingwonders.com or fine book stores.

 

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