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Something out of Nothing

John A. Campbell and the invention of Wyoming


Wyoming’s first governor was no longer quite young when he arrived in the brand-new territory, stepping off the train in a Cheyenne rainstorm. Unmarried, 33 years old, John A. Campbell was good-looking, with hair a little thin on top, and a thick beard below. He had been appointed governor just a few weeks earlier, by President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant himself had been president just a few weeks longer than that.

Like most of the men the new president was giving government jobs, Campbell (below, left) had served on the Union side in the Civil War. He’d done well, entering the army as a private and ending up a brigadier general. Before the war he’d worked as a printer and writer on a newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio. After the war he stayed in the Union Army for a while, working with a General Schofield in northern Virginia to get political systems set up and going again. Not only had the war killed hundreds of thousands of men, it had flattened crops, ruined businesses, and ended politics-as-usual across the South.

It had also freed the slaves. After the war, the nation quickly approved changes in the Constitution guaranteeing the right to vote to men of all colors. Campbell’s job included redrawing the areas in Virginia that sent representatives to the state legislature, and setting up elections. That would have meant knowing something about the countryside and population of each area. And if he was doing his job right, it would have meant making sure the freed slaves could in fact vote at the new elections. Perhaps this work, reinventing politics in northern Virginia, had made him seem a likely choice for governor of Wyoming Territory. In Wyoming he would have to invent politics and government in a place where very little had existed before.


Campbell arrived on May 7, 1869. Cheyenne then was still a drab, treeless place of shacks and thin-board buildings, with garbage blowing by and dogs running loose. The new governor would normally have been expected to give a speech, perhaps from the platform at the rear of the train. But the rain made that impossible, and anyway the governor wasn’t feeling well. The motion of the train may have made him carsick. Later, some people sang songs for him. “Was serenaded at night,” he wrote in his diary, “but too sick to respond.”

With Campbell on the train were other territorial officers, also appointed by Grant: Campbell’s second-in-command, Territorial Secretary Edward M. Lee; the three judges who would run the territorial courts; and the head police officer for the territory, a U.S. marshal. Wyoming Territory had existed on paper before they came. But their arrival made it a real thing.

Because these men had been appointed, not elected, a territory was more like a colony than a state. They had been sent by the federal government in Washington to govern a place that up until now had been divided among Utah, Idaho, and Dakota territories. These men did not know the people they had been sent to govern, and the people did not know them.

Like the other towns along the Union Pacific Railroad, Cheyenne had boomed when the graders and tracklayers came, along with the gamblers, storekeepers, saloon keepers, and prostitutes to help them spend their money. Then the town shrank after the workers moved on west.  Meanwhile, the newcomers had set up something like a Cheyenne town government, a county government for a brand-new Laramie County, and had even sent a Laramie County representative to the Dakota Territorial Legislature in Yankton, on the Missouri River 450 miles northeast of Cheyenne.


Early in 1868, a bill to make Wyoming a territory had been introduced in Congress, and in August of that year it had passed. The president, Andrew Johnson, appointed a whole batch of territorial officials but Congress, which hated the president at that time, refused to approve his appointments. So nothing happened until after Grant was elected, took office in March 1869, and appointed a new batch.

Everyone knew that Grant was a great general. President Abraham Lincoln had made Grant general of all the Union armies in 1864. Grant was willing to make the horrible decision to send large numbers of men to their deaths in order to win battles, and so his armies won the war. No one knew yet that he would be a poor president, often regarded as the worst. The man who had been so clear headed in war was uncertain in politics. Grant (left) filled the government with his Union Army friends and connections, yet didn’t have the heart to be a tough boss when people didn’t do their jobs. This would matter in Wyoming.

Like the president, the new officers of Wyoming Territory, including Campbell and Lee, were Republicans. The Republican Party at the time was still the party of Lincoln—the party that had freed the slaves, opposed hard liquor, won the war, and saved the Union. Only after the war was it becoming the party of business and property owners. Grant made sure to appoint Republicans because more Republicans in the territories (and everywhere else) would help him hold onto power in Washington.

The first job facing Wyoming’s new officials was similar to the work Campbell had done in Virginia—draw legislative districts and set up elections. Since nearly all the non-Indians in Wyoming lived along the railroad, the new Territory was divided into five counties, each with its railroad town. Then as now, Cheyenne was in Laramie County, Laramie was in Albany County, Rawlins in Carbon County, Green River City, as it was called, was in Carter County (soon renamed Sweetwater County), and Bear River City, later Evanston, was in Uinta County.

The counties were huge. They ran all the way from the south border of the territory to the north. Each county, according to its population, would send representatives to the new territorial Legislature in Cheyenne. The Legislature would have thirteen representatives in its House, and nine councilors in its Council (essentially a Senate.) And the whole territory would elect a delegate to the U.S. Congress, who would be able to talk and persuade once he got there to represent Wyoming, but not to vote. That right would only come with statehood.

At that time, however, real power in Wyoming belonged not so much to any government, as it did to the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad was the largest private landowner in the territory, and the largest non-government employer. Two days after Campbell arrived in Cheyenne, he rode the railroad west to Utah, to make sure Wyoming Territory was represented at the famous golden spike ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental road.

The railroad owned the towns, too. Anyone who wanted to start a store or build a house in town first had to buy the real estate from the railroad. Campbell and the other territorial officers had been in town less than a month when Grenville Dodge, chief engineer for the Union Pacific, offered them each a free town lot in Cheyenne. [Campbell Diary, 10]. Whether this was meant as a gift, something more like a bribe, or something else, Campbell does not make clear in his diary. He also does not say whether he accepted it.

(Left, the Union Pacific depot and hotel, Cheyenne, 1869, where Campbell disembarked in the rain.)

The first territorial elections were held September 2, 1869. The Democrats had long been the party of small farmers, drinkers, and the common man. During the war many northern Democrats had wanted to settle the conflict early, by negotiation. Now they opposed votes for black people. Stories circulated that they were buying votes around Cheyenne. Whether they were or not, every man elected from the Territory—to the House, the Council, and the lone delegate to Congress—was a Democrat.

“Election. Lt. Adams dined with me,” Campbell wrote in his diary that day. “Beaten at election,” he added. Campbell himself hadn’t been beaten, but the Republican Party in Wyoming had been whipped. The Grant government in Washington began to look on Wyoming as a problem.

Because their jobs—and the money to run their Territorial government—depended on the good will of people in Washington, Campbell and the others always had to work hard to stay on good terms with the nation’s capital. Campbell spent months each year in the East visiting politicians, generals, and railroad tycoons. Yet as time went on, a kind of free-for-all developed, with Wyoming Republicans often working behind each others backs to make their fellow Republicans look bad to the higher ups in Washington. When the people elected a Republican delegate to Congress a year later, in 1870, it was a rare success for Campbell’s image back East.

As for the railroad, its officials assumed they had the right to steer Wyoming politics. But when they told Campbell they would be selecting the Republican candidate for Congress in 1870, the governor stood up to them. He wrote Grenville Dodge that he counted on the railroad’s support for the Republicans no matter who the candidate might be. Dodge (right) backed off, agreeing the railroad would stay neutral. In the future, railroad officials were more careful to cover their political tracks.

Even though the Wyoming Republicans slowly began winning seats in the Territorial Legislature, bickering among them just got worse. By the end of 1870, the territorial officers had split into two factions, with Campbell, the editor of the Laramie newspaper and their allies on one side, and the U.S. Marshal, and the new territorial secretary (who also edited one of the Cheyenne papers) on the other. Grant made the problem worse, firing men when he heard complaints from one side, then reinstating them when he heard howls from the other. Everyone in territorial government had to keep an eye on Washington and on his own job, which left little time to get much done of any value.


The real problem was deeper. Wyoming was simply too poor. Some gold mines boomed near South Pass, but played out by 1870. Afterward, Wyoming had almost no gold, silver, or copper mines like the ones that built the wealth of California, Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Montana in the middle and late 1800s. It also had almost no farmers growing crops, like the ones that steadied the wealth of Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Dakotas during the same years.

The Territory got in the habit of depending on a single industry—the railroad—and on the federal government to keep money flowing in. All through the 1870s, about an eighth of all workers held railroad jobs, and about a fourth held federal jobs. These were mostly soldiers, stationed at forts to keep an eye on Indians.

As for Campbell, he was reappointed in 1874. In 1875, Grant offered him a middle-level job in the U.S. State Department. He took it, and left Wyoming—not a great politician but still one that left behind a structure that would allow for a steadier kind of government, once politicians became more skillful. And at least twice---once to the railroad as we have seen, and once, as we will see, to the Legislature when it tried to repeal votes for women—he had the nerve to stand up and do the right thing, without knowing if it would hurt him or not. And that counts for a lot.



Primary Sources
Campbell, John A. “Diary, 1869-1875,” Wyoming Annals, vol. 10 (1938). Publication was spread over four issues of the magazine. See vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 5-8; vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 59-78; vol. 10 no. 3, pp. 120-142, and vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 155-185. This magazine is in most Wyoming libraries. Campbell’s diary entries during his years as governor were always short. He noted down the places he visited and the people he met, but recorded few thoughts, feelings, or descriptions. Still, the notes give us glimpses of the man and the world around him.

The Wyoming State Archives also maintains Campbell’s records from his time in office, which I have not yet seen. These include incoming and outgoing letters, as well as proclamations, appointment records, etc.

Campbell’s diary dates Grenville Dodge’s offer of the town lots on June 2, 1869. On July 19 of that year, the governor noted, “Wrote to Gen. Dodge about lots.” (Diary, p. 62) An interesting project would be to see if that letter survives in the State Archives, and if it says whether Campbell accepted the gift. The State Archives are in the Barrett Building in Cheyenne, across the hall from the entrance to the Wyoming State Museum. If not there, there may be a copy of the letter in Dodge’s papers at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines or at any of five or six other archives scattered around the country.

Secondary sources
Gould, Lewis. Wyoming: A Political History, 1868-1896. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968. See especially Gould’s first two chapters, “A New Territory,” and “The Campbell Era,” pp. 1-48. I’ve used Gould’s insights into the political results in Wyoming of a weak economy in the territory and a weak administration in Washington. High Plains Publishing Company republished this book in 1989 under a new title: Wyoming, from Territory to Statehood and with a new preface by the author. It’s a very good book, more focused than Larson’s.

Larson, T.A., History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 64-78.


The great frontier photographer William Henry Jackson worked along the Union Pacific line in 1869, the year Governor Campbell arrived in Cheyenne. To see some of Jackson's photos, go to the the U.S. Geological Service’s photo library, click on “Pioneer Photographers,” then on “Jackson, W.H., 1869,” and click “Submit” at the bottom of the page. There are 179 of these photos, most from Utah but many from Wyoming. All may be downloaded for free and used for any purpose. See especially number 46, the Cheyenne depot where Campbell first got off the train in a rainstorm; 47 for the Rollins House hotel where the Wyoming Territorial Legislature met; 48 for Promontory Point, Utah, without the crowds for the golden spike ceremony; and 141, for the railroad station in Green River. The Black Hills mentioned in the captions are what we now know as the Laramie Range, the mountains between Cheyenne and Laramie.

Map lovers will like the samples of the State Archives' colllection of maps of Wyoming made while it was still a territory.

And see more photos of early Cheyenne at Wyoming Tales and Trails.

Field Trips

The current Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne was built in 1886-87 and is now a museum, open all year.

Photo Credits

The photo of John Campbell is from the Wyoming State Archives website. The view of the railroad grade is from the Union Pacific's excellent online collection of historical photos. The Grant photo is from the Library of Congress. The photo of the Cheyenne depot and railroad hotel is No. 46 in the U.S. Geological Survey's catalog of Jackson photos from 1869. See the online listings above, for details. The Grenville Dodge photo may be found among several in this Google selection.