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Facts About Wyoming History: 7 Things You Might Not Know

By    |   Thursday, 07 May 2015 11:32 AM

Wyoming's history is more than just the Indian Wars and sprawling cattle ranches. Besides its thousands of years of Native American history, and its violent geological past — both of great interest today — the state has seen a gold rush of its own, and marks many "firsts" in US history.

Here are seven historical facts you might not know about Wyoming's surprisingly varied past.

1. The Medicine Wheel

Not far from the state's border with Montana, in the Bighorn National Forest, on top of a lonely mountain, is a stone shrine built in the shape of a wheel with 28 spokes. No one knows who built it or why.

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Even the local Native American tribes have no stories about it, although an unknown reporter claims he heard a Crow chief once say, "It was built before the light came by people who had no iron," according to Wyoming's website. It is constructed to mark the summer solstice and other astronomical events, thus making it "America's Stonehenge."

2. Colter's Hell

Yellowstone National Park was originally named "Colter's Hell," after explorer John Colter, who began mapping the territory around 1807. This area became America's – and the world's – first designated national park.

A "supervolcano" slumbers underneath the park, but is by no means dormant: in fact, it powers the famous geysers. According to Business Tech, the last time it erupted, 640,000 years ago, it blew 240 cubic miles of lava out of the ground — a volcanic explosion six times bigger than the most violent in recorded history. Hold on to your cowboy hats if this one goes off again.

3. First in Feminism


According to History.com, Wyoming was the first state in the union to allow women to vote or hold public office, in 1869, when it was still a territory. The state elected America's first female governor in 1924, though she took office only 20 days before Texas's first female governor.

4. Enduring Erosion


Wagon ruts made by emigrants heading to the coast on the Oregon Trail are still visible in much of the state, ground into the sandstone by iron-shod wheels of the day, according to Wyomingtourism.org. Graffiti a century-and-a-half old is also visible along parts of the trail. Who knew that our ancestors were taggers?

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5. Local Gold Rush with Good Timing

Wyoming had its own Gold Rush, though nearly 20 years after California's more famous one. While gold and silver had been dug up here and there for several decades, no one really "struck it rich," till 1867, when Lewis Robison and Joshua Terry chanced upon the Carisso Ledge, reports WyoHistory.org.

This buoyed the region's economy just as the Transcontinental railroad sucked emigrant traffic away from the Oregon Trail. "Gold Rush Days" are still celebrated in tiny South Pass City, formerly a ghost town, every summer.

6. Ancient Swamps Begot the World's Biggest Coal Mine


Wyoming hosts the biggest coal mine in the U.S., and what may be the biggest strip mine in the world. The Black Thunder mine is served by two railroads and fills on average 20 trains a day. The coal lies in 100-foot-thick seam that was once the forests of an ancient swamp — some 65 million years ago, when Wyoming was far wetter than it is today, according to Arch Coal, Inc.

7. First Business West of the Missouri River

Around 1834, fur traders William Sublette and Robert Campbell established business relations with the local Native American tribes, and established a trading post at Fort Laramie — which was bought by the American Fur Company in 1836, according to nps.gov.

The trading post operated as a geographic monopoly for five years, till a certain Lancaster P. Lupton set up a rival post a mile or so away, calling it Fort Platte. Both companies illegally traded liquor to the tribes in exchange for buffalo robes.

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Wyoming's history is more than just the Indian Wars and sprawling cattle ranches. Besides its thousands of years of Native American history, and its violent geological past - both of great interest today - the state has seen a gold rush of its own, and marks many "firsts" in U.S. history.
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