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Governor celebrating 130th birthday of the Cowboy State

A statue on the grounds of the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne with the newly rebuilt Herschler Building in the background. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City File)

CASPER, Wyo. — Governor Mark Gordon took note of the significance of July 10 for Wyoming on Friday.

On July 10, 1890 President Benjamin Harrison “signed the Statehood Bill to make Wyoming the 44th state admitted to the Union,” according to the Wyoming State Historical Society.

“Today is Wyoming Statehood Day and Jennie and I invite you to celebrate the reasons that we live here and love Wyoming,” Gordon said. “Over a century ago our founders knew this land was special. I’m proud to be governor of the Cowboy State and celebrate everything that makes it unique.”

“I know Wyomingites are proud, too. Show your brown and gold and your Wyoming pride today. Happy 130 years, Wyo.”

Phil Roberts, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wyoming, provides details surrounding Wyoming’s process to become a state on the Wyoming State Historical Society’s WyoHistory.org website.

“Democrats and Republicans alike in Wyoming Territory agreed by the late 1880s that it was time their territory became a state,” Roberts explained. “Statehood was attractive to the territory’s businessmen and politicians, as it offered them much more local control over land and water issues. Statehood would also mean the federal government would no longer pay the salaries of the top officials — but that savings mattered less as time went on.”

“One big obstacle loomed, however: were there enough people? Population had grown only slowly since the Territory was established in 1869. Congress used a general rule of thumb, dating back before the U.S. Constitution to the Northwest Ordinance, that a territory had to show a population of 60,000 people to qualify for statehood. Territorial Gov. Thomas Moonlight, a Democrat, reported in December 1888 that Wyoming had only 55,500 people.”

Roberts adds that most people in the territory were living on ranches and small towns.

“The major employers, however, were the railroads (by 1890, these were the Union Pacific, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy and the Chicago and Northwestern) and the coal mines (many owned by the railroads),” he continued. “But the population remained small and scattered over the territory’s 98,000 square miles.”

Wyoming’s Territorial Governor Francis E. Warren was a strong supporter of statehood along with “the only officer elected territory-wide, Delegate to Congress Joseph M. Carey.”

“Carey argued that it was not unprecedented for territories with fewer than 60,000 people to be granted statehood,” Roberts said. “Warren, Carey and the others knew that, though Wyoming’s 20-year-old experiment with votes for women would be controversial when the statehood question reached Congress, the population issue was more likely to cause problems.”

“When Congress did not act on Carey’s proposal for calling a Wyoming constitutional convention in 1889, presumably because of questions of population, Warren went ahead and set a date anyway for the election of delegates to a constitutional convention in Cheyenne. The election was called for July 8, 1889. Though women had full voting rights and rights to seek and hold office, not one ran for a delegate slot. The future state that had prided itself for being the first government to grant women equal political rights was to have a state constitution that was drafted, debated and passed entirely by men.”

Wyoming’s Constitutional Convention was held in Cheyenne in Sept. 1889.

“The convention also established a state university — already in existence in the Territory since 1886,” Roberts adds. “The university was to be governed by a board, and ‘equally open to students of both sexes, irrespective of race or color…’  The Constitution stated that the university would receive enough state funds to keep higher education ‘as nearly free as possible.'”

On the 25th day of convention, delegates adopted the draft Constitution.

“Gov. Warren called a special election for Nov. 5, 1889,” Roberts explained. “The Constitution passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 6,272 in favor to 1,903 against. The margin wasn’t a problem; the problem was the total number of voters.”

Carey introduced a ill in the United States Congress on March 26, 1890 calling for Wyoming’s statehood.

“For months before the special election, Carey had been telling colleagues that Wyoming’s true population was far above the traditional 60,000-person statehood threshold,” Roberts said. “At one point, he estimated it as high as 125,000.  Now he had to explain why, if the population was so great, so few people had voted in the special election.”

Roberts explains that Carey argued that seven states had been admitted to the Union with less than 60,000 people and that their populations all doubled within five years of becoming a state. Carey argued that Wyoming’s population would follow a similar trend.

Roberts continued: “Carey went on to attribute the small turnout at the special election to lack of interest, saying ‘There is but little of politics in Wyoming. Every year is an off year …’ He was confident turnouts would increase once the state was admitted to the Union. Geography was a problem too, he said. Accurate censuses and voter turnouts were both difficult for a population spread over 100,000 square miles.”

Carey did not mention the women’s suffrage article in Wyoming’s Constitution in his speech to the U.S. Congress.

“Still, numerous Democrats in the U.S. House spoke against admission of Wyoming—known to be leaning Republican,” Roberts adds. “In the minority in the House, Democrats knew they’d be unable to block admission based on party affiliation alone—but they could argue against statehood for a Republican territory by attacking women’s suffrage.” 

“They made persistent objections to Wyoming’s article 6 that granted women equal rights. It almost worked. The vote was very close. Wyoming statehood finally passed the House of Representatives, 139-127.”

When the bill moved to the Senate, Democrats continued to raise questions about Wyoming’s population and granting women the right to vote, according to Roberts.

Finally, three months after House passage, Wyoming Statehood passed the Senate by a more comfortable 29-18 margin,” he said. “President Harrison signed the Statehood Bill on July 10, 1890. Wyoming was the 44th state admitted to the Union.”

Roberts provides further details of the history surrounding statehood on WyoHistory.org.