Lincoln County, Wyoming

Lincoln County is nestled near the southwest corner of Wyoming. Created in 1911, it emerged from land previously encompassed by Uinta County, which was one of the five original counties of the state. In 1921, Lincoln County was divided, when Sublette and Teton counties were created out of its territory. Named for the nation’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, this county borders Utah and Idaho as well as Uinta County to the south, Sweetwater and Sublette counties to the east, and Teton County to the north.

The county spans more than 110 miles from north to south. At its widest, in the southern portion, it’s 50 miles across. It is L-shaped. The narrow, northern strip along the Idaho border includes most of the Wyoming Range, with the highest peak at 11,300 feet. The wider, southern end of the county is high desert and rich in coal, natural gas, and oil. This environmental contrast, between an agricultural, partly forested north and a mostly treeless, industrial south, makes Lincoln County one of the most diverse and complex places in the state.

Downtown Kemmerer, 1913. American Heritage Center.This environmental diversity resulted from this region being underwater nearly fifty million years ago. For instance, paleontologists have documented the Great Lakes era by examining the rocks and fossils in the Green River Formation, located in the southern portion of Lincoln County. They have discovered that this region contains some of the best-preserved fossils of plant and animal life that predates human beings. Among the millions of fossilized plants, animals, and insects uncovered in the area since the mid-1800s are gars, turtles, palm trees, dragonflies, crayfish, and bats.

To help preserve this region’s prehistory (as well as its natural beauty) the United States government has protected four areas within Lincoln County: Bridger-Teton National Forest, Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, and Fossil Butte National Monument.

Early History

Before the exploration of the American West by European-Americans, the area of present-day Lincoln County was inhabited by Indians. At this time (pre-1800s), many Americans viewed anything west of the Mississippi River as part of the Great American Desert--land that was largely impassable and not suitable for habitation. Yet, there were thousands of people inhabiting this so-called “vast wasteland”.

According to Errol Jack Lloyd’s master’s thesis, “The History of Cokeville, Wyoming,” before the 1820s the Shoshone were the primary inhabitants of present-day Lincoln County. Whites at the time often referred to this group as Snakes, because they traveled along the Snake River. As with many native tribes, there were numerous sub-groups and linguistic variations within the tribe. Thus, while Shoshone from this region may be closely related, various groups might also be quite distinct from one another.

The Shoshone were primarily a hunting and gathering group before contact with Europeans. According to such archeological evidence as stone obsidian points, chipping grounds, camp sites, firearms, tools and pottery, and oral traditions, these Indians consumed roots and tubers, berries, small game, and insects. The evidence also reveals that given the opportunity, they would occasionally enjoy large game like bear, deer, and buffalo—depending largely on their skill and access to weapons. Before contact with Europeans, this group had relatively little contact with outsiders, including other native tribes.

The introduction of the horse, however, dramatically changed the lives of many native tribes of the high plains and Rocky Mountains. Evidence demonstrates that the Shoshone tribe had horses by the early 1700s. This domesticated creature revolutionized their diet, as well as their exposure to other tribes and cultures.

With horses the Shoshone began exploring more of the region’s land and the availability of water, searching for better hunting and fishing opportunities. In addition, other tribes began making more visits into the region that is now Lincoln County. These contacts occasionally led to conflict.

Fur Trading Era

Early in the 1800s, the fur trade began to expand into the Rocky Mountain West, and mountain men began exploring this region. This occasionally led to conflict between the native tribes and the white fur trappers. For the most part, however, the relationship between mountain men and Indians, especially Shoshone Indians, was friendly.

In 1812, Robert Stuart and a small party traveled from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon to St. Louis with dispatches for fur-trade magnate John Jacob Astor. These so-called Astorians had their horses stolen and for a time lost their way among the mountains and valleys of what is now northern Lincoln County. By way of South Pass they finally made their way further east and over the Continental Divide, the first white people known to have used this route.

Former Astorian Donald MacKenzie, exploring for the Northwest Company, trapped furs on the Bear River in this region in 1818 and 1819. By the early 1820s, it is safe to say, American fur trappers visited this region yearly, and continued to do so until the beaver trade died two decades later.

Westward Migration

Beginning in the 1840s, droves of emigrants bound for good land in Oregon, religious freedom in Utah and gold in California began crossing the continent in steadily growing numbers each summer. The Sublette Cutoff, the Lander Cutoff and other branches of the Oregon, Mormon and California trails crossed what’s now Lincoln County.

Future farmers in “Little Switzerland"--Star Valley--study dairy types at the state experiment farm substation, Afton, 1932.

By the late 1870s, white settlements had emerged throughout present-day Lincoln County, such as the one near Cokeville. In the Bear River valley near the Idaho line, Cokeville was settled when colonizers found copper, phosphate, and coal. Shortly thereafter, settlers brought cattle and sheep into the area. Tilford Kutch, a fur trapper, is credited as the first settler and John W. Stoner, a general store owner, is credited with founding the town. That said, few people thought of this settlement as permanent.

Star Valley, further north, was settled around the same time as Cokeville. The first known white settler there was trapper John Welsh, who with an unnamed companion built a cabin in the valley in 1874. They stayed for only a couple of years. The first permanent settler in the valley was August Leigmburg. He built a house near Stump Creek.

Mass settlement on this region, however, did not begin until 1878 when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived from Utah. In 1874, Congress had passed the Poland Act, making it easier for federal officials to prosecute polygamy. This resulted in federal authorities bringing cases against polygamists in Utah, and Mormons searching for more remote areas where they could continue practicing their religion and traditions without persecution.

Thus, many Mormons took up residence in Star Valley, established the town of Afton, and continued practicing polygamy until the turn of the 20th century. Many of these early settlers started dairy farms and creameries in the valley. These early settlers began referring to this region as the “Little Switzerland of America” as it reminded them of the sweeping hills and valleys from their European homelands. Unlike the settlers of the Cokeville area, these people came with every intention of staying.

Formation of Lincoln County

As settlement continued, more rural communities, towns and cities slowly emerged. In 1897, the town of Kemmerer materialized. Kemmerer, currently the county seat of Lincoln County, was founded as a coal town by Patrick Quealy and Mahlon Kemmerer. The town was named for Kemmerer, the primary investor financing early coal exploration of this area. The town was officially incorporated in 1899.

J.C. Penney home, downtown Kemmerer. Jessica Clark photo.Unlike such nearby coal towns as Frontier and Diamondville, Kemmerer was independent--not operated by a company. As a result, individual lots were purchased by entities other than those involved in the mining industry. Kemmerer became a multi-industry community, relying on the extraction of natural resources, as well as on the raising of livestock. As population in the area continued to increase, Lincoln County was formed in 1911 with Kemmerer, the largest town, chosen as the county seat.

Remarkable Stories

Lincoln County has had some pretty remarkable and unforgettable events throughout its existence. A few are detailed below.

The founder of J. C. Penney & Co., James Cash Penney, opened his first Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer in 1902, and lived there for several years, laying the foundation for what eventually became a retail empire.

In a ranching community, cattle theft is taken quite seriously. It was especially alarming and shocking to discover a woman rustler in southwestern Wyoming in the early 20th century, as it defied gender norms. In 1919 Annie Richey was arrested and convicted of cattle rustling near Fossil, Wyoming, 15 miles west of Kemmerer. Her trial was held in Kemmerer at the county courthouse. Following her conviction, Richey’s lawyers appealed the case, but the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the conviction. In the meantime, she was released on bond and allowed to return to her ranch. While there, she was poisoned and died. Newspapers speculated she’d been protecting the real rustlers all along, and had been killed by whoever feared she might talk. Her alleged murder was never solved.

Townspeople identifying bodies after the 1923 coalmine disaster, Kemmerer, Wyo. American Heritage Center.The dangers of coal mining became all too real for the people of Frontier and Kemmerer on August 14, 1923, with one of the worst mining tragedies in the state’s history. An explosion occurred in the mine on a day when only 135 of the 250 men employed were working in the mine. Ninety-nine men were killed. Investigators eventually attributed the accident to a fire boss, also killed, who tried relighting his safety lamp with a match. Most of those who survived acted quickly by barricading themselves away from the flames and waiting until rescue teams found them hours later. The towns of Frontier and Kemmerer honored the fallen miners with a joint three-day funeral service. The dead were buried on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday following the event.

Rock Church, Auburn, Wyo., in Star Valley. Jessica Clark photo.

Lincoln County
quick facts

Land Area

  4,069 square miles, 11th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Lincoln County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
National Park Service 8,320 .30
Forest Service 903,488 33.11
Fish & Wildlife 6,336 .23
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 985,088 36.09
Bureau of Reclamation 14,592 .53
Wyoming    
State Lands Comm. 107,014 3.92
Recreation Comm. 4 .00
Game & Fish 2,181 .02
Local Government/Other 3,281 .12
Total Public Lands 2,030,305 74.39
Private Lands 698,852 25.61
Surface Water 12,749 .47
Total Area 2,729,157 100

Lincoln County Population

18,106 (2010 U.S. Census)
18,071 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Kemmerer (county seat) 2,656
Afton 1,911
Alpine 828
Cokeville 535
Diamondville 737
La Barge 551
Opal 96
Star Valley Ranch 1,503
Thayne 366

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 597
Forestry, Fishing & Related 129
Mining 836
Construction 1,417
Utilities (D)
Manufacturing 250
Wholesale Trade (D)
Retail Trade 921
Transportation & Warehousing 294
Information 145
Educational 42
Health Care & Social Assistance 455
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 149
Accommodations & Food Service 595
Management of Companies (D)
Finance & Insurance 445
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 504
Professional, Scientific & Technical 361
Administration & Waste Services (D)
Other Services except Public Admin. 472
Fed, state, local gov't 1,942
Total 10,192

D=not disclosed to avoid disclosure of confidential information, but estimates included in totals.
L=less than 10 jobs, but estimates included in totals.

Sources: Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis Equality State Almanac, County Profiles, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/almanac/Page135_183.pdf ; Wyoming DEA summary of decennial U. S. Census data, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/demog_data/cntycity_hist.htm; Wyoming DEA Employment, Income, and Gross Domestic Product Report, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/i&e/Inc_Emp_Report09.pdf; 2010 Census Summary Report for Wyoming, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/
demog_data/pop2010/2010_Census_Summary.pdf
; 2011 county population estimates, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/pop/CO-11est.pdf.

About the Author

Jessica Clark, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of history and political science at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, Wyo. She is a trained rural historian who specializes in oral history, childhood history and memory studies. She has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals on the history and heritage of Germans from Russia on the Northern Plains. Dr. Clark is the faculty advisor of the Sweet Memories: Research Group at Western. She acknowledges these students for assisting her in researching her contributions to the WyoHistory.org web site.

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