The Online Encyclopedia of Wyoming History

A botanist, an Indian land policy and some rough-and-tumble politics

A botanist, an Indian land policy and some rough-and-tumble politics

November 2018

This month we offer news about one of the University of Wyoming’s first six faculty members. Initially hired as an English teacher, Aven Nelson went on to teach botany for 40 years, and his teaching, research and field work brought the university international acclaim. 

Our second article, a story of good intentions gone bad, shows how 1880s reformers seeking to create better conditions in Indian country persuaded Congress to pass a law fragmenting tribal land ownership in Wyoming and nationwide—and with it tribal power and culture—for many decades to come. 

And with crucial elections coming up in a few days, we thought we’d highlight two previous articles that explain what happened when members of Wyoming’s legislature went to extremes—including physical violence—to try to achieve their goals. 

A renowned botanist and UW president

Aven Nelson, one of the University of Wyoming’s original faculty, became a world-famous botanist. He founded the Rocky Mountain Herbarium on campus, which contains 1.3 million plant specimens from throughout the world. From 1917-1922, he served as university president, but was happy to return to botany when he got the chance. Read more in WyoHistory.org Assistant Editor Lori Van Pelt’s article “Aven Nelson, Botanist and President of the University of Wyoming.” 

Tribal land allotments of 1887

Congress in 1887 passed the Dawes Act, setting up a framework for dividing up tribal lands on reservations into plots to be held by individual Indian owners, after which they could be leased or sold to anyone. Critics saw it as a method clearly intended to transfer lands out of Indian hands. Learn more in the WyoHistory.org article “Fragmenting Tribal Lands: The Dawes Act of 1887.” This article is part of an ongoing series this year on tribal history and politics in Wyoming, supported in part by the Wyoming Humanities Council, the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund and several Wyoming school districts—to all of whom we offer our thanks.

Wyoming’s rough-and-tumble politics 

In December 1892, newly elected Gov. John E. Osborne, a Democrat, took office a month early in a storm of controversy. State politics were still reeling from the Johnson County War and the 1893 Legislature, in an uproar, failed to elect a U.S. senator. During the troubles, one lawmaker’s cocktail was allegedly poisoned. He fell ill, but did not die. Wyoming, meanwhile, went without a senator for two years. Learn more in WyoHistory.org Assistant Editor Lori Van Pelt’s article John E. Osborne and the Logjammed Politics of 1893.

Twenty years later, in 1913, Republicans and Democrats traded physical blows for 45 minutes in a fight over who should serve as Wyoming’s Speaker of the House. Lawmakers had also deviated from tradition that year by having their photographs mounted in separate frames for each political party. The story goes that the photograph of the Democrats was torn during the fracas. Read more in Gregory Nickerson’s article Riot at the 12thLegislature: Fisticuffs on the House Floor.

Calendar Events

Central Wyoming History Day Contest Changed to December 2018
The Central Wyoming History Day contest will be held in December rather than March as in previous years. Natrona County School District No. 1 Administrative Specialist Ruth Putnam hopes the earlier date will prompt more students to enter the competition. The contest is now scheduled for Dec. 15, 2018, at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper. If you are interested in volunteering as a judge in the categories of Documentary, Exhibit, Paper, Performance, or Website, contact Putnam as soon as possible at (307) 253-5462 or via email at ruth120@mynscd.org.

New Wyoming History Day page 

The theme for the 2018-2019 competition is “Triumph and Tragedy in History.” The Wyoming History Day contest will be held April 14-15, 2019, and the National History Day competition is slated for June 9-13, 2019. 

Teachers, students and others interested in the Wyoming History Day contest, which will be held in Laramie April 14-15, 2019, can find more information—including contest dates and links and Wyoming History Sample Topics—by clicking on the “History Day” tab on the orange bar on the WyoHistory.org home page or by visiting  https://www.wyohistory.org/wyoming-history-day.

Timely Books

Tracks, Trails and Thieves: The Adventures, Discoveries, and Historical Significance of Ferdinand V. Hayden’s 1868 Geological Survey of Wyoming and Adjacent Territories, by Jack E. Deibert and Brent H. Breithaupt, 91 pages, 2016. The Geological Society of America, Special Paper 521. Paperback, $40.

The civilian scientist F. V. Hayden led of one of four government surveys evaluating land, minerals and economic prospects around the West from the late 1860s through 1878, after which Congress consolidated the four into the U.S. Geological Survey. The authors found new information in a personal diary of one of Hayden’s assistants, James Carson, providing a closer look into Hayden’s efforts in 1868 in what is now Wyoming.

That year, Hayden and a volunteer, Dr. Rowland Curtin, discovered near Point of Rocks on the Union Pacific line what they believed to be the tracks of a very large bird, now known to be dinosaur tracks. A skilled geologist, Hayden identified numerous fossils and described geologic features in detail. This survey, conducted in the autumn of 1868, began in Cheyenne and journeyed west through Laramie, Rawlins and Rock Springs and into New Mexico before ending in Denver.

 Though a slim volume, the book is well researched, well documented and weaves detailed geological information into the story. Numerous historic and contemporary photographs and simplified geological maps add depth and further explanations about the era and the importance of the group’s findings. Books can be ordered from local bookstores or online sources.