Before there were people, there was the river—the North Platte River begins its meandering journey in the mountains near Casper, running east across the Great Plains to merge with its sister river, the South Platte, to become simply the Platte River. Water, mountains, and plains were a lure from the beginning; evidence of human occupation dates back more than 12,000 years with the Clovis peoples, followed by the Folsom and the Eden Valley peoples. A mix of hunting and gathering tribes occupied the area until approximately 500 A.D., eventually morphing into Native American tribes more familiar in today's world.
The original residents of Wyoming were nomadic Plains Indians, including tribes as disparate as the Arapaho, Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Blackfeet, Kiowa, Nez Perce, and Shoshone. The tribes relied on the land and the roaming buffalo herds for sustenance; when European explorers and hunters began a wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, coinciding with an interest in herding native peoples to a containment area in Oklahoma, armed conflicts escalated in the clash of cultures and interests. In 1812, fur trappers had followed beaver and buffalo populations to the northern Rockies. The Oregon Trail had been scouted out in 1823, and its ever-deepening ruts reflected the entrenched U.S. belief in its manifest destiny to expand westward.
By 1847, a network of travel routes converged at a spot just west of present-day Casper; here the Emigrant Trail crossed from the south side to the north side of the North Platte River. When the first Mormon wagon train passed through this area on its way to what would become Utah, Brigham Young arranged for a ferry to be set up for the use of future travelers. The Mormon Ferry soon faced competition as more emigrants passed that way and decided to cash in on a good idea. One entrepreneurial French-Canadian trader named John Baptiste Richard decided to build a bridge across the North Platte and charge a toll for crossing it. The area was now not just a way-station but an encampment.
Local residents established a trading post along the Emigrant Trail in 1859, taking advantage of the growing stream of wagon trains. As the local population grew along with the number of emigrants, friction developed with local tribes of Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne Indians. As a result, the trading post was transformed into a fort by the military, and two pitched battles between the army and the native tribes took place in 1865. In the first conflict, Lieutenant Caspar Collins was killed while attempting to rescue another soldier. Lt. Collins' father already had a fort named after him in Colorado, so the military named the Wyoming fort "Casper" in his honor, inadvertently using a misspelling that had been transmitted by telegraph. The seeds of present-day Casper had been planted.
Casper in 1888 was a true Wild West town; a railroad had been built through the town in an effort to ease travel to riches of gold in California and fertile land in Oregon. Isolation and lawlessness attracted a rough crowd of renegades and outlaws, and the original township developed a main street lined with saloons on one side. By necessity, the first public building in Casper was a jail. Lynchings were not an uncommon occurrence.
Oil was struck in nearby Salt Creek Field in 1889, an event that has come to define Casper as the "oil capital of the Rockies." The city was flooded with an influx of claim jumpers looking to capitalize on the promised wealth. In 1895, the first oil refinery was constructed. Oil workers known as "roughnecks" followed, along with gamblers, prostitutes and corrupt businessmen. Cattlemen went to war against the sheepmen. The local law struggled to keep up with the shenanigans of the populace, passing laws to prevent women from walking on the saloon side of Main Street and to make illegal the discharge of firearms within city limits.
Local municipal leaders were set on Casper becoming the state capital and a centerpiece of the West. As the economy continued to thrive, construction was begun on some of the tallest buildings in Wyoming during the early 20th century. But, a city that lives on oil can die on oil.
Few communities escaped the repercussions of the Great Depression, and Casper was not an exception. In 1929, the city's population diminished by 50 percent; the struggle continued until World War II spurred renewed demand for oil and gas supplies.
The city has experienced cycles of boom and bust beginning in the 1960s, riding the wave of oil and gas prices. Today, Casper is profiting from U.S. conflicts with oil-producing nations and has additionally seen the growth of more consistent industries in the areas of health care, social services and tourism. Figurative fisticuffs have taken the place of literal gunfights as the oil industry negotiates its place in a city that is increasingly conscious of its finite and infinitely beautiful natural resources.
Historical Information: Wyoming State Historical Society, 1829 North Piney Creek Road, Casper, WY 82604-1721