Cheyenne: History

Rough-and-Tumble Beginnings of Railroad Terminus

The region where present-day Cheyenne stands was originally occupied by a Native American Plains tribe in the Algonquian linguistic family. The townsite was initially a campsite for the U.S. Army's Major General Grenville M. Dodge and his troops, who were charged in 1865 with finding a railroad route over the Laramie Mountains. In 1867, when Dodge became chief engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad, he established a terminal town there; he named it Cheyenne for the local tribe. Dodge received some criticism in the local press for his mispronunciation of the word, which was actually "shai-en-na;" but his two-syllable version was accepted through usage.

Fort D. A. Russell was built in 1867 to protect railroad construction crews. Soon real estate speculators, merchants, gamblers, and tradesmen converged on Cheyenne in hopes of profiting from the construction project. Violent disputes arose over ownership of the land, since the railroad had already claimed it and citizens questioned the company's right to do so. Eventually troops from Fort Russell were called in; land jumpers were run out of town and could not return until they promised to acknowledge the railroad's claim.

A town charter was accepted by the Dakota Territorial Legislature in 1867 and Cheyenne was thereupon incorporated. By the end of that year the population had risen to 4,000 people, and lots were selling for $2,500. Makeshift buildings gave the town a raffish appearance, but even before railroad construction began, Cheyenne enjoyed the elements of a stable community; churches had been built and the first school, with 114 pupils, was opened in 1867. Within a year Cheyenne was thriving. More than 300 businesses were in operation, and the diverse citizenry included engineers, lawyers, artists, Native Americans, trappers, hunters, laborers, gamblers, and gunslingers. The town, however, was soon overrun by lawlessness.

The early Cheyenne closely resembled the Wild West towns depicted in novels and films. Dodge named it the gambling center of the world and some dubbed it "Hell on Wheels." Mayhem and violence were a way of life, with the saloon and the cemetery being the most important places in town. In an attempt to impose order, the churches backed an ordinance that closed saloons for four hours on Sundays; another ruling required visitors to check their guns. But laws were virtually unenforceable, so the vigilante "committee" became a substitute for the courts. Although the city government had been given powers by the Dakota Legislature upon incorporation, civic leaders found the vigilante approach to be more effective. When the jail became full, for instance, prisoners were driven from town with a whip or a six-shooter; frequently the committee executed perpetrators of severe crimes.

Riches Flow from Cattle, Sheep, Gold

A degree of peacefulness returned when railroad construction moved on toward Sherman Pass and transients followed. But then the first Sioux War broke out north of the Platte River, and Fort Russell became the supply depot for the Rocky Mountain region. In 1868 Cheyenne was made the seat of Laramie County; the following year it was named the capital of the new Wyoming territory. By the 1870s Cheyenne was the center of a prosperous ranching area where cattle were bred for a European beef market. Visiting Englishmen, who spent summers in Cheyenne and winters in Europe, joined wealthy cattle owners to found the Cheyenne Club, where they dined in luxury and struck deals that affected the cattle industry throughout the West. Furnished in the English style and serving the finest liquors in the world, the club employed a foreign chef whose cuisine was known nationwide.

With the opening of the Black Hills gold fields in 1875, the town profited from a new industry as Cheyenne merchants supplied miners and prospectors with provisions and equipment. The Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage Company was formed to transport passengers and cargo between the railroad and the mines. When electric lights were installed in 1882, Cheyenne was the wealthiest city per capita in the world. Cheyenne was named the capital of the new state of Wyoming in 1890, and the Capitol building was erected in the city. By 1890 the population had reached 10,000 people.

Before the turn of the century many ranchers had begun raising sheep, which adapted well to the climate and the native grasses; sheep raising continues to be an important industry in the area. During the twentieth century Cheyenne became an industrial and manufacturing center, and the Francis E. Warren U.S. Air Force Base was established at Fort Russell. In spite of extensive development as one of the state's largest cities (one out of five Wyoming residents lives in Cheyenne) and as a commercial, industrial, and transportation hub, Cheyenne has maintained a high quality of life and a pollution-free environment.

Historical Information: Wyoming State Archives, Barrett Building, 2301 Central Avenue, Cheyenne, WY 82002; telephone (307)777-7826; fax (307)777-7044; email