The State of Wyoming

AT A GLANCE

Name: Wyoming comes from an Algonquian phrase meaning “large prairie place” or “at the big plain.”
Nicknames: Equality State, Cowboy State
Capital: Cheyenne
Size: 97,818 sq. mi. (253,349 sq km)
Population: 586,107 (2015 estimate)
Statehood: Wyoming became the 44th state on July 10, 1890.
Electoral votes: 3 (2016)
U.S. representatives: 1 (until 2016)
State tree: cottonwood
State flower: Indian paintbrush
State bird: meadowlark
Highest point: Gannett Peak, 13,804 ft. (4,207 m)

Wyoming map

THE PLACE

Wyoming is located on the border of the Midwest and West. The Great Plains cover eastern Wyoming and meet the Rocky Mountains in the center of the state. The Continental Divide cuts through Wyoming, from the northwest corner to the south-central area of the state. Water on the eastern side of the divide flows to the Atlantic Ocean; water on the western side drains into the Pacific.

Eastern Wyoming is a region of fertile soil that is covered by grasses and crossed by small rivers. In the state’s northeast corner is the Black Hills, a mountain range that stretches into South Dakota. The Rocky Mountains, which extend into western Wyoming, are made up of many smaller ranges, including the Bighorn, Laramie, Wind River, Granite, Snake River, and Teton Ranges. Low basins, such as the Bighorn and Powder River basins, lie between these ranges.

Three of the largest river systems in the United States begin in the mountains of Wyoming. The Missouri River flows north and east, while the Green River, the primary source for the Colorado River, begins in the Wind River Mountains. The Columbia River system begins with the Snake River, which has cut rugged gorges through western Wyoming.

Wyoming’s climate is dry and warm in the summer but cold in the winter, especially at higher elevations. The state’s greatest mineral resources are petroleum and natural gas, but Wyoming also has clay, coal, sodium carbonate, uranium, gold, and limestone deposits.

Facts and Firsts

  • With only 493,782 residents, Wyoming has the smallest population of all of the states.
  • Wyoming is home to Black Thunder, the largest coal mine in the United States.
  • Wyoming was home to the first national monument, Devils Tower, which was dedicated in 1906.
  • Wyoming was the first state to allow women to vote, in 1869.
  • The J.C. Penney department store chain began in Kemmerer in 1902.

THE PAST

After the last Ice Age ended more than 11,000 years ago, large herds of bison roamed the Great Plains. Many Native American groups followed the bison herds, which provided meat, tools, clothing, and shelter, to the eastern prairies of Wyoming.

French explorers may have visited Wyoming during the 1700s, but the area did not receive much attention until 1803, when the United States purchased present-day Wyoming as part of the Louisiana Territory. Settlers came in search of furs, and in 1812, a passage through the mountains was discovered and named South Pass. In 1833, oil was discovered in Wind River Basin. The government soon purchased the few forts that had been built in Wyoming by fur traders.

By the 1840s, settlers from the East began to pass through Wyoming by way of South Pass to reach California. The Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails, which crossed Wyoming, were main routes to the West.

At first, Native Americans of the Midwest plains were happy to help and trade with the settlers. As increasing numbers of pioneers crossed Native American lands, however, they scared away the bison herds, set huge grass fires in the plains, and brought disease. Conflict broke out between the settlers and the native tribes. Many pioneers crossed through Wyoming and admired its beauty, but only a few stayed to settle the land.

In 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad entered Wyoming, and in 1869, the territory became the first to allow women to vote. Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, when the national government bought a huge piece of land in Wyoming. Because of the park, tourism grew immediately.

Oil wells were built in the 1880s, but it took several years for the oil industry to achieve prosperity. Ranchers in eastern Wyoming, who raised cattle for shipment to the East, supported the territory’s economy and controlled its politics until the late 1880s.

After Wyoming became a state in 1900, settlers flocked to the area. Disputes broke out between newly arrived sheep ranchers and the established cattle ranchers. Wyoming’s population began to climb greatly when the national government gave away free Wyoming farmland as part of the Homestead Acts of 1909, 1912, and 1916.

By the middle of the 20th century, Wyoming’s mining industry had overtaken agriculture in importance to the state’s economy. Trona, which contains sodium carbonate, and uranium were discovered in the 1950s and prompted new industrial growth. In the 1960s, a steel company built an iron ore processing plant in Sunrise.

Other manufacturers followed this lead, and coal and petroleum mining expanded. Between 1970 and 1980, Wyoming’s population grew by almost 42 percent as people moved to the state to work in the mining industries. This rapid population growth caused problems such as housing shortages during the 1980s. Many communities struggled to provide services, health care, and education to the newly increased population.

THE PRESENT

Wyoming has the smallest population of any state. Even Cheyenne, the largest city in Wyoming, has only about 50,000 residents. The U.S. government owns more than half of Wyoming’s land and strictly controls its development. The national government monitors logging, cattle grazing, and mining on all of Wyoming’s public land.

This land also includes national parks, Native American reservations, and military sites. The Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne controls one of the nation’s most important long-range missile systems.

Because the government owns so much of Wyoming’s land, government jobs are integral to Wyoming’s economy. Mining also continues to be of critical importance, and the mining industry employs many of Wyoming’s workers. Wyoming receives more revenue from mining than any other state. Oil drills dot many parts of Wyoming’s terrain, and the state leads all others in coal production. Cattle ranching is yet another activity that is important to the state’s economy.

The national parks, too, employ many of Wyoming’s workers. Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks feature scenery and mineral springs that attract millions of tourists, campers, and wilderness enthusiasts every year.

Born in Wyoming

  • Jim Geringer, governor
  • Curt Gowdy, sportscaster
  • Leonard S. Hobbs, inventor
  • Patricia MacLachlan, author
  • Jackson Pollock, artist