Wyoming gets a Constitution; Statehood Day is July 10

July 10 is the day on which Wyoming became a state. When Laramie first began “Jubilee Days” in 1940, the July celebration was intended to celebrate “Statehood Day” and always is centered around that day no matter how long the celebration lasts.

 It was July 10, 1890 when President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill to create Wyoming, the 44th state.  The Laramie Boomerang reported the next day that “Judge Carey was the only person with the president when the bill was signed” and that the president then gave the pen to Carey.

Carey looses job

With that pen stroke, Joseph M. Carey was officially out of a job.  This Delaware native had been appointed the first US Attorney for Wyoming Territory in 1869, and had been elected as the non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives from Wyoming Territory in 1885. Now the territory no longer existed.

 Becoming a state didn’t happen suddenly—people had been agitating for statehood ever since 1869, the year the transcontinental railroad was completed.  Carey had been a strong statehood proponent, as had the appointed Wyoming Territorial Governor, Frances E. Warren.

 60,000 residents?

Neighboring Nebraska had been admitted to the Union in 1867 as the 37th State.  However, its population at the time was about 120,000, double the threshold of 60,000 that was thought to be the number required for statehood. Congress had the authority to create states though that “rule of thumb” was sometimes ignored if one party (usually Republicans) had enough power to create a state regardless of population, according to T.A. Larson (History of Wyoming, 1978).

 In the first official decennial census for Wyoming Territory, 1870, the population was 9,118. Thus, it looked like it would be a long time before Wyoming would be admitted to the union.

 But Wyoming Territory did grow. Twenty years later, Albany County alone had jumped from just over 2,000 inhabitants to 8,865.  Total Wyoming population in the year the territory became a state was 62,555 (though that figure was not released until two years after statehood had already been granted).

 Territory VS State

There were issues with being a territory rather than a state.  Residents were US citizens but did not have the right to choose their own officers. They could not vote for US President. Larson points out that the president with senate confirmation appointed the governor and a secretary. The latter was like a secretary of state, who would serve if the governor were away. 

 The president also appointed the three territorial judges, territorial attorney, and a territorial marshal.  These were political appointees, presenting opportunity for incompetents to hold office.  

 Larson quotes from a letter sent by Carey to the Secretary of the Interior in 1885: “….while the Territory has had many good officers sent here, so many miserable fellows have, from time to time, crept in that the people are sick at heart. They do not want a sick man or a politician sent from elsewhere.” (Ignoring the fact that he, like nearly every other Wyoming resident, was “from elsewhere.”)

 However, Wyoming residents didn’t have to tax themselves to pay the salaries of these appointees. The federal government took care of that, as Wyoming historian Phil Roberts points out.

 Then, as now, residents of territories could also elect a single delegate to the US House of Representatives.  That person could introduce legislation and debate issues on the House floor, but did not have the right to vote.

 Not every resident favored statehood.  The Platte Valley Lyre reported in 1888: “Statehood entails a heavy burden….people of the state of Wyoming would sink exhausted under taxation.”  (As quoted in the Laramie Boomerang November 22, 1888.)

 Although an 1888 bill in Congress to grant Wyoming statehood failed, efforts promoting statehood reached a feverish pitch in 1889 when the front page of the Laramie Boomerang of May 23 was dominated by calls for statehood. 

 Typical of those comments was: “Wyoming’s population is double that of Illinois when the latter was admitted as a state. Give us statehood!”  That claim is close to being true; Illinois’ population in 1818 when it became a state is estimated to have been about 35,000.

Constitutional Convention

On July 8, 1889, a territorial election was held to select delegates to a Constitutional Convention. Their charge: to draft a Constitution that would be sent to Congress for approval of statehood.

 The Constitutional Convention met in September 1889, with 49 delegates (all men, no women ran in that election, though they could have).  In the end, 45 of the 55 elected representatives voted for the Constitution.  Six of those elected never came to Cheyenne to participate, and four of the remaining did not sign. 

 The proposed Constitution was put to a vote of the people of Wyoming Territory on November 5, 1889. An embarrassment was that only 8,175 territorial residents voted in that election, though an overwhelming majority favored the Constitution. At that time, Carey was claiming in Congress that there were as many as 125,000 Wyoming residents. 

 It went to Congress on March 26, 1890, introduced by Carey.  Although much of it was “cut and paste” from other state constitutions, Roberts describes two provisions in it (among others) that no other state had: 1) state ownership of all water, and 2) equal rights for women. 

 Although water law is still complicated, state ownership established by the 1890 Wyoming Constitution proved to be an enforceable provision that simplified some aspects, compared to that of other states. Convention delegate M.C. Brown of Laramie argued persuasively for state ownership of water; his view prevailed.

 Another unique feature of the Wyoming Constitution was Article 6 which states: “The rights of citizens of the State of Wyoming to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.” 

 When delegate Carey spoke to Congress about the proposed Wyoming Constitution, he did not mention this provision which had been enacted by the Territorial Legislature in 1869.  Roberts says this was “curious,” but Carey, a Republican, knew Democrats in Congress would attack the Constitution on the basis of women’s suffrage and he probably didn’t want to bring attention to it.

 Wyoming a State!

The Democrats did object to Article 6, and they almost prevailed.  In the end, the bill to grant Wyoming statehood passed in the US House of Representatives 139 to 127.  Three months later it passed the US Senate 29 to 18. 

 Roberts says that the Wyoming Constitution is 11th longest compared to other state, and much longer and more detailed that the US Constitution.  Concerns about taxation envisioned by the Platte Valley Lyre were reflected in the 1935 amendment making it “difficult to enact” a state sales tax; there have been 74 other amendments to it over the years.

 So in July 1890 citizens of Wyoming had plenty to talk about, if not to celebrate.  “Don’t Expect Too Much” said the Cheyenne Leader the day after Wyoming became a state, while the Laramie Daily Boomerang ran a headline:  “One of the Sisters; Wyoming now an integral part of the Union.”

By Judy Knight

Caption: Judge Joseph M. Carey (1845-1924), Wyoming Territory delegate to US Congress from 1885-1890, and lone witness to the bill signing by President Harrison of the Act that created the State of Wyoming.  From 1871 to 1876 he was on the Territorial Supreme Court; from 1881-1885 he served as mayor of Cheyenne.   He was the first person to be selected US Senator from Wyoming, serving from 1890 to 1895.  In 1911 he was elected Wyoming Governor. Photo courtesy Wyoming State Archives.