There is no more fitting allegory for Wyoming and her history than the Johnson County War. If there is one event that should instruct us as Wyomingites, it is that conflict. And yet, we have ignored that lesson for nearly a hundred and thirty years. We continue to ignore it today.
In 1892, bigshot cattlemen, mostly from Great Britain and backed by east-coast and foreign capital, sought to drive small homesteaders and ranchers out of Wyoming. They wanted all the grass and water to themselves, even though it was public domain.
To this end, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, representing that foreign money, hired fifty or so mercenary thugs from Texas to invade Johnson County. The invaders carried with them a hit list of names of small ranchers that were to be killed “for the good of the country”. They also intended to assassinate elected officials in Johnson County and to establish a county government more favorable to their interests.
Maybe we’ll talk more about Nate Champion later. But suffice it to say that he almost single handedly prevented the Stock Growers and their gunslingers from accomplishing their goals. That is why, in my presence, hats will be doffed when Champion’s name is mentioned.
“Invasion” is an apt term for what happened then, and it also applies today when Wyoming invites foreign capital to usurp our resources and control our lives. From the Union Pacific, through the cattle boom, the oil boom, the uranium boom and the coal boom, Wyoming has been content to allow ourselves to be colonized by outside interests.
Why we continue to describe ourselves as ruggedly independent, while kow-towing to outside money, is an unfathomable mystery to me.
Two of our founders, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, presented diametrically different views of how our new country should look. Jefferson favored a country populated by the “yeoman farmer”, a man and his family supporting themselves by the sweat of their brow and their individual initiative. Hamilton’s vision was a country expanding through corporate debt, foreign capital and strong central banking.
In Wyoming, we pay constant lip service to Jefferson, but enthusiastically embrace Hamilton. That’s how we ended up where we are today.
When we are faced, like we are now, with the decline of an industry that has kept us afloat, we look around for replacement industry to come in and save us. We cast about for an Elon Musk, or a bicoin mogul to ride in like a white knight to pull our chestnuts our of the fire; to pave our roads and to educate out kids. We always look outward, instead of inward, for our salvation.
“Rugged individuals”, my Aunt Fanny!! Hamilton must be so proud of us.
If we can break this cycle of depending on outsiders, then we can, with a straight face, call ourselves the “Cowboy State”. If we can find within ourselves the initiative and courage to try new things, to invent, to risk, to stand up on our own hind legs and take control of our future on our own terms, then we will make of ourselves Jeffersonian yeomen, rather than Hamiltonian serfs.
Such a sea change in our collective attitude won’t be easy. We’ll have to overcome more then a century of being babysat. There will be no guarantees of success. But there will be pride in it, and a justifiable pride. If we can do it together, and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and grip the reins in our own sweaty and calloused hands, then outside corporate interests will think twice before trying to take advantage of us ever again.
And we can all proclaim, with a loud and collective voice, shouted into that big, blue sky over Wyoming, “I am Nate Champion”.