Way-Back Wednesday: Origin of Wyoming’s Name, Territorial and State Legislatures

The Wyoming State Legislature began like other Western states, first as a territorial legislature, with nearly all of the parliamentary regulations that guide other fully-fledged state legislatures.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

January 12, 20228 min read

Capitol 10 28 21 v2 scaled

Winter in Wyoming brings to mind frigid temperatures, blowing and drifting snow along with multiple road closures. It’s also the time of year when duly elected senators and representatives from each of Wyoming’s 23 counties travel to Cheyenne as a new legislative session convenes.

The Wyoming State Legislature began like other Western states, first as a territorial legislature, with nearly all of the parliamentary regulations that guide other fully-fledged state legislatures.

Have you ever wondered why and how Wyoming was named? The musical name, “Wyoming,” was used by J.M. Ashley of Ohio, who, as early as 1865, introduced a bill to Congress to provide a “temporary government for the territory of Wyoming.” The bill was referred to committee until 1868. During a debate at that time in the U.S. Senate, with other possible names suggested, such as Cheyenne, Shoshoni, Arapaho, Sioux, Platte, Big Horn, Yellowstone, Sweetwater and Lincoln. However, “Wyoming” was already commonly used and remained the popular choice in Congress.

The state name itself, Wyoming, is Indian though not western in origin. It is usually said that Wyoming came from eastern Pennsylvania, from a Delaware word, Waumic, or Muchu-waumic, meaning “end of plains” and that congressional irritation over the prolonged debate on a name for the new territory arbitrarily assigned this eastern word to a western state. The word has had many spellings, such as Wauwaumie, Wiwaume, Wiomie, until it reached Wyoming. The name was first used by whites as the name for a valley in Pennsylvania where a portion of the Delaware tribe of Indians lived. Calwallader Colden in his history of the “Five Nations” spelled it Wyomen. 

Former Wyoming State Historian A. J. Mokler had convincingly argued that the Delaware Indians, when they traveled westward first to Ohio, then to Kansas, carried the name with them. Mokler contends the name was well known both to Indians and to western men as applied to the upper Platte river country to the mountains, or ‘end of the plains.’

The first Union Pacific locomotive to arrive in Cheyenne was this small work engine, 1867. The U.P. has played a big role in the city’s politics, economy and culture ever since. Wyoming State Archives.

In November 1867 the first train of the Union Pacific Railroad reached Cheyenne and made the state accessible to settlers and visitors. Cheyenne grew from a handful of people to more than 6,000 in the first year, though the town consisted largely of tents and shacks, with a limited number of commercial buildings. This rapid population growth continued in southern Wyoming as the Union Pacific tracks continued across the state, finally entering Utah in 1868. The building of the railroad focused attention on the West, and the Wyoming Territory was created in 1868.

On July 25, 1868, the United States Congress approved the Wyoming Organic Act which created the Wyoming Territory with land from the Dakota, Utah, and Idaho territories. At the time of the territory’s formation there were four counties; Albany, Carbon, Carter, and Laramie counties. 

16th Street, Cheyenne, 1869, photo by A. J. Russell

The first Wyoming Territorial Legislature was a meeting that lasted from October 12 to December 10, 1869. This was the first meeting of the territorial legislature following the creation of the Wyoming Territory by the United States Congress.

During its territorial era, the Wyoming Legislature played a crucial role in the Suffragette Movement in the United States. In 1869, just four years after the American Civil War, and some 35 years before women’s suffrage became a highly visible political issue, the Wyoming Legislature granted all women above the age of 21 the right to vote. The legislature’s move made Wyoming the first territory of the United States where women were explicitly granted the voting franchise. News spread quickly to other neighboring territories and states. By 1870 the Utah Territorial Legislature followed suit and granted the voting franchise to women.

The move by the legislature was motivated by a number of factors, including bringing Eastern women to the territory to increase the population which was required for statehood. Wyoming’s population has consistently been among the least-populated in America, and the move publicized the new territory and achieved the result of bringing more voters into the territory.

Due to the territory’s change of voting laws in 1869, the U.S. Congress was hostile to Wyoming and its legislature. During proceedings to make Wyoming a U.S. state in 1889 and 1890 in writing a new constitution that would continue female suffrage, Congress threatened to withhold statehood unless women’s suffrage was abolished.

By S. Allan Bristol – https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.03000/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90661842

After the Wyoming Legislature and territorial government sent a telegram back to Washington with the ultimatum that Wyoming would remain a territory rather than become a state without women’s suffrage, Congress withdrew its threat, and on July 10, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed into law Wyoming becoming the 44th state admitted to the Union.

The first State Legislature convened by proclamation on November 12, 1890. Interestingly, in 1890, there were actually two legislative sessions with the final (eleventh) territorial Legislative Assembly, convened January 14, 1890 and adjourned March 14, 1890.and the first State Legislature held from November 12, 1890 through January 10, 1891, including 16 members in the Senate and 33 members in the House.

The first State Legislature to convene by law was on January 10, 1893.

The First State Election and Legislative Statistics from https://wyoleg.gov/docs/HistoricalDatabaseStatehoodInformation.pdf

• The first State election was called by proclamation for September 11, 1890.

• The first State election was called by law for November 8, 1892.

• The first State Legislature convened by proclamation on November 12, 1890.

• The first State Legislature to convene by law was on January 10, 1893.

• In 1890, there were two legislative sessions held. The Eleventh, which was the last Territorial Legislative Assembly, convened January 14, 1890 and adjourned March 14, 1890. The first State Legislature convened November 12, 1890 and adjourned January 10, 1891.

• The Wyoming State Constitution was debated and drafted in the Capitol’s restored two-story room on the north side of the building off of the Rotunda on the second and third floors. This space also housed the Territorial Assembly and Wyoming Supreme Court in the past.

• Under the provisions of the new Wyoming Constitution, the legislative authority was vested in the State Legislature, which consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

• Members of both houses were elected by the qualified voters of the State every two years. Their terms began on the first Monday of January following the general election. Both the number of senators and the number of representatives are apportioned by the State Legislature among the several counties or legislative districts of the State according to the number of inhabitants in each.

• No member of the Legislature, during the term for which he is elected, can be appointed to any civil office under the State, and no person holding an office under the United States or this State, can be a member of either house during his continuance in office.

• When vacancies occur in either house they are filled for the remainder of the term by special election called by proclamation of the governor.

The Wyoming Legislature is a 90-member citizen legislature, meaning the members elected serve part-time and this is typically not the members’ primary occupation. Wyoming remains one of the few states that have a true part-time citizen legislature. 

While the part-time nature of the institution allows members to stay in close contact with their constituents, it also means that they do not enjoy the same accommodations provided to full-time legislators in larger states, such as personal staff.

After every general election in even-numbered years, legislators hold party caucuses to elect legislative leadership for each party for the upcoming biennium (two-year period). Leadership elected in the caucuses includes the President, Vice President, Majority Floor Leader, Minority Floor Leader, Minority Whip and Minority Caucus Chairman in the Senate and the Speaker of the House, Speaker Pro Tempore, Majority Floor Leader, Majority Whip, Minority Floor Leader, Minority Whip and Minority Caucus Chairman in the House. These members of leadership begin serving in January after the general election.

A legislative committee, called the Management Council, serves as the leadership of the Legislature and serves as the administrative arm of the legislative branch of state government and the policymaking body when the Legislature is not in session. The Management Council consists of 13 members representing both parties and consists primarily of legislators in the leadership positions. The Management Council appoints the director of the Legislative Service Office (LSO) and approves staff hired by the director, while the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House each hire temporary staff for their respective bodies during legislative sessions.

In Wyoming, citizens are encouraged to engage with their legislators. Committee information is available online as is information for the upcoming legislative session that will convene on February 14. 

If you would like to find your local legislators, view schedules and find out more about visiting Capitol Squareattending committee meetingsattending the upcoming legislative session in person or viewing live streams online, visit https://wyoleg.gov/

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter