Rod Miller: The Many Flags Over Wyoming (And Why It’s Hard To Find Good Fish & Chips In Cokeville)

in Column/Rod Miller

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By Rod Miller, columnist

While we argue over whether the buffalo should face left or right on our state flag, or about how many of the stars on Old Glory represent communist sympathizer states, we often forget how many other flags have flown over Wyoming.

This rough square on the modern map has been owned, traded, bought and sold among sovereign powers for centuries. From before it was given it’s name, Wyoming has been a chess piece on a New World geopolitical board.

People have been fighting over this landscape since before the first page of history, winning it and losing it, shoving their way in or being shoved out. Its this struggle, as much as lines on a map, that gives us our shape today.

A couple of decades ago, I was involved in real estate transactions in Texas. It was always interesting to do title work on South Texas ranches because the chain of title began with King Ferdinand of Spain, the original landowner.

Forget for a moment the many people, clans, tribes, bands and nomadic groups that have claimed what is now Wyoming for tens of thousands of years. Lets look at the sovereign powers from both the Old World and the New that have “planted the flag” either figuratively or physically in the Cowboy State.

It might surprise you to know that Russia once claimed Jackson Hole. True story!! Forty years before the first shot at Lexington, Danish explorer Vitus Bering discovered the mouth of the Columbia River and claimed the entire watershed for Czar Peter the Great, for whom Bering sailed.. The headwater of the Columbia is Jackson Lake.

There’s not much of a remnant of Russian possession of Jackson, other than fancy salad dressing in chi-chi restaurants and a Lebowski libation at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Nevertheless, the Hapsburg double eagle flag of the Czar once fluttered over Wilson.

When Talleyrand and Thomas Jefferson cut their deal on Louisiana in 1803, our new republic doubled in size overnight. The Louisiana Purchase brought what is now eastern Wyoming under the Stars and Stripes.

I’m writing this from Cheyenne where a French flag once flew before the Purchase. I may go down to the Albany later and eat french fries in celebration of no longer living under the Tricolour.

The country north of Rawlins where I grew up has an interesting pedigree. It was, at various times in its history, claimed by Spain, New Spain, Mexico and the Republic of Texas (yes, between 1836 and 1846 Texas was a sovereign nation) until the dust settled and we raised Old Glory.

The best Mexican food north of the Nueces River can be enjoyed today in Carbon County, and folks there still say “y’all”. I rest my case.

There’s a good-sized chunk of extreme western Wyoming that remained a British possession until the mid-19th century, when the Crown relinquished claim through the Gadsden Purchase and the Oregon Treaty. Thank God the good people of Lincoln County don’t boil their meat any longer or drink tea with their pinkies stuck out. But English is till widely spoken there, and that’s a plus.

Vestiges of these old colonial powers are mostly gone now, but Wyoming was once theirs. We, with the bucking horse on our license plates, are fairly recent interlopers. But we still like to think of ourselves as the original inventors and occupiers of this unique landscape. And we convince ourselves that we will be her last inhabitants.

More than half a dozen “foreign” flags over our home and more than two centuries of history argue that this point of view is the height of hubris. Boil it all down, and we are merely the most recent caretakers of the land that spawned us and we should act accordingly.

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