Fourth of July in Wyoming Territory

How did Wyoming celebrate Fourth of July in territorial days? T.A. Larson’s History of Wyoming provides a slice of holiday history from the 1870s and 1880s. Here are excerpts:

The Fourth of July was the great secular holiday, requiring elaborate plans, although certain features appeared again and again. Citizens were usually awakened between three and four in the morning by cannon, small-arms fire, firecrackers, and torpedoes, after which steam-locomotive whistles and bells greeted the dawn. Soldiers sometimes fired artillery salutes at sunrise and at noon. Two indispensable ingredients of a proper Fourth of July celebration were the display of flags and bunting and the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Prominent citizens, nearly always men, were chosen as readers.

Regular parts of the festivities were parades, band music, patriotic songs, barbeques, rainstorms, shooting matches, horse races, and a great variety of athletic contests: sack, foot, wheelbarrow, and hurdle races; jumping; putting the stone; vaulting; and throwing the hammer. Commonly, men and boys tried to climb a greased pole to win a reward resting on top. Often a shaved and greased pig was released and a reward offered to anyone who could capture it. There were a few baseball games. South Pass City and Atlantic City clashed at South Pass City in 1870. Fort Russell and Fort Sanders offered baseball competition for Cheyenne and Laramie teams, with scores in the thirties not unusual.

Laramie firemen around 1890

The Laramie Hose Cart Company pulling a hose cart near the Albany County Courthouse around 1890. This image shows one activity that was included as part of the fireman’s tournaments typical during territorial July 4th celebrations. Image from the B. C. Buffum papers.

Beginning in the 1870s, fireman’s tournaments became a regular feature of the celebrations, there being straightaway races and more complicated hook-and-ladder and water-test contests. A town of any size had a hundred or more volunteer firemen in two or more companies. At Cheyenne in 1880 the Denver firemen claimed that when they competed in the water test, the pressure was much less for them than it had been for the Cheyenne team, making it necessary for them to wait four seconds for water. They objected, furthermore, to having all judges from Cheyenne.

Of course there were accidents. At Laramie in 1876 a whirlwind struck the ladies’ stand, brought down the awning and its supports, and inflicted several scalp wounds.

Certain features which would be introduced in Wyoming celebrations of the Fourth in the 1890s were strangely absent in the territorial period: cowboys and cowgirls on horseback, “Wild West” events, bicycle races. There were many horses and a few dozen bicycles, and many riders for them, but they were not incorporated into the parades.


J. H. Hayford, editor of the Laramie Sentinel. Image from the AHC photo files.

For adults there was much unpleasantness associated with the annual Fourth of July observances. ‘The celebration…is over—Thank heaven,’ wrote [Laramie Sentinel] editor J.H. Hayford in 1879. In 1885 he commented at somewhat greater length: ‘It was about like all Fourths of July. Small boys whooped and yelled, exploded firecrackers and torpedoes, and grown people stood around, wishing it was over…The Fourth of July is the hardest day in the whole year, and everybody, except boys—children—dreads it for months ahead, and looks back to it with horror months afterwards…As it is, the Fourth of July is a ‘holy-terror,’ and ought to be abolished.” Editor Hayford was for “more sensible” observations—go to the country, he said, ride, row, picnic, hunt, fish, get together in families, have a nice dinner, play croquet, swing in hammocks.

The AHC wishes you a happy and safe Fourth of July, whether it be in a hammock or chasing a greased pig.

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