Were some of Sweetwater County’s earliest records stolen from the new county seat and lost in the desert way back in the 1870s? This is a popular story around Green River, the current Sweetwater County seat. It turns out, there is some truth to the story but as is usually the case, truth is more interesting than fiction. Although Green River has been the county seat since 1874, South Pass City had the honor first. Over the course of a few years, the back-and-forth political brawling and debate over what became the contentious move of the county seat was described by a journalist in 1875 as “peculiar vibrations.”
Today, South Pass City is a popular state historic site managed by the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. Just over one hundred years after its founding as a center of Wyoming’s gold mining in 1867, the town was donated to the state, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though this meticulously maintained site boasts more than twenty original buildings, including the impressive and recently restored Carissa Mine, it must be difficult for today’s visitors to imagine the bustling atmosphere of commerce and gold fever that once drew hundreds to this remote Wyoming town.
The town was so prosperous the year it was founded that it was declared the seat of Carter County, Dakota Territory. Later that same year, officials in South Pass City, finding themselves now in the newly formed Wyoming Territory, renamed their county Sweetwater for the river that flowed through it. At that time, Sweetwater County stretched from the Utah/Colorado border all the way to the Montana border.
However, South Pass City’s gold rush began to decline, and residents began leaving for prospects elsewhere. In 1873, the county commissioners started to discuss moving the county seat seventy miles south to Green River, which was a major town on the primary transportation route through both Wyoming and the nation: the Union Pacific Main Line or the Transcontinental Railroad. In the years leading up to the move, suffice to say some drama ensued.
The rumors about the county records being stolen and even perhaps lost in the desert probably came from the back-and-forth that occurred after the decision to move the seat. County residents voted, apparently, for the seat to stay in South Pass City but the county commissioners proceeded with the move in May 1874. Disgruntled South Pass City residents didn’t let it lie and even demanded the return of the county records after they had been moved to Green River. The county commissioners held a special meeting and voted to return the records to South Pass City in October 1874. In all, the records were moved back and forth five times before finally settling in Green River by 1876 when the new adobe courthouse had been finished.
Here’s the hitch, though. Some of the treasurer’s records never materialized. The treasurer claimed they were stolen during the transfer from Green River to South Pass City. This is where the stories of missing records truly have their roots. Many years later, in a newspaper article from 1980, a man identified as Mr. Hinton told journalist Minnie Woodring that he knew the records still existed in Green River and that the reason they were never returned to the courthouse was that they would have shown evidence the treasurer was embezzling from the county. According to an article written by long-time Green River Star editor Adrian Reynolds in 1970, the treasurer blamed the missing records for his “inability to account for funds.” What an auspicious beginning that would be have been for Green River as the county seat!
The county records were again moved to Green River City in May 1875 and have remained there ever since. Of course, minus those few treasurer’s records, which shows that the truth of the matter—an early county treasurer likely embezzling from the fledgling Sweetwater County—is stranger than the tales of early records being lost somewhere in the desert due to confusion and fighting over location of the seat. Truth may not be stranger than fiction in this case, but it’s certainly curious!
Between the years 1890 and 1919, Congregationalist ministers W.B.D. and Annette Gray visited several towns in Wyoming and took several photos, including the two included here of the Sweetwater County Courthouse. Their collection at the American Heritage Center can be viewed here. The courthouse was finished in 1876 and received several additions over the years. By the 1960s, it was considered too degraded to continue to be maintained and the current midcentury modern style Sweetwater County Courthouse was completed in 1969.
Post contributed by AHC Public History Educator Brigida “Brie” Blasi.
Reynolds, Adrian. “Sweetwater County to Mark 100th Year,” Casper Star-Tribune, March 15, 1970.
“The vibrations of the Sweetwater County seat,” Laramie Daily Sun, March 29, 1875.
Woodring, Minnie. “South Pass City lost county Seat Battle.” The Wyoming State Journal, June 30, 1980.
WyomingHeritage.org & Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, “South Pass City,” WyoHistory.org. Accessed November 8, 2022 from https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/south-pass-city#:~:text=A%20century%20after%20it%20was,26%2C%201970.
Yates, William. “Sweetwater County Passes Fiftieth Anniversary,” Wyoming Labor Journal, September 2, 1927.