In 1892, George Dunning penned a 44-page confession detailing the Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s role in the Johnson County Cattle War, during which 52 armed invaders rode toward Buffalo to shoot or hang 70 men they thought were stealing their animals.
These invaders included some of the most powerful cattlemen in Wyoming. Most of them were sent back to Cheyenne, but Dunning was arrested in Buffalo and wrote his confession in the local jail naming other people who supported the invasion.
The public can vote for that written history, or 14 other artifacts, in the University of Wyoming Libraries and the Wyoming State Historical Society’s annual contest to name the state’s most significant artifacts.
Started in 2015, the contest names the state’s top 10 artifacts each year. It is “an effort to bring attention to our cultural heritage institutions that hold these treasures around the state,” said Tamsen Hert, president of the Wyoming State Historical Society and head of special collections at the UW library.
Each year about 2,000 people vote, selecting their favorite artifacts from 15 to 25 items, depending on the year, Hert said.
The first year one of Wyoming’s original flags, held by the Natrona County library, won.
Last year, the bugle Adolph Metzger used to fight in hand-to-hand combat when his group was attacked 150 years ago by Native Americans won.
The contest can feature an artifact from any public collection in the state, whether it’s in a library, held by an agency, or in a museum, Hert said. The one requirement is that people must be able to go and see the artifact. A selection committee votes on nominated items, whittling a field of about 60 items to 15 to 25 for the ballot.
The nominations paint a broad picture of Wyoming’s history, Hert said. They’ve included items like the Bridger-Collins map, which outlined what would become Wyoming and was drawn in the dirt in 1863 before it was transferred to paper. Last year, there was a stone with Japanese characters carved into it by someone interned at Heart Mountain.
This year’s nominees include one of Jim Bridger’s guns with his name engraved on it, a wagon used to transport sightseeing tourists through Yellowstone National Park in the 1890s and the first map to outline what the city of Cheyenne would one day look like.
Some of the artifacts are unusual, like a large bighorn sheep skull with a pine tree grown around it. According to information provided by the Dubois Museum, where it’s kept, the skull was found on the southeast side of Whiskey Mountain in the Wind River Range, around 1932. The skull was found in the tree trunk 10-feet above the ground and a two-horse sled was built to haul it down the mountain. Archaeologists think the skull was likely placed in the branch of the tree as part of a ritual of giving thanks for a successful hunt. As the tree grew, it encased the skull horns.
Each artifact has a story, like the headstone of Jesse Cole for instance. Cole was an adolescent pioneer boy who died July 3 or 4 in 1860-something, according to the nomination information. His body was discovered along with the skeletons of two women and was studied by archaeologists in 1970. A headstone with his name scratched in it was found with the body. The skeletons were reburied and the headstone was retained at the Laramie Peak Museum in Wheatland, after worry about grave robbers taking it.
Cole’s stone is a reminder of the larger story — the story of all the pioneers who traveled the state on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails and didn’t survive. The contest is a way to encourage people to learn about the artifacts, but also those periods in history, Hert said.
Voting for the state’s top artifacts opened in April and closes July 30. People can vote for up to 10 items and there isn’t a limit on how many times a person can vote, she said.
The winners don’t receive a prize. Hert hopes the recognition will intrigue people enough to visit the museums and libraries to see the artifacts.
“There are some really neat things we have in our museums,” she said. “It’s easy to forget we have these items in the state and you can go see them.”