In a day’s drive you can pass near the location of the 1901 murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell at Iron Mountain (supposedly at the hands of Tom Horn), and still spit in the Green River where Major John Wesley Powell launched his famed Green River and Colorado River expedition in 1869.
Or you can spot ruts left by covered-wagons on the Overland Trail north of Baggs, drive by the lot where Thomas Edison participated in an 1878 “eclipse party” in Rawlins, and still make it to the original Fort McKinney site on the Powder River northeast of Kaycee.
“One thing I’ve always loved about history in Wyoming is that it’s so transparent. The landscape, in many ways, is still the way it was years ago,” said Tom Rea, author of several Wyoming history books and former reporter and editor for the Casper Star-Tribune.
For the past couple of years Rea has been working with historians all over the state to compile an encyclopedia of Wyoming history into a searchable, interactive website; WyoHistory.org. In collaboration with the Wyoming State Historical Society and dozens of other organizations, Rea and web designer Steve Foster (former designer at the Rocky Mountain News) are making Wyoming history more lively and accessible through web-based tools that allow users to look back in time by searching a topic or simply clicking on a map or choosing stories from a digital timeline.
Soon, travelers will be able to pick their route through Wyoming based on notable World War II events, or locations highlighting the state’s rich history of mountain men and the fur trade.
“Going to places where something happened is an important way to learn history,” said Rea, editor of WyoHistory.org.
The website currently includes about 100 encyclopedia- and essay-type articles, edited by Rea and Lori Van Pelt, a writer and historian from Saratoga. Rea said he hopes to add another 200 articles by the end of 2012, setting the foundation for what must be a continually growing archive of Wyoming history.
“It’s a forever thing. If you think you know all of Wyoming’s history, then you’ve kind of got the wrong idea,” said Rea.
The origins of the project came from a series of articles that Rea had written for the Natrona County School District to accompany a Wyoming PBS documentary on Wyoming history. Rea said the multi-media approach to introducing students to Wyoming history was exciting. After several years he dusted off the articles and thought he could convince his fellow Wyoming writers and historians to add their own contributions — not a difficult pitch for a large Wyoming network eager to share their passion for history with students and the general public.
In January 2010, Rea went back to the Natrona County School District and won enough funding to research the idea, then he scored a grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund to hire a web designer.
Now, the Wyoming State Historical Society, along with Rea, are the main promoters of WyoHistory.org, and the Historical Society has won funding from about a dozen other private and organized groups.
Unlike Wikipedia, all content is edited by WyoHistory.org editors.
“That’s a restriction on how fast it can get bigger,” said Rea.
But to build a foundation of Wyoming history, the site does pull existing content from other sources, such as the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office and the Wyoming State Archives. Existing material, such as biographies of Wyoming’s governors, are re-edited and designed to fit the WyoHistory.org format.
Rea said each article includes a complete bibliography and field trip suggestions (some with phone numbers and links to local museums and other resources). Each article is also linked to a map and timeline for easy accessibility.
“This is meant to be usable to tourists, or just anybody, and to school classes and teachers,” said Rea.
An essay about the Jonah and Pinedale natural gas fields, for example, includes detailed directions for a driving tour through the area. And field trip notes for “The Rock Springs Massacre” guide you to relevant locations in the city and note, “Ahsay Ave., is named for the Chinese leader who attempted after the massacre to negotiate for railroad tickets and back pay for the miners.”
Admittedly, some aspects of Wyoming’s history are more thoroughly chronicled than others, said Rea. As with any other group, historians tend to gravitate toward a particular area of interest. Some of Wyoming’s most exhaustively researched history includes the Johnson County War and the Union Pacific Railroad. Lesser known, said Rea, is the role of the military throughout Wyoming history, and how Wyoming’s ranchers made ends meet during the 1930s when some were forced by the government to slaughter their cattle.
Rea said the effort of creating a clearinghouse of Wyoming history helps identify where there are gaps in the record, and that should spur historians to further explore areas such as Wyoming’s energy industry.
“So far it’s been intentionally spotty to get to where we’re at. Then we need to be much more intentional,” said Rea.
WyoHistory.org went live in May, but Rea said he’s not actively marketing the site to schools or the general public just yet. That effort will come once several hundred more articles are added to the site, so visitors are more likely to find what they’re looking for, said Rea.
But some history instructors are already using WyoHistory.org in their classes. Rea said he’s consulting with several professional educators in Wyoming to figure out how to make WyoHistory.org a useful resource for teachers and students.
Another web-tool Rea plans to make more use of is audio for oral histories. Rea has already borrowed several oral histories from the Wyoming State Archives, including “How Are You Doing in Vietnam?” featuring reel-to-reel audio recorded by Capt. William B. Graves and his family during the Vietnam War. Click on the audio player at the bottom of the story to listen.
The job of telling Wyoming’s story will never be completed, said Rea, so WyoHistory.org should gain momentum and swell by thousands of new articles over time.
“And that means we have to keep raising money forever, so we want to have a mix of donors, and a mix in the size and kinds of support,” said Rea.
— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or [email protected].
Audio segment produced by Sue Castaneda, Wyoming State Archives, the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources.
Tapes recorded by Capt. William B. Graves and His Family during the Vietnam War, May-June, 1967