Online encyclopedia WyoHistory.org sheds light on Wyoming’s pastBy Gregory Nickerson — May 13, 2013
This week Capitol Beat offers a column reviewing the new online encyclopedia WyoHistory.org. Full disclosure: this reporter has written for the site, and supports its mission entirely.
Next time you have a question about Wyoming history, don’t go to Wikipedia. Instead, try WyoHistory.org, a homegrown online encyclopedia created by historian and former Casper Star-Tribune journalist Tom Rea.
Conceived in 2010, WyoHistory.org has more than 300 peer-reviewed articles and essays about Wyoming history.
The idea for the project came out of essays written by Rea for the Casper schools. He wanted to see the material more widely disseminated. With the assistance of the Wyoming State Historical Society, Rea wrote a number of grants and started hiring writers to produce the content in 2010.
Three years later, the site has a wide offering of essays covering the state’s rich past. With a few clicks, one can read about the fur trade, Red Cloud’s War, the Fort Laramie Treaty, railroads, the cattle industry, and Wyoming water law.
For those wanting to quickly orient themselves to the landscape of the state, Laramie writer (and WyoFile contributor) Emilene Ostlind has penned a comprehensive series of essays on each of the major river basins in Wyoming. In a few minutes time, one can get grounded in the eons of natural history contained in the basins of the Green River or the Powder River.
The site offers profiles of notable Wyoming characters like Gov. Nellie Tayloe Ross (the first female governor), Elwood Mead (father of Wyoming water law), J.B. Okie (sheep tycoon), and Tom Horn (range detective).
Readers can peruse encyclopedia articles about virtually every town in the state, along with a variety of rich oral history interviews. Authors include Wyoming historians Lori Van Pelt, Sam Western, John Davis, Anne Chambers Noble, Phil Roberts, Barbara Bogart, and many more.
The layout of the site is attractive and intuitive, featuring numerous historical photographs from the state’s archival collections.
Perhaps the best feature of the site is a map with symbols indicating Wyoming places that are featured in WyoHistory.org articles. By hovering over a pin, one can quickly see what has been written about that part of the state. It also provides insight to what parts of the state contain uncharted historical territory, at least so far.
Rea’s project envisions a new way for lovers of Wyoming to learn about the history of the state. During the official launch of the site at an event hosted by the Western History Center at Casper College, Rea commented that books have served as the perfect technology for disseminating knowledge for thousands of years. But today’s readers want new ways to engage with history using multimedia technology that is digital and mobile.
Holding up his mobile phone, Rea told the audience that this small device represented the most advanced technology for sharing information. In his other hand, he lifted up a copy of T.A. Larson’s Wyoming: A History. The 695-page monograph was first published in 1965, with revisions in 1978 and the first paperback printing in 1990.
Rea noted that Larson’s book is widely considered to be the best, most comprehensive historical synopsis of Wyoming’s past, drawing on his lifelong career as a historian at the University of Wyoming. Generations of UW students took Larson’s Wyoming History class, still required for many students.
But today, Larson’s book does not have the potential reach and interactivity offered by online content available on computers and mobile devices. As a devoted Wyoming historian, Rea had to seize the opportunity to spread knowledge more efficiently.
The website has already enabled Rea to tap into a global network of people interested in Wyoming history that simply wouldn’t be available with traditional technology. He regularly gets emails from out of state readers and even people in Europe who are reading the site.
The resulting network can create surprising and meaningful connections. In one instance, Rea was able to connect a reader whose ancestors had been missionaries in Big Horn, Wyoming in the 1880s, to local historian Judy Slack, archivist of the Wyoming Room at the Sheridan library. The reader provided letters to Slack, who helped get them shared through the local historical society.
Those kind of interactions, along with the heavy research and writing conducted by Rea’s team of Wyoming history authors, make WyoHistory.org one of the most significant humanities efforts in the state’s recent past.
The landscape of Wyoming instills in its residents a desire to explore. We range over mountains and plains, and up into canyons where we can see bedrock laid down millions of years ago. In this way, the state makes us curious about where we are, both in space and in time.
WyoHistory.org feeds that desire to learn the territory. Like all good history, it helps us learn where we came from, and where we might be going.
Visit WyoHistory.org to donate or sign up for newsletter notifications when new articles are published.— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at [email protected] If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.