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Monday, May 6, 2013

Sidebar: Hispanics in Wyoming

Recently, following St. Patrick's Day, I posted a sidebar on The Irish In Wyoming.  While it is, in no way, an equivalent holiday, we've recently passed Cinco De May, The Fifth of May, and, given as that's a Mexican holiday (although not much observed in Mexico), I'm doing something similar here with an entry on Hispanics in Wyoming.

Starting off here, I should at first note that I debated this title a bit and originally it was titled "Mexicans In Wyoming."  For some reason, the use of the term "Mexican" can be loaded, which certainly is not the intent here.  That is in part because many people have used the term incorrectly in referring to any Hispanic in the United States, a clearly erroneous use.  Additionally, the term is problematic because of the Mexican War.  Everyone was, in terms of citizenship, a Mexican who lived in the Mexican province of Texas, although culturally the fact that Texas had separated in 1836 had a lot to do with cultural identity.  Beyond that, however, after the Mexican War the US occupied new territories which had large Hispanic percentages of population, and who had been Mexican citizens, even if some of those regions had fairly unique Hispanic identities.  With all that being the case, I changed the title.  Be that as it may, the story of Hispanics in Wyoming cannot be separated from Mexico.

When we wrote about the Irish, we noted that we could not really determine when the first Irish American or Irishman set foot in what became Wyoming.  We can't really do that with Hispanics either, but we can say that Wyoming was once owned by Spain, even if the Spanish were not able to extend the control of their empire in North America as far as they claimed.  Indeed, southern Colorado,was really the northern most extent of Spain's empire inside the continent, in spite of occasional claims otherwise.  Trade goods did make it further north, and the Corps of Discovery reported encountering Spanish mules being used by the Shoshones when they came through northern Wyoming.  At any rate, not only the Spanish Mexican colony's province of Texas was part of what would become Wyoming, but Spain also once owned Louisiana, and the Napoleon's transfer of that territory to the United States required a formal transfer of the territory back to France, which all occurred on the same day, oddly enough.

The transfer of Louisiana to the United States did see a population transfer, of course as well, but not one that directly impacts our story here.  Louisiana included both a French and Spanish population, who became subject to the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, but the Spanish population did not have a presence in Wyoming at the time.  This remained the case in 1836 when Texas, which retained title to a southern portion of what would become Wyoming, rebelled against Mexico. And it remained the case at the time at which the United States and Mexico concluded the peace treaty of Guadalupe Hildago.

The Mexican War, however, would be directly responsible for the first Hispanic settlers in Wyoming, as it brought the U.S. Army into Wyoming.  Only shortly after the war ended, the US sent the Regiment of Mounted Rifles to occupy what had been a private fort in Wyoming, so as to secure a part of the early Oregon Trail. That fort was Ft. Laramie, which would go on to have one of the most significant roles of any frontier fort in West.

Cement structures at Ft. Laramie, built by migrants from New Mexico.

When the Army occupied Ft. Laramie its structures were worn and the post was inadequate for its task. Therefore, the Army immediately took to rebuilding the post.

Frontier Army posts are often imagined to be made up of log buildings surrounded by a log stockade, and some were indeed just like that. Only a minority of them, however, had that construction.  Some of the posts, in contrast, were surprisingly substantial and well constructed.  Ft. Laramie was one of these.  In its early days, as a fur company trading post, it was not much more than a simple stockade, but as soon as the Army began to occupy it, that changed.  Part of that change was brought about by the importation of Mexican labor from New Mexico.  And that had to do with Cement.

Cement, as a construction material, dates back to the Romans.  In spite of that, however, it was little used in much of the Western world following the fall of Rome until the late 19th Century, which in part is due to the manufacturing process becoming somewhat obscure, and in part because the types of cement that were commonly known following Rome's decline were slow setting and somewhat hard to make.  Therefore, in the mid 19th Century, cement was uncommon in the United States.  However, for reasons unknown to me, cement remained a construction material elsewhere in the world, including the Spanish world.  While it's popular to imagine everything in New Mexico of this era being constructed of adobe bricks, in fact cement was a common construction material.  With the occupation of New Mexico by the U.S. Army during the Mexican War, this became known to the Army, which was impressed with cement. So, when the Army went to reconstruct Ft. Laramie, it determined to use cement for the new buildings, which in turn required the importation of labor who knew how to make it and build with it. Those laborers were New Mexican Hispanics.

These laborers were, therefore, brought up by the Army in the late 1840s and they gave Wyoming its first Hispanic residents.  The men brought up, who brought up their families, were not men who were employed year around, in New Mexico, as construction laborers, as the area was agrarian and such skills were only part of a set of skills used by agrarian artisans.  Once they completed, their task, therefore, they turned to another part of their skill set, farming.  Through this process, not only did Wyoming receive its first Hispanic immigrants, farming came to the state for the first time.

The Hispanic farms created by the New Mexican ("Mexican") artisans were located some distance away from the fort, on a series of hills visible from the Oregon Trail. The area came be known as "Mexican Hills." The Mexican farmers who located in there used the presence of the trial for market purposes, selling fresh vegetables to travelers on the trail.

I wish I could relate more of this aspect of the story, but unfortunately, I cannot.  The area remains farm ground today, but as far as I know none of the original Mexican presence remains.  When it ceased, I cannot say either, but my suspicion is that it did during the mid 19th Century.  With the fort becoming an increasingly important regional center it may also have become an increasingly difficult place to live.  The farmers did not live on the post grounds, but some distance from it, and therefore would have been at the mercy of Ft. Laramie bands of Indians, who were generally peaceful while in the region, but which would have been somewhat concerning nonetheless. At any rate, I"m not aware of the farms surviving into the 20th Century, and have no idea how long they actually lasted.  Therefore, I can only sadly report the New Mexican immigrants as the first appearance of Hispanic culture in the state, but whether it had any long lasting cultural impact, I cannot.  It certainly had a long-lasting material impact, however, as the concrete structures built at the fort all still remain, albeit as ruins. That's a lot more than a person can say about the stick frame buildings that the Army generally constructed at its more permanent facilities in the same era.


The next significant presence of Hispanics in the state came about due to the explosion of the cattle industry following the Civil War.  In terms of time, that's not really that long after the establishment of the Mexican Hills farms mentioned above, and a person has to wonder if any still remained.  Be that as it may, it's commonly noted that 1/3d of all 19th Century cowboys were "black or Mexican."  I've always found that description rather odd, as African Americans and Hispanics of the same era had distinctly different cultural histories.  Additionally, as they are lumped together by this description, there's no easy way to know what percentage of that "1/3d" were Hispanic.  But what is certain is that Texas ranching came about due to ranching in Mexican Texas and dated back to Spanish Texas, so the Mexican influence on the industry was enormous.  It's no wonder that Hispanic Texans and New Mexicans remained employed in it up into the 1860s and 1870s, and beyond.  Indeed, to this very day.

The state therefore saw new Hispanic men who came up with the herds from Texas.  Undoubtedly some stayed when the long trail drives gave way to regional ranching.  Oddly, however, its hard to find examples of individual Hispanic ranchers.  There probably are some, but I'm unaware of them.  In terms of ranching methods and technology, of course, their impact was huge, and has been enduring throughout the West.  Indeed, Wyoming's cowboys were the direct descendants in terms of methods of the Vacquero who had employed the same skill set in Texas, as opposed to the Caballero who employes a somewhat different skill set in California.  This remains true today.

Mexican ranching influence extended not only to cattle ranching, but sheep ranching as well. The Spanish had introduce sheep to Mexico and they were a presence in the Southwest before the Mexican War.  Sheep started arriving on the Wyoming ranges in the 1890s, accompanied by a great deal of controversy and violence.  They were also accompanied by "Mexican herders."

Not all sheepherders were of Mexican ancestry by any means.  Still, in the  very early sheep industry on the Northern Plains Mexican influence was strong.  Mexican herders were accustomed to highly nomadic herdsmanship which in part leaned on skills acquired from Indians.  While, today, we are used to the sheepwagen, the "Home On The Range," Mexican herders used teepees made of canvas.  This practice is not well known to those outside of the sheep industry, but it was common enough with Mexican herders that the practice lived on well into the 20th Century.

 
 Painted brick sign on the old Kistler Tent & Awning building, in Casper Wyoming.  Kistler Tent & Awning is an ongoing business in Casper, and no doubt can, and still does, make any of the times advertised here.  Note the "Herders Teepees" item, just below "Sheepwagon Covers."



At about the same time that he first herds of cattle began to head north, the Union Pacific came into the state.  Hispanic laborers were not part of that rail expansion, but by the early 20th Century they were very much  a major segment of the Union Pacific workforce, and they remain so to this day.  All of the towns on the Union Pacific came to have significant Hispanic populations.

This saw the creation of distinctly Hispanic neighborhoods in all of those towns, which reflects on the human nature in good and bad ways.  That Hispanic communities would spring up was probably natural enough.  But, by the same token, that an element of prejudice was present in that would be probable. At any rate, all of the towns on the Union Pacific had Hispanic neighborhoods, and many still do. Cheyenne, for example, has South Cheyenne, a neighborhood that lies to the south of the Union Pacific, and which features a very Spanish influenced church, architecturally, as well as a Mexican Restaurant reputed to be one of the town's best.

St. Joseph's Catholic Church in south Cheyenne.

Laramie Wyoming, generally thought of as the home of the University of Wyoming, likewise has a Hispanic influenced neighborhood, reflecting the large Hispanic community that worked and worked in the very large railyard in Laramie.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, Laramie has an excellent Mexican restaurant in West Laramie, the Hispanic part of town, and another just off of the Union Pacific rail line.  Hispanics are a significant portion of the Catholic community in the town as well.

Like Laramie and Cheyenne, Rawlins Wyoming has a Hispanic neighborhood associated with the Union Pacific.  And as with Laramie and Cheyenne, Carbon County has seen the culture reflected in culinary offerings.  Su Casa, in Sinclair Wyoming, and Rose's Lariat, In Rawlins Wyoming, are contenders for the best Mexican restaurants in the state, and even though they are only seven miles apart, each has fiercely loyal clienteles.  All the way across the state, however, the farming and railroad town of Lingle has Lira's, which others argue in the best.  Guernsey Wyoming, on the Burlington Northern line, had Otero's Kitchen, which others maintained was the best.  I've eaten at everyone mentioned here, and they're all great.

To mention all of these restaurants in this context may seem shallow, but it's a reflection of a long lasting and vibrant culture.  Mexican restaurants owned by Hispanic families only preserve for years and years, rather than becoming something like Taco Bell, if there's a vibrant Hispanic community which has become part of the local community.  So the culinary reflection indicates something deeper than just a regional taste for Mexican food.  Rather, it is indicative of the fact that all of these railroad towns had, and still have, vibrant Hispanic communities.

This has reflected itself over the years, additionally, through the Catholic churches in these towns.  In no area of Wyoming is any one parish made up of a majority Hispanic population, but in those towns where there is a significant Hispanic population, it has reflected itself in some way.  Those towns with significant Hispanic populations have seen it reflected, for example, in the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe events.  When I lived in Laramie in the 1980s, for example, St. Lawrence O'Toole's parish crowned a young couple as king and queen of the event, and had a major celebration in church which was complete with a brass and guitar band.  St. Anthony's church in Casper has sometimes seen similar, if less extensive, events.

Of course, with a long presence in the state, it's not surprising that the Hispanic community has members in every walk of life and profession.  Prominent educators, lawyers and physicians have come from within the community and contributed to the state.

Unlike the story of the Irish in Wyoming, this story really cannot be completely written at this time, as Wyoming's towns have  and industries have seen new Hispanic immigrants in recent years.  Receiving an influx of workers during boom times, to see an outward migration thereafter, is part of Wyoming's economic history, so how the current new residents will impact the state is really not known.  However, heavy industry, including the oil and gas industry, has employed a lot of migrant workers in recent years.  As has been the case for generations, service industries have as well, so that towns like Jackson, which at one time had fairly small Hispanic communities, now have very prominent ones.  So this story is incomplete.  But like the story of the Irish, it is one that goes back to the State's very beginnings.

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