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The History of Goshen County

The year 1846 would prove to be the big year of America’s westward expansion. Emigrants moving west that spring were part of a vast army of Americans fulfilling what they had only just been told was their manifest destiny to overspread the continent. 

According to Dr. C.G. Coutant, Wyoming historian, the modern history of Goshen County began in 1719 when French fur trappers camped on the banks and gleaned food and fortune from the water of the river which the Indians called "Nebraska."  The French, realizing the Indian name implied "broad" and "flat," referred to the river in French as La Platte, and so the name came to be recorded in history. 

Almost from the beginning, this area was the passageway not only to Wyoming, but to the entire west. In the winter of 1812-13, Robert Stuart and a small group of Astorians, seeking to establish a transcontinental land route for the fur trade, first traveled the general corridor that would later become the Oregon Trail. They came from the west, crossing over South Pass and eventually stopping for the winter near present day Torrington. Other trappers and explorers had already traveled through parts of Wyoming, but Stuart's route was the one that would prove itself.  

In May 1832, Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, with a party of eighteen, intent on fulfilling John Jacob Astor's original plan of establishing trade on the Columbia river, passed up on the south side of the North Platte River.  Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, with a wagon train and about 100 men, followed a line on which the Burlington and Union Pacific railroads have since built, and along which stands the towns Torrington, Wycote and Fort Laramie. This was the first wagon train ever in the valley.

The area on the Nebraska-Wyoming border along the North Platte was originally named Goshe's Hole after an early French trapper named "Goshe" who frequented this region.  John C. Fremont reported that his expedition camped on July 14, 1842 in what he supposed was Goshen's Hole.  By 1846 the name "Goshe's Hole" was applied to a rich irrigated farming area, a likely name due to the rich, fertile lands and plentiful water. By 1888 it appeared on the map as Goshen Hole.  By the turn of the century the valley had become Goshen Hole, which name is still used with reference to the Goshen Hole Reservoir south of Yoder and the Goshen Hole Ditch to the east of Yoder.   Another supposition is that the county was named for the biblical "Land of Goshen."  The county's name does not, however, trace back to Goshen, Indiana.

The livestock industry in Goshen County began in the winter of 1854.  Alexander Majors, caught by an approaching blizzard with 300 head of foot-weary animals used to transport 100,000 pounds of freight, turned the tired stock out on Hiram "Hi" Kelly's land.  Majors left herders with the animals expecting severe loss of livestock through the winter.  He was surprised in the spring to find them fat and fully recovered to work again.  Mr. Majors, in a letter to the Cheyenne Sun April 15, 1884, says:

"I wintered cattle upon the same grounds for the following ten years and did not lost one half of one percent per winter, although they were invariably turned out poor at the coming of winter, and invariably returned in fine working condition the following spring.

"Knowing the above facts, I started the first breeding herd in Wyoming, which was in 1862.  I carried a very high bred up herd from my home farm in Missouri to Pumpkin Creek,* North Platte."

*Pumpkin Creek is directly east of La Grange, Wyoming.

W.G. Bullock and B.B. Mills started the first really permanent herd at Fort Laramie.  However, the herd was so harassed by Indians that it was moved south to Chugwater Creek.

Some of the early names in Goshen County have lasted through three and more generations:

Hiram B. Kelly (1834-1924), mentioned above, was a Wyoming pioneer rancher.  He first came through the area in 1849 on his way to California with his father.  He worked for mail contractors and freighters in the West for several years, and in 1870, began his own cattle ranching operation.  He sold his land in 1884 to the famous Swan Land and Cattle Company and turned his attention to mining ventures and real estate.  Hiram had eight children, among whom were:  Benjamin L., John A., and Clara (Kelly) McCabe.  This area is reported to be near the site of the Y-Cross ranch near La Grange. 

John Kessler took up land on Dater Creek before the Daters came. 

Charley Coffee on Boxelder Creek and Philip J. Yoder on Bear Creek are early pioneers.  Yoder arrived with his family 1881, and the name has carried on through his sons Benjamin Franklin Yoder, Jess Yoder, and a daughter, Amanda (Yoder) Marsh.  Mrs. Frances Marsh was a beautiful pioneer girl who told in her later years colorful stories, among them several experiences with a nervous desperado, Tom Horn.  B.F. Yoder's son, Oscar, lived in the family home built in 1899.  Oscar served Goshen county, as his father and uncle did before him, in many civic capacities including state senator from Goshen County.  The village of Yoder, north of Bear Creek, was named after the family, probably Jess, who was the father of Phil Yoder, famous rodeo cowboy of the '20s.

Historically, the "Old West" is the area of Goshen County, and it was here the first emigrant trains entered Wyoming. 

Although western Wyoming was explored by 1807, it was not until 1834 that the State's first permanent settlement, Fort William, was built at the junction of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers. Robert Campbell and William Sublette, two trappers, built the trading post which would later become known as Fort Laramie, so named for an early trapper, Jacques La Ramie.  Campbell and Sublette sold the trading post to a syndicate of trappers, who in turn sold the post to the American Fur Company in 1835.  In 1849 the fort was sold to the United States government and became the second military post on the Oregon Trail.  Fort Laramie was a chief meeting place for Native Americans and trappers in the area.  It was at old Fort Laramie that wagons were re-supplied and the travelers rested.  From Fort Laramie they were protected by troops of U.S. Cavalry.  For 41 years Fort Laramie remained a military post, until 1890 when the government relinquished control of the fort. 

Relations between Native Americans and whites remained relatively uneventful in the region that would become Goshen County until 1854 when a Sioux party killed a stray cow. The person to whom the cow belonged reported to Fort Laramie that his cow had been stolen. In response Lieutenant John Grattan led a small force of 30 men, including an interpreter, to a Sioux village near the fort to investigate the lost cow. The Sioux were asked to surrender the man who killed the animal but the tribe refused. Grattan attempted to use force.  Both sides became apprehensive and shots were exchanged; Chief Brave Bear was killed in the confusion, and the Sioux retaliated by killing Lieutenant Grattan and his men.  This event went down in history as the "Grattan Massacre."

For a time, Fort Laramie was practically under a state of siege. Reinforcements arrived and troops escorted stagecoaches and trains through the territory. As a result, travelers continued to be about as safe as they had been during the 1840s. In 1855 and 1856 Colonel William Selby Harney led a number of offensives against the Sioux, in part as an act of revenge for the Grattan massacre. In one instance, Harney led troops to a Sioux camp, demanding that all participants in the Grattan massacre surrender. When the Sioux did not comply, Harney attacked, leaving as many as 85 Sioux dead and taking 70 women and children as prisoners. Harney’s casualties included five killed and seven wounded. For a time the Sioux avoided difficulties with the whites.  Problems with the plains Indians ceased to be a daily event once Fort Laramie closed and was no longer a protectorate fort.

Ranching on a big scale got underway out on the prairies and plains of eastern Wyoming. Some of the largest ranches in this part of the country was Union Cattle Company, Bay State, and Swan Livestock and Cattle Company. These were large operations at the time and extended into Nebraska and toward the Colorado-Wyoming state lines. Ranching did not bring the wanted population growth to the area the Government through important, so homesteading acts were passed.  Advertising done in large eastern newspapers and the west opened up to massive migration.  A part of the quarter section of "free" land was promised emigrants by the government, provided they would come and invest five years improving on the land and claiming it as their own.

More than 200,000 cattle are raised and marketed in Goshen County, which makes it the leading beef producer in the state. The local live stock auction is the fifth largest in the country. Potatoes, beans, corn, wheat and other grains, and alfalfa are among the crops produced. Sugar beets are grown and processed locally. An ethanol plant, south of Torrington, has increased the number of local value-added products.


Traversed by people using the Oregon, Mormon, California and Texas Trails, the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Road, Pony Express and overland telegraph lines of pioneer days, the North Platte River Valley is one of the most historic sections of the West. With the North Platte as their guide, the first sizable group of emigrants from the east crossed into Wyoming country in 1843. They camped along the Platte in southeastern Wyoming in what is now Goshen County.

General transcontinental travel via the North Platte valley began in 1844. Edwin Bryant in his trip west in 1846 reports meeting a party of five between the fords of South Platte, who in coming from Fort Laramie had met 470 west bound emigrant wagons with destinations about equally divided between California and Oregon.

The Mormons used the north side trail. Up to the completion of the Union Pacific railroad these old trails teemed with life and business. The heaviest travel was before 1855. 

With the gold fever of California, Montana, and the Black Hills, most early travelers seldom stayed longer than a few days in the valley on their way west to riches.  They traveled on either side of the river, stopping at Ft. Laramie for supplies.  The charge was twenty-five cents to cross the river on the ferry in 1852 and coffee was fifty cents a pound, while sugar brought one dollar per pound.  The river, swollen enormously three months of the year, became so dry by August that fording it was possible nearly anywhere.

In June of 1852 Mary Homsley, ill with measles, with her newborn in her arms was thoroughly soaked when the Homsley wagon overturned in the river as they tried to cross.  Mary died the next day.  Her grave has been preserved as a monument to the thousands who died that same year but rest in unknown graves.

Indian tribes lived in the valley where they grew crops and hunted on the uplands. They were driven out by nomadic tribes and eventually trappers and traders took over this location. There are only a few towns in Goshen County, most of which emerged by the homestead areas.

For two decades, the county served as the western gateway for some 350,000 pioneers who followed the Oregon Trail. This pioneer trail sliced diagonally through the county, which has some of the most historic sites in the state.

It was possible in 1851 to travel by stage from St. Joseph, Missouri to Salt Lake City in 21 days.  By 1858 this monthly stage had increased its frequency to every other week.  It was operated by the company owned by Russell, Majors and Waddell, and the later trip was shortened to 10 days from Atchison, Kansas to Salt Lake City.  The road was improved in 1857 by the federal government, an improvement which consisted mainly of grading down the river banks to make fording more accessible and building bridges where absolutely necessary.  A wooden bridge across the Platte at Fort Laramie lasted a few years and suffered damage and was lost in one of the spring floods.  The iron bridge, the first of its kind west of the Missouri, was built in 1875.

The Pony Express of Russell, Majors and Waddell proved a short lived impractical business venture, 1860-61.  Three or four stations of the 190 total connecting St. Joseph to Sacramento, California, were in Goshen County.  The 80 riders carrying tissue paper letters at $5.00 per half ounce sped across the valley at 15 miles an hour.  A message could reach from New York to San Francisco in 10 days using the telegraph to accelerate it at either end.  Mind shattering though it was, the Pony Express caused a severe loss for the entrepreneurs because only 10% of the cost of the enterprise was returned in income.  By 1861 Creighton's telegraph had made the bold adventure obsolete.

The area north of the Platte was developed more slowly because of an early treaty with the Sioux which confined the white man to the Platte and south of it.  With the gold fever in South Dakota and the beginning of the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage line a new treaty was negotiated and the land, formerly revered and hunted by the Sioux, became a part of Wyoming, accessible for ranching and farming.

The Patrick Ranch on Rawhide Creek and Jam Em named after pioneer J.M. Harris were among the first permanent settlers north of the river.  The Patrick children attended a one-room school early in the 20th century, which was built on wooden skids.  The school could be moved to a point midway between whichever families were attending the school to make it more accessible to all.

It was under Governor Joseph Carey on February 9, 1911, that Goshen County was created, bordering Nebraska on the east, Platte County on the West, Laramie County on the south, and Niobrara County on the north.

A noble private experiment began in 1900 when Jewish families moved from New York to establish a New Zion and find a promised land out west.  Living in abject poverty while attempting to last the five years' residence required for each 160 acres, these families produced gardens with which they survived.  The actual colonization began in 1906 and ended in 1920, just before irrigation came.  The families who participated in this struggle never numbered more than 56.  Their backgrounds, far from farming, were tailor, shoemaker, storekeeper, banker, but no butcher.  A local Roman Catholic served as the kosher butcher for the Jewish homesteaders.  Churches abound in the county serving congregations of Protestants and Catholics.  Surprisingly, there are no Jewish synagogues.

The stability of the area came about by successive homesteading encouraged by the federal government in the first part of the twentieth century.  The close of World War I, the federal drawing of homesteads, and the reclamation projects using the water of the North Platte brought a large increase in population.  One family for every 80-acre irrigated farm brought activity and prosperity to every little hamlet.  The spirit of excitement, however, could not surmount the years of drought and depression.  Gradually the homesteaders, as the Jews before them, drifted back to Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, or Ohio to whatever profession they had left.

Some of those early homesteaders stayed on though.  Among the families who remained was that of Governor Stanley K. Hathaway (1966-1975), who graduated from the high school at Huntley.  Hathaway later attended the University of Wyoming, then graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Law.  Governor Hathaway practiced law in Torrington, serving as county attorney, before becoming governor in 1966.

Other, once prosperous villages in Goshen County have decreased in population since they serve an area where fewer farmers using advanced technology produce more on the same land.  Huntley, an unincorporated village with post office, church grocer, and lumber yard, shares much the fate of Veteran and Yoder, while Hawk Springs, "the gentle spring where the falcon stood," boasts two restaurants because it is on the highway linking Torrington, the county seat, to Cheyenne.

Summer tourism accounts for a large revenue as history buffs drive through and pause to trace the steps of early pioneers.  Those travelers who follow the Platte from North Platte, Nebraska see the exact route of thousands of emigrants of the nineteenth century.  The courage and endurance of men, women and children who left all they loved to make the 2,000 mile trek is truly a lasting legacy for many of the West's families today.