Pre-Territorial 1850-1868

Carter Schoolhouse (1860), Fort Bridger, Uinta Co.
Carter Schoolhouse (1860), Fort Bridger, Uinta Co.
Photo: State Historic Preservation Office
In 1850, the area that would become Wyoming featured an aggregate population of some 400 Anglo-Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom were adult males. At the time these were grouped principally in three areas —around Ft. Laramie, around Ft. Bridger, and in a scattering of homesteads along the North Platte River in present-day Platte and Goshen Counties. During the decade, two of these three settlements would establish schools, both at military forts.
Judge W.A. Carter’s Complex 2009, Fort Bridger’s Post Sutler in 1860, Uinta Co.
Judge W.A. Carter’s Complex 2009,
Fort Bridger’s Post Sutler in 1860, Uinta Co.

36. Carter’s Residence
38. Milk House
40. Post Trader’s Store
42. Bath House
44. Thornburg’s Grave
37. Freight Wagon Shed
39. School House
41. Mess House
43. Pony Express Stables
45. Buggy Sheds

The Department of the Army had by that point established a tradition of holding schools at many of its garrisons. The first school in Wyoming was established in 1852 for the children of officers and traders at Fort Laramie by the Post Chaplain, Rev. Richard Vaux, with the assistance of his daughter Victoria. It was an army school such as might be conducted at any frontier outpost, located in a building later used as a laundry. Judge W.A. Carter established Wyoming’s second school at Fort Bridger in 1860. Carter started the facility for his own children but allowed other children to attend class as well. The Carter schoolhouse still exists and is part of the Fort Bridger National Historic District. It is the only surviving school from the pre-territorial period in Wyoming.

The one civilian school that was established in Wyoming in the pre-territorial period was located in Cheyenne, the region’s first major settlement along the transcontinental railroad. Cheyenne typified the end-of-tracks towns that followed the railroad’s progress. The first buildings were crudely built of logs, and these were joined by an array of tents, shanties, and prefabricated frame buildings, many of which had been erected, dismantled and re-erected at different locations as the railroad moved westward. Only three months after the town was platted—and a month before the arrival of the railroad’s construction crew—the local newspaper began pushing for a school. Cheyenne’s provisional city government appointed a “superintendent of common schools” and formed a committee to design and build a schoolhouse for the school-age children in town. They acquired a lot on 19th Street and had plans drawn for a 24x40 building. Typical of boomtown Cheyenne, the school was a wood frame structure, one story with a moderately pitched front gable that sheltered a single-leaf front entrance. . The new schoolhouse had no discernible architectural style, but it did follow prevailing architectural standards for lighting and ventilation, with large windows on the side walls and a twelve-foot ceiling height. Like almost every other structure in the hastily built town, the school went up quickly. Costing $2,235 to build, it was dedicated on January 5, 1868.

Judge W.A. Carter’s Complex 2009, Fort Bridger’s Post Sutler in 1860, Uinta Co.
16th Street Buildings (1867), Cheyenne,
Laramie Co

Photo: Wyoming State Archives, Department of State
Parks and Cultural Resources

Cheyenne's school was a de facto school district, using monies from private donations and subscriptions. As the first school in Wyoming to offer tuition-free classes open to all children, it was the closest thing to a public school. With some 112 pupils vying to get in, the public school was overcrowded from the start, prompting some parents to withhold their children. In response to overcrowding in the public school, private schools immediately sprang up, beginning in January with a “Select School” taught by Joanna Kelly in her parents’ house.

Cheyenne’s first school and the improvised facilities at Forts Bridger and Laramie represented the first attempts to offer education in the region. The structures were makeshift, the curricula minimal, but these were important first steps in Wyoming’s educational history.

Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources