This Wyoming museum also honors explorer John Wesley Powell.
The rich history and cultural heritage of southwestern Wyoming is on proud display at the Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River. Established in 1967, the museum occupies the renovated 1931 post office building, since added to the National Register of Historic Places [www.nps.gov/nr]. Most of the exhibits and artifacts date from 1820 to the present. Collections cover such major themes as the fur trade, mining, transportation, communication, civic and economic development, and ethnic diversity. Among the standouts is a display of the six fur trading rendezvous held along the Green River in the 1830s and for the last time in 1840. Indians took part in each of these annual gatherings of mountain men, and the museum offers several Indian-related exhibits. One collection of remarkable Sioux ledger art pieces dates from the 18th century.
The town of Green River sprang up before the Union Pacific Railroad arrived in 1868, and it was later designated the county seat. South Pass City was the first, from 1867 to 1873. The museum houses a desk first used in the county offices in South Pass City and then moved to the new Sweetwater County Courthouse in Green River. Rock Springs attorney Douglas A. Preston later acquired what is now known as the “Preston desk,” which is stamped on one corner with the words Sweetwater County. In 1869 one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell mapped the area, including Sweetwater County, and named Flaming Gorge and other land features. That was the year Powell first went down the Green River, or Seeds-ke-dee (Crow for “prairie hen”) by boat. An exhibit highlights Powell and his expeditions of 1869 and 1871, while a life-sized bronze of the explorer graces the museum grounds.
An Overland Stage crossing two miles from Green River brought commerce and prosperity to the town, whose stores and blacksmith shops supported the stage operations. One excellent exhibit centers on early Green River resident William A. Johnson, who came north from Texas in 1846 at age 13 and went on to become a legislator in the Wyoming Territorial Assembly in 1875. Before turning to politics, Johnson was a fur trapper. He lived among the Shoshones and had a family with his Indian wife, Jonny; rode for the Pony Express; and in 1868 provided supplies for soldiers at Fort Bridger. Elected sheriff of Sweetwater County in 1878, he kept busy for the next two years dealing with the outlaw element, mainly cattle rustlers, and reportedly shot down a crazy killer named “Mountain Jack.” During the 1885 massacre in Rock Springs, in which rioting white miners killed close to 30 Chinese miners, Johnson hid a Chinese immigrant known as “China Joe.” He later employed the man, who took the name Joe Johnson. When former Sheriff Johnson died in Green River in 1910, he was wrapped in a Navajo blanket and buried in a wooden coffin he had fashioned years earlier. The exhibit includes a .45-caliber Colt Model 1873 revolver and holster and a .45-caliber Sharps Model 1874 rifle—both of which Johnson used while sheriff of Sweetwater County.
Even more than the stagecoach, the railroad brought business to the area and served to promote mining. On display are mining artifacts from the Union Pacific Coal Co. and the personal belongings of 19th-century Chinese residents. Besides working as miners, the Chinese served as “tie hacks,” cutting timber in the mountains and floating the logs down the Green River to town, where they were made into railroad ties.
Outlaws and lawmen get plenty of exhibit space. Among the guns on display are a .44-caliber Army Remington Model 1863 revolver taken from outlaw “Big Nose George” Parrott before he was lynched in Rawlins, Wyo., in April 1881; a .36-caliber Navy Colt Model 1851 taken from a member of Big Nose George’s gang; and a .44-40-caliber Winchester Model 1892 saddle ring carbine that Green River Chief of Police Joseph Payne Sr. used during his two terms (1896–98 and 1900–01). Also look for a section of hanging rope from the Rawlins prison and shackles used to restrain William L. Carlisle, who was imprisoned after robbing a train at the Green River station in February 1916. Certain exhibits highlight more recent history. To help relate the 1978 Rock Springs murder trial of Ed Cantrell, curators present the cowboy hat worn by the accused, who had admired defense attorney Gerry Spence’s hat and asked to wear it during the trial.
The Sweetwater County Historical Museum, which also boasts a large pictorial collection and makes local history materials available to researchers, is at 3 E. Flaming Gorge Way in Green River. For information call 307-872-6435 or visit www.sweetwatermuseum.org.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.