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Hell on wheels: Community, respectability, and violence in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1867--1869

Charles A Vollan, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Cheyenne was founded as a winter terminus during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad on July 4, 1867. Several thousand over-wintering workers waited there for the resumption of track-laying in the spring. In popular culture and among most historians its image was of extraordinary disorder and violence, and an almost exclusively male population of rowdy construction workers and their followers. Most historical accounts relied upon external sources, primarily visiting travelers and editorial excursionists, who focused not on the ordinary, but on the dramatic. Internal sources, such as newspapers, first-hand accounts of residents, and municipal, county, and census records, make it clear that families and respectable business-people made up an important, and sizeable portion of the community. This commerce-oriented and generally more permanent segment of the population actively worked to bring Eastern culture to Cheyenne. They defined themselves as being respectable and did so in conscious opposition to the more transient portion of the population. They distinguished themselves from the transient classes by establishing government and the basic social institutions common to every city, as well as by their choices of entertainment and public behavior. Cheyenne's violent reputation, only partially deserved, underlay portrayals of the city as devoid of anything but the most rudimentary society. Disorder and violence made community-formation more difficult, but also motivated respectable people to build and support social institutions. Less positively, the city's upper class and aspiring middle class formed a vigilante committee. Beyond mere order, these classes also worked to create a sense of community within the larger mass of residents. Although mercantile pursuits usually came first, respectable residents actively worked to create a sense of common place and purpose. Through participation in cooperative enterprises, such as the city's churches, fire departments and fraternal organizations, as well as community events and holidays, and by sharing joys and heartbreaks, the more permanent element began to identify themselves as being from Cheyenne. Achieving both order and community, Cheyenne recreated Eastern norms with amazing rapidity. ^

Subject Area

History, United States

Recommended Citation

Vollan, Charles A, "Hell on wheels: Community, respectability, and violence in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1867--1869" (2004). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3126970.