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Weston County History: Weston County’s boom-and-bust towns thrive through the ages

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

For millions of years, northeast Wyoming has bustled with life. In fact, fossils found deep in the soil of present-day Weston County date back 110 million years to the Cretaceous Period, when the area was submerged and supported thriving sea life. 

After the sea receded and prehistoric marine reptiles were long gone, Tribes of Kiowa, Crow, Cheyenne and Lakota inhabited the area, using the Black Hills of South Dakota as prime hunting grounds. 

According to legend, these Native Americans also knew of gold in the area, but kept the location of the treasure a secret in order to preserve their land and lifestyle. 

This worked for a time, and many westbound settlers and miners bypassed the area as they ventured along the Oregon, California and Mormon trails through present-day Central Wyoming from the 1840s through the 1860s. 

Then, in 1874, a 1,000-man expedition led by Col. George Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, and not long after, all Native Americans in northeast Wyoming were forced onto reservations in Montana, Oklahoma and the Dakotas. 

Agriculture and coal

As the Wild West became increasing more populated, cattlemen began trailing herds from Texas to Wyoming, and cattle quickly became a critical component of the area’s economy. 

Although the cattle industry thrived, it was notoriously expensive to break into, so many new homesteaders started raising sheep instead. 

In the late 1880s, present-day Upton – known then as Irontown – was born, and many historians believe the town was created as a place where cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and sheep producers could get ahold of important supplies. 

In 1887, John Weston – the namesake of Weston County – and Fran W. Mondell  – Newcastle’s first mayor – discovered coal in a settlement known as Cambria. 

Just three years later, in 1890, the camp was home to 1,500 people, representing 23 nationalities and the coal mine employed 750 individuals. 

Becoming a county 

The year 1890 also marked the establishment of Weston County by the final Wyoming Territorial Legislative Assembly on March 12, naming it in honor of Weston’s coal deposit discovery. 

Soon after, Territorial Gov. Francis Warren appointed George Purmort, Harry Hensel and Ralph Weston to the Board of Organizing Commissioners, and in April, voters selected Newcastle as the county seat. 

Commissioners, county clerk officials, the county attorney, treasurer, sheriff, school superintendent, justices of peace and constables were elected on May 14, 1890.

Early oil industry 

Not long after its founding, Weston County drilled its first oil wells, marking a significant monument in the area’s history. 

With the help of some of the largest oil companies of the time – the Mike Henry Oil Company, Illuminator Oil Company and M.J. Coyle – and the discovery of a big well near Osage in March of 1920, Weston County saw its first big boom. 

People began flocking to the area with the promise of work and wealth, and only two months later, a second large oil well was discovered.

Refineries were built in Osage, Newcastle, Four Corners, Red Butte, Thorton and other nearby small towns, and land prices in Weston County skyrocketed to $1,000 per acre. 

As oil demand increased, so too did interest in bentonite – a fine clay used for oil drilling – and since Weston County was also rich in this resource, several refineries were constructed, with the first at Clay Spur near Osage. 

Oil demand fell after World War I, and the boomtown of Osage went bust. 

Ag prices also fell, and local farmers and ranchers were not able to pay their debts. Workers who had flocked to Weston County with hopes of hitting it rich moved away, leaving the place empty and quiet. 

The area saw its second boom after the Great Depression, when bentonite was the first resource to come out of the nationwide slump. 

As demand for products like cement, plaster, cosmetics and insecticides increased, Weston County’s bentonite refineries started working 24-hour shifts to keep up, and by the end of 1939, Weston County bentonite was being shipped all over the U.S. and to Canada and South America. 

This boom-and-bust cycle has continued throughout the decades, but oil remains crucial to the area’s economy. Today, Weston County’s rich supply of natural resources and diverse landscape make it a unique place to live, work and visit.  

Information in this article was compiled from the Wyoming Historical Society and Weston County Tourism. 

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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