Unwavering: A County Committed to Country, Part One.
By all accounts, the story of George L. Vroman is not extraordinary. Having grown up in a small town, in a small county, in one of the youngest states in the Union, he seems to have only been doing his patriotic duty when he volunteered for the United States Army following the U.S. entry to World War One in April of 1917. On January 17, 1918, Private George L. Vroman took his place in history, local history at least, when he became the first serviceman from the city of Casper in the county of Natrona, Wyoming to die overseas in service to his country during World War One. Like his life to that point, Vroman’s death was not extraordinary, he succumbed to pneumonia after contracting a severe cold upon his arrival in France; he was thirty-one years old.
Vroman’s story is just one among many, though it is indeed the first and worthy of note, of the men of Natrona County Wyoming that served during World War One. Like the Spanish-American War before it, the men of Natrona County seemed more willing than most to put their lives on hold in deference to the call of their country. There seems to be nothing particularly unique about the people of Natrona County, so why then did the men of Natrona County serve during the war at a rate so disproportionate to the general population of the county? According to a report published by the Adjutant General of Wyoming in January 1919, the state of Wyoming provided more than 12,000 men for the army; approximately seven percent of the state’s population, which is considerable considering the average for the whole country was around four percent. However, the people of Natrona County provided two thousand men to the war effort, a number that represents twelve percent of the county’s population. Natrona County exceeded most counties throughout the country in manpower contribution to the war effort in proportion to its population. This article will show an ordinary county of ordinary people that exhibited an extraordinary dedication to their nation. It is hoped that a portrait will emerge, a portrait of patriotic populace committed to doing their part in a foreign war in a place few of them had previously given a second thought in an effort to forge their own identity in this newly established state.
This article will examine the earliest years of the state of Wyoming, and particularly Natrona County, in an attempt to establish a basis for background information on the people of the county. Through the examination of the early history of Natrona County, it is hoped that an insight will be gained that shows why the people of Natrona County felt so compelled to contribute to the war effort in both human and financial capital. Nearly as consequential as the manpower contribution to the war effort was the extent to which the community rallied to the assistance of the local chapter of the American Red Cross, making cash donations on an almost unprecedented scale. In the days following President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war, the only thing that consumed the residents of Natrona County more than acquiring the services of enough volunteers to field an independent company of the Wyoming National Guard was outshining the numerous other cities and towns in the state of Wyoming in their support for the Red Cross through volunteers and monetary donations.
An extensive examination of newspaper articles will provide a glimpse at public sentiment during the days following President Wilson’s war declaration. The picture presented through the local newspapers is one of a city and county fully engaged in the patriotic fervor that swept the nation in those days. Grade schools held patriotic programs; cultural organizations held mass rallies; the city and county governments held parades and concerts, all to raise the patriotic sentiment of the masses to a fever pitch to maximize volunteerism and mitigate disloyalty among the citizens. Any citizens found to have been negligent in registering for the draft as was required was branded a “slacker” and subsequently arrested and jailed for their infraction. Not only were “slackers” punished for their indiscretions, any recruits branded as “lazy” were deemed unsuitable as volunteers for the National Guard. The people of Natrona County were clearly completely invested in the war effort, “slackers” and the “lazy” aside, whether they had any inkling of the global consequence of such a conflict. On that note, the newspaper articles show a sense of pride in the number of men from the county that “responded loyally to a call for U.S. recruits”.
Natrona County, Wyoming
There was nothing particularly noteworthy regarding the history, albeit brief prior to World War One, of the state of Wyoming. Having been carved out of the Dakota Territory, Utah Territory, and Idaho Territory, the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad did more to bring about the organization of Wyoming Territory than any other single event, individual, or entity. President Andrew Johnson signed the act organizing Wyoming Territory on 25 July 1868. After the organization of the territory, residents almost immediately began lobbying for statehood and would do so for the next 22 years. Wyoming never experienced a population boom similar to those of surrounding territories and with that lack of population, Territorial Governor Thomas Moonlight put the 1888 census at approximately 55,000 which was 5,000 short of the 60,000 considered necessary for statehood. In 1889, Territorial Governor Francis E. Warren defied Congress and called a constitutional convention despite not meeting the population standard established by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Constitution of Wyoming was adopted shortly thereafter, and keeping with the theme, mostly borrowed from the constitutions of other states the only identifying aspect of that document was the article granting women suffrage. Congress passed and President Benjamin Harrison signed the Wyoming statehood bill recognizing Wyoming as a state on July 10, 1890; Wyoming was but an amalgamation of segments of other territories, guided by a constitution predominantly borrowed from other states in the region. Much like our valiant young man mentioned in the introduction, George L. Vroman, there is little noteworthy in the story of Wyoming.
Also in 1890, after a battle that had consumed over two years and involved gubernatorial vetoes, legislative overrides and ultimately the ousting of the same territorial governor, the new territorial governor Francis E. Warren enacted legislation to form a new county, carved out of the previously established Carbon County. Named after the natural deposits of Trona, the primary source of sodium carbonate, found throughout the area, the thirteenth Wyoming County would be named Natrona County. Territorial Governor Warren made the appointments and adopted the petition recognizing Natrona County as the newest county in Wyoming on 3 March 1890 and quickly began to rise to prominence as the most populace county in the territory.
Before Wyoming was officially recognized by Congress as a state, the location that would become Casper, Wyoming, Natrona County’s most populated city, was an important way station on the Emigrant Trail that fed the westward migration during the nineteenth century. The location of present-day Casper would be an important crossing point of the North Platte River for travelers of the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, and California Trails as well as the Pony Express. Originally established as a military outpost, in 1847 during the first of many Mormon wagon trains from the winter quarters in Nebraska to modern day Utah, Brigham Young commissioned the construction of a ferry to aid in the crossing of the flooded North Platte River at the site. After the Mormons moved on, the ferrymen continued to offer their services to other emigrants intending to cross the North Platte. In 1859, Louis Guinard built a trading post and a bridge across the North Platte at the same location that the ferry had previously operated and with the arrival of the Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in 1862, Platte Bridge Station was born.
Companies A, B, C, and D of the First Regiment of the 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry were sent to the area to protect the people and property of the Overland Mail Company and the Pacific Telegraph. Companies A, B, C, and D of the 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry would be joined by Companies E, F, G, and H of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in 1863 and Companies A, B, C, and D of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in 1865 were scheduled to arrive at Platte Bridge Station in 1865. Obviously, the reason for the troop buildup was an increase in Indian activity in the area, it had gotten so bad that the Postmaster General ordered the route through Platte Bridge Station abandoned and mail service conducted along the Overland Trail of southern Wyoming.
The tensions with the numerous tribes in the area would come to head in July 1865 when Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota Indians mustered to launch an attack on Platte Bridge Station. On July 26th, a squad of men led by Lieutenant Caspar Collins was sent out to guard a supply train headed west. Collins and his men were ambushed not far from the bridge and in the ensuing Battle of Platte Bridge Station, five men including Collins were killed during the fight. In honor of Lieutenant Caspar Collins, the military outpost at Platte Bridge Station was renamed Fort Caspar. The Army deciding to use his first name to distinguish the fort from one further south named after his father Lieutenant William Collins at present-day Ft. Collins, Colorado. Fort Caspar would be abandoned in 1867 but emigrants and ranchers would begin flooding the area during the 1870s and the arrival of the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad in 1888 would mark the rise of the city of Casper.
With the arrival of the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad, Casper became a vital terminal in the region for the shipping of cattle and wool, the region was in fact dominated by massive ranches given to raising cattle and sheep. From its inception, when John Merritt first camped on the banks of the North Platte, Casper was a rough frontier town dominated by cowboys, sheepherders, Indians, and prostitutes. The new railroad terminal would soon begin to be exploited by a completely different industry, one that would transform Casper from a rough frontier town into a rough western city: oil, giving the city a new nickname: the Oil City. Forty miles north of Casper in northern Natrona County is home to the most significant oil field in Wyoming, the Salt Creek Field, where production had begun around 1908 and which by 1970 had produced more oil than any other field in the Rocky Mountain West. The oil boom in Natrona County was so significant that it resulted in the construction of five oil refineries in and around the city of Casper, one of which was the massive Standard Oil Refinery which was completed just before the outbreak of World War One in March 1914 and when it was expanded in 1922 it became the largest gasoline producing refinery in the world. Undeniably, the city of Casper and Natrona County had gone through profound changes between 1888 and 1914. In his seminal work on the early history of Natrona County, Alfred Mokler writes that between 1888 and 1922, a scant thirty-four years, “is not a very long time for the building up of city with an assessed value of twenty-seven million dollars and the home of twenty-seven thousand people-one thousand dollars for each and every man, woman and child in the city; the largest, the most progressive and most prosperous city in Wyoming”. An nearly miraculous transformation in the thirty-four years since John Merritt first pitched his tent on the banks of the North Platte River.
The World goes to War
While the people of Casper and Natrona County were busy accomplishing that impressive feat, the nations of Europe were doing what they seemingly do best: bickering among themselves, relentlessly marching toward war. By 1914, through a complex series of entangling alliances, sides had been chosen, all that was needed was the spark to ignite the powder keg that had been building up during the preceding decades. That spark came when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Emperor Franz Josef and the heir to the throne of that empire, was assassinated while inspecting the Hapsburg Army in Sarajevo, Bosnia on 28 June 1914. The man responsible, a Yugoslavian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, was an alleged member of a Serbian nationalist group called the Black Hand and based on his loose affiliation with said group, the blame for the assassination fell squarely on the Kingdom of Serbia. This led to the major belligerents of World War One moving to full mobilization against one another, the nations of Europe were lined up, the Triple Entente of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia on one side and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. War formally broke out one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 28 July 1914.
In the first major action of the war, the German army invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914, as part of the modified Schlieffen Plan for their attack on France and their ultimate objective: Paris. It was hoped by the German high command that they would succeed in knocking the French out of the war so that they could then focus on the Russians on the Eastern Front. Unfortunately for the Germans, their hostile actions against neutral Belgium resulted in Great Britain formally entering the war, further complicating their objectives. The German invasion of France was initially very successful, coming within fifty miles of the French capital. Thanks to a good deal of luck and a fair share of tenacity, the Western Allies were able to halt the German advance at the Marne River, where afterward the war settled into the horrendous stalemate of trench warfare that exemplifies World War One.
The war on the Eastern Front began with the simultaneous Russian invasions of East Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia on 17 August 1914. The war in the East, unlike that in the West, was not necessarily a one-sided affair, at least in the early days. Of the two early Russian attacks, the invasion of East Prussia failed miserably but the invasion of Galicia was very successful and provided the Russians with a foothold within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This type of back and forth would develop into a pattern on the Eastern Front, the Russians would succeed in their initial assault but they would then be thrown back by the German army. One such example was the 1916 Brusilov Offensive, a Russian offensive carried out to relieve pressure off the Italian front that worked very well in its initial phases but was eventually thrown back by the Germans. The Eastern Front also could not escape the almost inevitable outcome of both sides resorting to trench warfare when things failed to turn out as their preliminary expectations had planned for.
The war would slog on in this manner for the next three years, all sides fighting a war of attrition in hopes of bleeding the other side into submission. In a last ditch effort to knock the British out of the war, the Germans made the fateful decision to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare. The thinking behind the decision was that Britain being an island nation relied substantially on imports, which had to be brought in by sea. If the Germans could halt British imports by destroying their commercial shipping vessels, perhaps they could starve the British into submission, much like the blockade the British had in place against Germany.
Unrestricted submarine warfare was viewed by most nations as a morally bankrupt policy that was an abomination. It was firmly believed that submarines, when they made contact with a non-military vessel, were to surface, announce their presence and intentions, wait for those on board to disembark and then they could fire on the vessel. As the name would suggest, unrestricted submarine warfare casts those conditions aside and engaged all maritime vessels, military or commercial, without surfacing or announcing their intentions. While this tactic was in fact successful for the Germans on a tactical level, “in the first three months of the campaign, the Germans sank 255,000 gross tons of allied shipping,” on a more broad level it has to be considered that unrestricted submarine warfare ultimately cost the Germans the war. It was after all, at the end of the day, the German decision to institute the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that brought the United States into the war on the side of the Entente; widely considered the final nail in the coffin for Germany in World War One.
On 2 April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson presented his declaration of war to the United States Congress, stating that “With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragic character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it, and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.” With that, the United States formally found itself in a state of war with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Natrona County Mobilizes for War
In response to the President’s request for a declaration of war, Wyoming Congressman Frank Wheeler Mondell responded that “And so regretfully, but with firm determination, the Republic draws the sword, firm in the conviction that we fight the battle of human rights against the excesses of despotic power.” While this reluctant patriotic declaration was being entered into the Congressional record, back at the Henning Hotel in Casper, Wyoming, former Wyoming governor B.B. Brooks was reciting the President’s declaration to a rather solemn crowd that had gathered beneath a waving American flag. When the governor was finished the crowd, numbering nearly one thousand, began singing “America” in a show of solidarity. This episode would be but one example of how this particular city and county would respond to their nation’s call to arms, a response that would eventually involve nearly every civil and social organization throughout the county.
The people of Natrona County, as was the case throughout Wyoming and the rest of the nation, began their mobilization for war despite a lack of clarity of message from Washington. One issue that was creating consternation, both in Washington D.C. and Natrona County, was how to fill the ranks of the United States Army and Navy. The debate had ranged from whether to maintain the previously established National Guard as the country’s main line of defense, or whether to commit to the formation of a new “continental” army. The Continental Army of the Revolutionary War had been established and brought together the state militias and volunteers to better serve the military objective of the thirteen colonies during the American Revolution. The new “regular” army would need to be staffed, the manner in which was the source of considerable debate. In 1917, the decision was made to resort to conscription to fill the ranks of the regular army as opposed to the wartime tradition of volunteers. During the nineteenth century, “the United States raised armies through the use of United States Volunteers: ad hoc units, locally raised and led, but armed, financed, and directed by national authorities.” The decision to implement a draft was a controversial decision, one that President Wilson ultimately convinced Congress was a necessary step on 19 April 1917, when he referred to it as “the fair way, the democratic way.” On 18 May 1917, President Wilson signed the Selective Draft Act, codifying the decision to implement a wartime conscription.
With that debate settled, the preparations for war began in earnest. In Natrona County many young men opted to volunteer for military service rather than wait to be drafted. However, it seems the people of Natrona County didn’t initially respond with the fervor indicated by their ultimate contribution to the war effort. Civic leaders took issue with the perceived lack of contribution, foremost among them was B.B. Brooks who questioned the fortitude of the people of Casper. If there is one thing the people of Wyoming, seem to take as a personal challenge, it is the idea that others are doing more than they, particularly others such as Colorado or California to list a couple, it is true now and it was almost certainly true then. That was the route that the distinguished former governor chose to take, claiming that the men and women of Casper and Natrona County were not doing their part and that he was “amazed and astonished at the spirit shown in California. There everyone is doing something, everyone is making a sacrifice to aid the country. It is time the people of Casper stopped their mad rush long enough to realize the hardships and self-denial that others are called upon to suffer and practice.” In the early going, in the eyes of some, the contribution of the people of Casper and Natrona County was far from the level needed to achieve the kind of numbers that would ultimately represent them during World War One.
However, merely a week after Brooks made those remarks and sixteen days before the President signed the Selective Draft Act, twenty-one men from Natrona County had volunteered to be part of the first company of Company L of the Wyoming National Guard; a response so positive that local leaders and the commander of Company L, Lieutenant J. E. Frisby, determined to double their efforts. Local leaders believed that for Natrona County to be able to hold their heads up, they would need to furnish enough volunteers to fully staff an independent company for the National Guard, of which a minimum of sixty-five men were needed, rather than having their volunteers pooled together with another unit. Appropriately, the State Quartermaster for the National Guard, Major Arthur Parker, addressed a public meeting and stated that “Casper is the best town in the state, there is wealth of good material here and there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to organize a company” and he continued “when I stepped off the train this morning I noticed there were more people on the street at seven o’clock this morning than there are in Cheyenne at five in the afternoon.” Hyperbole or not, the effort was in full swing in Casper and Natrona County to field their own company for the Wyoming National Guard as a sense of civic pride.
To capitalize on that sense of civic pride, Casper city officials organized a public patriotic meeting for May 11th that the local newspaper wrote “fired enthusiasm to white heat” in their desire to field a company of the National Guard. The Casper Daily Tribune led off their coverage of this important meeting with the statement that “Casper scores one thousand percent in spirit within ten days” in reference to the lackadaisical enthusiasm from a previous meeting. This meeting took place in the local Iris Theater which was decked out in all the necessary patriotic accoutrements: American flags, bunting, respected speakers, and an orchestra that played nationalistic tomes including The Star-Spangled Banner. The crowd of nearly 1,200 people listened to speeches from former Governor B.B. Brooks, Judge C.E. Winter, and Major Parker, who again invoked the long held rivalry between Wyoming’s two biggest cities when he stated that “I have attended patriotic meetings in every town and city in Wyoming, but this beats anything I have ever seen.” The fact was now driven home that Casper would get no “credit” for men who enlisted in the regular army, the only way for the people of Casper and Natrona County to truly do their part would be to furnish an independent company for the National Guard, something that communities with smaller populations had already achieved.
On June 29th, it was determined that the men of Casper and Natrona County had answered the call to arms in sufficient numbers for them to field an independent company of the Wyoming National Guard, ultimately they registered one hundred ninety-six men of which they merely required 150; one of which was the aforementioned George L. Vroman. 196 volunteered but when one considers that the entire county would commit two thousand men to the war effort, the volunteers amounted to ten percent of the total contribution.
The majority of the men that would serve from Casper and Natrona County would find their way into service through conscription as the men of the county, of course, would not be exempt from compulsory military service. The decision to implement the draft to fill the ranks of the United States Army was a controversial one, to say the least. President Wilson had initially sought to rely entirely on the United States Volunteers and was opposed to implementing the draft. Ultimately, however, the President acquiesced to those calling for a draft and signed into law the Selective Draft Act of 1917 on May 18th, authorizing the implementation of the draft. The execution of the Selective Service System would be passed down to the state governments that would carry-out the day to day machinations of fulfilling their respective obligations. To aid the process, an extensive propaganda campaign was to be unleashed prior to the registration day of June 5th. As part of this campaign, public officials, local business organizations, churches, and local clubs would join in concerted displays of patriotic enthusiasm to encourage men to register. The people of Natrona County were not exempt from participating in this campaign. Along with the patriotic display conducted at the Iris Theater, local benevolent organizations, elementary schools, and churches held programs, put on parades, and made public appeals for the men of the county to register for the draft. One such example occurred April 11th, and would continue every Wednesday for several weeks, at Park Elementary School in Casper. These presentations would consist of speakers, patriotic songs and readings and would be presided over by a Mrs. H.R. Lathrop, the local regent of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which currently bills itself as “a non-profit, non-political volunteer women's service organization dedicated to promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and securing America's future through better education for children.”
While the use of propaganda to support the war effort is a regular theme throughout the historiography of World War One, it seems that propaganda played little role in arousing public support for the war in Natrona County. The daily newspaper is littered with multiple ads appealing to the public to buy Liberty Bonds, saying “YOUR Country Calls YOU, Have You Bought a Liberty Bond?” Based on research conducted for this paper, the only other use of what might be considered propaganda through the daily newspaper, is the use of the Pledge of Allegiance. Beginning April 3rd the Casper Daily Tribune included on a daily basis a reprinting of the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States. Though there is little doubt that other arenas and methods of selling the war were used in Natrona County during 1917, evidence of such is lacking.
The composition of the draft board for Natrona County, for some inexplicable reason, seems to be shrouded in mystery. The Selective Service System called for the draft to be handled at the state level, therefore there seem to have been no real uniform plan for implementing the draft. In Natrona County, the committee tasked with conducting the registration consisted of the county sheriff Hugh L. Patton, the county clerk, and the county physician Dr. T.A. Dean. Unfortunately for our purposes, again inexplicably, this committee either kept no records of their activities or the committee records have been destroyed. Neither the county sheriff’s office nor the county clerk’s office contained any records of their leadership’s activities during World War One. Perusing the records on file at the Wyoming State Archives turned up some records of draft activities from surrounding counties but records from Natrona County are nonexistent. Unfortunately this incomprehensible oversight has resulted in an enormous gaping hole in the history of Natrona County!
What little is known about the draft committee and their activities can be found in the Casper Daily Tribune. Based on guidelines as part of the Selective Draft Act and an estimated population of 7,500, Natrona County’s quota military service was to be six hundred men. On June 5th, when the initial draft registration was completed, the total number of men registered within Natrona County was 2,200, nearly four times as the number needed to fill the ranks. The first call to arms came on July 20th when Natrona County was called on to select fifty-seven men for service in Europe. Approximately three weeks later, from August 7th to the 9th another one hundred and two men were summoned for service totaling 159 men drafted in the first waves of the draft. Adding the total number of men conscripted to the 196 men that had previously volunteered totals 355 men in uniform a mere four months after President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. By March of 1918, another 582 men would be called into service from Natrona County, making the total at that point over 1,346 in uniform, 700 over the established quota for the county. By the time all was said and done, two thousand men from Natrona County would serve the country in some way, not necessarily fighting on the front lines in France, that number represents nearly twelve and one-half percent of the county’s estimated population of 16,000. This number stands out as extraordinary as the state of Wyoming sent an average of seven percent of its population and the national average was around four percent.
While the manpower contribution of Natrona County was exceptional, equaled by very few counties throughout the country, the people of Natrona County made equally exceptional contributions in other areas as well. While the men of Company L of the Wyoming National Guard were encamped at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds in preparation for deployment, the entertainment committee of the Casper Civic Club set out to raise a mess fund for the men to take with them. The total raised amounted to over $450 prior to the company’s departure from Casper, not a paltry sum for that time and place. This fund raising effort merely scratched the surface of the largesse of the local community, the astonishing fundraising effort would benefit one of the nation’s most charitable organizations
To be continued...