By James H Nottage
Esther Hobart Morris, Wyoming symbol of women's rights.
In a column some time ago, I wrote about Bill Carlisle, the Wyoming bandit who robbed Union Pacific trains early in the 20th century. At the end of the article I commented that I have a few other favorite personalities who inspired my interest in history and that if the good folks at High Noon agreed, I would tell you about some of them. With words of encouragement and an occasional nudge about pressing and missed deadlines, my friend Linda has encouraged and allowed me to do so.
Let me say that in junior high school I had a great and inspiring social studies teacher named Eugene Brown. He was one of the sponsors who helped in the formation of a junior historical society. This small group of history nerds dutifully and enthusiastically gathered, elected officers, and decided upon what we would do. We determined to check a tape recorder out of the audio-visual department and conduct oral history interviews with area old-timers. Bob Burns, co-author of an important book on Wyoming ranching was an early victim. Soon thereafter, with the advice of my father, we introduced ourselves to Mable Wyoming Cheney Moudy, the oldest living graduate of the University of Wyoming. She was 86 years old and kind enough to allow us to spend a number of afternoons talking with her about Wyoming history.
Mable Moudy was born in 1878 in Atlantic City, Wyoming. She told us of learning to speak Shoshone as a child, of visits to their home from Shoshone chief Washakie, and of wearing moccasins rather than regular shoes. Early in our interviews, she brought out beautiful Indian objects directly connected with the Shoshone people befriended by her family. There was a lovely stone pipe with the original decorated stem, moccasins, and other objects. She had placed some items at the Wyoming State Museum, including an extraordinary painted elk hide with scenes of warriors, horses, and buffalo hunting. As I recall, it told stories painted by one of Washakie's sons. At one time she had a whole room full of wonderful beadwork. She went to school in Lander, Wyoming, graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1900, worked as a teacher and raised her own family. She told interesting stories about the first motorcycle in Laramie and how she and others cheered as the driver went around and around the block, waving and yelling. It turns out he could not figure out how to stop the beast!
Chief Washakie, Shoshone leader.
I was not wise enough to take advantage of these kinds of memories and ask more about her experiences, but instead was fascinated by her accounting of her father's adventures in the post-Civil War West. I was lost in the stories of his life. Her father, Ervin F. Cheney, was a Civil War veteran who after the war went west with the army and in 1867 served at Fort Sanders, near where Laramie would be founded. He was involved in a number of adventures including scrapes with raiding Indians near Dale Creek Bridge along the Overland Trail and part of the newly completed transcontinental railroad. He was wounded in the leg during one skirmish west of Cheyenne. He was a skillful carpenter, helping to trim buildings at the fort, and later helping to survey Laramie. Mrs. Moudy gave me written accounts of his life written by herself and her sister. She recorded that He went to South Pass and Atlantic City, May 27, 1869, where he built a shop and did carpentering. In between times he pulled teeth, made coffins, and conducted funeral services. In 1870 he narrowly avoided death when he declined joining three friends traveling to Camp Brown. Instead, he made the trip alone that night. When his horse spooked, he discovered the bodies of the others, killed in a raid earlier that day.
In the fall of the following year, Ervin Cheney went on a buffalo hunt with a group of Shoshone men. The account Mable wrote years later was thrilling to our group of eager young students. The hunt was a great success - they dressed out the animals and cooked and ate as much as they could. Cheney abandoned such adventures and went on to study law and was admitted to the Wyoming bar. He knew and worked with many famous early-day Wyoming figures familiar to us. Among them was Esther Hobart Morris, the first woman justice in the United States, a participant in the women's suffrage movement, and an important symbol of women's rights in the United States. Cheney operated his own ranch, enjoyed fishing and hunting, raised a family with five children, was active in the Fremont County Pioneer Association, and died in 1922.
Mable Moudy passed away in 1972 as members of our group were graduating from high school. I learned recently that she was a dedicated diarist and that her extensive papers were left to the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. I am tempted to look at the diaries to see if she recorded anything about the junior high kids who pestered her with questions about old Wyoming back in 1964. Somehow, I hope that she knew that even in retirement she was an effective teacher and that she had a great influence on one of those kids who was inspired by her stories and somehow never could get away from the fascinating history of the West.
Next time, let me tell you about Mattie Wallis. She was another Laramie pioneer who shared much of the area's history, including tales of mountain man Jim Bridger, of her father Noah Wallis, and of the late 1860s Laramie vigilantes lynching members of a local gang.
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage