By James H Nottage
We do not pay close enough attention to them, but every community has residents who carry memories of local history that can sometimes carry us back to pivotal points of change and growth. The problem is that all too often these memories go unappreciated and unrecorded. Certainly, political and economic leaders get a lot of attention. I am making reference to those everyday people who were solid, contributing, but modest and nearly invisible residents - the ones who time tends to forget or at least not to acknowledge. How many times have you said or heard someone else say that an elderly relative or friend should sit down with a tape recorder or write their story to preserve they know about the past? How many times do you end up, at the person's passing, with regrets that this was not done?
One of my favorite members of one of the founding families of Laramie, Wyoming, was Miss Martha Wallis. In the days before the public raised funds to preserve the Victorian mansion of the Ivinson family as an area museum, the Albany County Historical Society held regular meetings at a community center - a surviving building of Fort Sanders that had been built in the late 1860s. It was at one of these meetings in the mid-1960s that I first met Miss Wallis. What fascinated me was learning about her home, the small stone house at 419 South 8th Street, that her father Noah Wallis had built in the 1880s. The junior high school I attended was across the street and next to the house was the original barn where the Wallis family kept a carriage and horses. One afternoon, after school, Miss Wallis agreed to let me stop by and ask her about Laramie history.
Miss Wallis was the daughter of Noah and Jane Wallis, attended local schools, gained her teaching degree in 1909 and spent her teaching career in Laramie. As a retired teacher, she was patient with my questions and seemed to enjoy recalling the area's history. Perhaps I was not a very good student, because I was fascinated by her father's story and should have encouraged her to talk more about life in Laramie as she experienced it. She had been active in the University Mandolin club that toured the state and she was a member of the Girls Cadet Corps that drilled in blue dresses and carried simple faux rifles made of wood. Both groups were popular in the first two decades of the 20th century.
On a shelf next to her, I spotted a first edition of the rare 1875 History and Directory of Laramie City by J. H. Triggs. Asking to look at the delicate paper-covered book, I had a good departure point to ask about Noah Wallis, her father. He had died in the house in 1911, but his daughter's memories were clear and fond. Born in Illinois in 1842, Noah Wallis tried to enlist during the Civil War, but was rejected. In 1864, he and a group of friends headed west. Gold had been discovered in Montana and a ten week journey led to a nearly four year adventure seeking riches in the soil of Virginia Gulch, Montana, and in areas of Idaho. I listened with care as Miss Wallis told in a matter of fact manner about this part of the story. He got to know the famous mountain man, Jim Bridger, and in fact had the original tintype photograph of Bridger, that had been loaned to a historical society years later, never returned, but published in every book written about the man.
Noah Wallis moved south and found a job superintending the cutting of ties for the Union Pacific Railroad. Laramie City was one of the towns founded at the end of the rails as the line moved west and Wallis helped to lay the track from Fort Sanders into Laramie, witnessing the celebration that followed. Thereafter he worked hauling water into town for merchants and operated a blacksmith shop. The town was growing rapidly and in some ways dramatically. There was a strong element of outlaws guilty of robberies and other crimes running rough-shot over the honest citizens. Wallis would have witnessed the actions of vigilantes in Montana when he was there, and he witnessed and to some degree may have participated in the formation of a vigilante group in Laramie. Miss Wallis spent some time telling me of her father recalling the events. In August of 1868, the vigilantes hanged an outlaw they deemed guilty of drugging and robbing residents. Work of the vigilantes culminated a number of weeks later when four men were executed and other elements were driven out of town. I knew this history well - it was part of the city's history, recounted every year during Pioneer Days. However, what I heard from Miss Wallis included details she could only have learned from her father.
She said to me, "have you seen the photograph that shows the men they hanged?" It is a famous image and of course was familiar to me. She continued, "did you know they were shot before the hanging?" I was surprised, but she continued, telling me that her father told her that the men were first seized and shot and then hanged for public display and as a warning sign for others. I asked if her father was one of the vigilantes and she did not exactly give a direct answer, saying only that "he was there." Of the men killed, two operated a saloon. One had managed to get an appointment as city marshal and the other as justice of the peace and they used the positions to enforce their own will and not to serve community needs.
In 1873, Noah Wallis went back to Illinois and returned with a bride. While he operated a furniture store for a short time, he spent most of his life as a rancher, while living in town. The stone house he built was then on the edge of town, but was soon surrounded by many other homes, businesses, and schools as the community flourished and expanded. In 1968, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Laramie was celebrated. Miss Martha Wallis was named the queen of the event and wore her 1909 university graduation dress for the special event. In the long-term she did much to help preserve the area's history. After her death in 1971, personal belongings were willed to the Laramie Plains Museum where today you can see the beautiful bedroom set from her home and other belongings from the pioneering Wallis family.
I am still grateful that Miss Wallis shared some of her story with me. I am still astonished that someone whose father knew Jim Bridger and the Laramie vigilantes could share those stories with me. Today it is becoming increasingly trite to make reference to the "six degrees of separation," that can connect us with other people and events. But, do not think lightly of this. Make an effort to acknowledge the people you know, listen to their stories, and record them for the rest of us.
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage
Top: The hanging of "Big Ned", Asa Moore, and Con Wagner, Laramie, Wyoming Territory, 1868.
Bottlm: First edition copy of History and Directory of Laramie City, Wyoming Territory, by J. H. Triggs (1875).