South Pass City was the most important town established during the short-lived period of discovery and development in Wyoming’s Sweetwater Gold Mining District. The town derives its name from the famous South Pass on the Oregon Trail which traverses the Rocky Mountains just ten miles to the southwest. Thousands of people traveled through the South Pass during the era of overland migration lured by reports of lucrative mining fields in California, Colorado, Idaho and Montana.
Gold was first discovered in the Sweetwater region about 1842 by a Georgian trapper working for the American Fur Company. Between 1855 and 1860 the presence of gold in the area occasioned limited activity, although nothing developed as a result of these early mining attempts. It was not until 1864 when Tom Ryan, a soldier, discovered the Carissa quartz lode that a “goldrush” began in the area.
The Carissa Mine was the first to be recorded in the Shoshone Mining District and was one of the richest. By July 1867 there were forty mines recorded in the region. On June 15, I867 the miners of the Shoshone Mining District held a meeting to draw up the laws and resolutions for the District. By October1867 the plot of the townsite called South Pass City had been laid out. The Main Street was a half-mile long. Along it were constructed the Idaho House, the U. S. Hotel, the Eclipse Hotel, the City Hotel, and the Kidder Hotel; Houghton and Colter opened the first store, two clothing stores and several general stores were established. Thirteen saloons and sundry other businesses sprang up to service the town’s swelling population. In 1869 the Exchange Bank was opened by Iliff and Company. The Bank bought the gold of the miners and shipped it to New York. Two doctors and a number of lawyers set up practice. George Keene opened a fur store, and the Freund Brothers opened a gun shop in the downstairs of the Masonic Lodge. By that time, there were two breweries and several livery and feed stables in town. Elisha Steel had a blacksmith shop next to the Black Horse Livery Stable, and Ervin P. Cheney established a blacksmith and wagon shop. A post office and newspaper were also established in South Pass City. The Sweetwater Mines began publication in 1868; it was replaced the following year by The South Pass News which was published three times a week and later twice a week.
Before the end of 1867 the miners held another meeting and organized a county which they named “Carter” in honor of Judge William Carter of Fort Bridger. Carter County was legally organized by an act of the Seventh Dakota Legislative Assembly on December 26, 1867, and South Pass City was named the county seat. Carter County remained a part of Dakota Territory until July 25, 1868, when the Organic Act was passed by the Fortieth Congress of the United States and created the Territory of Wyoming. South Pass City continued as the county seat following the territorial change.
Several mining districts were established in the Sweetwater region during its heyday and other towns which came into being included Atlantic City, Miner’s Delight and Lewiston. The large numbers of miners spread out through the claims caused an escalation in hostile encounters between Indians and the Miners. Between 1867 and 1869 twenty-six whites and an untold number of Indians were said to have died as the result of such encounters. Although the Shoshone and Bannock Indian tribes were friendly to the white settlers, the Arapahoes were particularly active in making retaliatory raids upon miners as they worked alone or in small groups. During the summer of 1868 a group of seven miners were attacked by a band of Sioux Indians; three miners were killed. Attacks like this precipitated countless appeals to military authorities for protection. Joint meetings of the citizens of South Pass City and Atlantic City to decide on measures to he taken against Indian depredation resulted in a militia raid on an Arapahoe camp on April 7S 1870. In June, Fort Stambaugh was established in Smith’s Gulch near Atlantic City to provide further protection to the settlers. For the next eight years the South Pass area was protected by soldiers from this fort.
Although promoters had estimated the population of South Pass City to be 2,000, the first Federal Census taken in Wyoming Territory in 1870 showed 460 people living in South Pass City. Of these, 436 were white, 16 were black, and 8 were Chinese. In 1871 a fire broke out in town and several buildings, including the newspaper, were seriously damaged or destroyed. The newspaper’s owner, Mr. E. A. Slack, moved to Laramie and there was no further news publication in South Pass City.
The mines had been in decline for several years. The 1871 fire and the removal of the county seat in 1874 eclipsed South Pass City’s political and economic prominence in the area. The town continued to exist, but with a population of about 50. A few families stayed on as residents and in succeeding years various groups attempted to revive the mining industry, but South Pass City never came close to regaining its old vigor. In all, an estimated seven million dollars worth of precious metal was produced from the mines in the region.