top of page
  • Writer's pictureLiz Bowers

John Campbell, First Territorial Governor of Wyoming

Taming Hell on Wheels

Born in Salem, Ohio, October 8, 1835, the First Territorial Governor of Wyoming is a figure in the tradition of the Wild West that we don’t know many facts about, but we have a legendary view of him arriving in the lawless plains city of Cheyenne bringing the strong arm of civilization with him. The imaginary depiction of him in season four of the AMC TV series Hell On Wheels would certainly have you believe that he was a larger-than-life Caesar less concerned with justice than he was with law & order. One thing the show did get right was his unpopularity with the locals. However, it was because of his status as an outsider, his appointment by Republican Reconstructionist President Grant, and his weak leadership of the territory.

It is likely that President Grant also had an inflated image of John Campbell when he appointed the former Union Brigadier General who had served on the staff of Major General John M. Schofield as the worked to reorganize the government of Virginia post-war. They were responsible for the apportionment of districts, setting the times for elections, and ensuring that the newly freed slaves were able to exercise their new right to vote.

Campbell was appointed Territorial Governor of Wyoming on April 3, 1869, only weeks after President Grant took office. He arrived in Cheyenne on May 7, 1869, feeling sick from travel not even giving a speech because of the rain. He left shortly afterward to join other important representatives at the union of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, UT, on May 10, 1869. At the time, Wyoming was in its essence more of a colony of the Union Pacific Railroad as its main towns were created from the booms of railroad tent cities and were marked by lawlessness. Community industries focused on the production of rail ties, track, and rail worker entertainment. As the transcontinental railroad crossed the plains, each tent city became more violent and uproarious than the last. Wyoming’s original five counties were determined by the existence of the railroad towns as well as the hallmarks of civilization that helped mature the territory into statehood: the Capital in Cheyenne, the State University in Laramie, the State Prison in Rawlins, and the State Hospital in Evanston.

While railroad executives courted Republican leadership, railroad workers and their unions remained decidedly Democratic. The appointed government of President Grant in Wyoming was so unpopular they lost every seat in the territory in 1869, including every seat in the House. The Council and the delegate to Congress went to Democrats. This set the stage for a bright moment in Campbell’s administration of the territory when the citizens elected a Republican to represent them in Congress in 1870. After this change the Grand Ol’ Party slowly gained ground in the state. Campbell himself, kept a weathered eye on Washington holding his position at the pleasure of the administration, instead of on his unruly territorial citizens.

Still, every industry relied upon the railroad to provide the essential means of living in this remote region of the country. From miners and loggers to cattle ranchers… they all needed the rail lines for jobs, for transport, and for connection to markets in the East and beyond in Europe. With so much cultural and economic power in Wyoming, the railroad industry also shaped state politics but in another bright moment of his career, Campbell pushed back on their overt statements in 1870 that they would be the ones to choose who would represent Wyoming to Congress. Five years later, the courts would determine that the railroad would be taxed for the land they owned whether by that time they’d placed the appropriate patents on it or not. This would be the final success of the Campbell government against the political and economic power of the railroad.

Appointed Third Assistant Secretary of State on February 24, 1875, Campbell resigned the office of Territorial Governor of Wyoming March 1, 1875.

After serving as the Assistant Secretary of State he was appointed American Consul at Basel, Switzerland on December 3, 1877. He resigned from this position on February 4, 1880, and returned to Washington D.C. where he died July 14, 1880.


bottom of page