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From homestead to high office

This page is a biographical summary. Chapters from a full biography will be posted as they are finished. These are 8.5" x 11" pdf files. For a list of them, click here.


Born to a pioneer family in Hazel Green, Wisconsin, on March 9, 1849, William A. Richards rose from a surveyor to become U.S. surveyor general for Wyoming Territory, governor of Wyoming, and commissioner of the General Land Office under Theodore Roosevelt. An honest and conscientious public servant, he promoted irrigation, land use reform, and conservation.

Goes West, Gets Into Surveying

As a young man in Galena, Illinois, Richards taught school before seeking his fortune in rapidly growing Omaha, Nebraska, in 1869. Though the Union Pacific was frantically working to complete its portion of the transcontinental railroad, jobs were scarce. After many discouraging weeks finding only occasional work such as piling lumber, he snapped at the chance to join a surveying party laying out townships for settlement west of Omaha, still Indian country. He soon became a U.S. deputy surveyor and began executing contracts in partnership with others, including his elder brother, Alonzo (Lon), a U.S. Astronomer and Surveyor. He also worked as a newspaper reporter, which led to offers to edit or manage newspapers.

Surveying Wyoming’s Territorial Boundaries

When Lon was awarded the contract for the survey of the southern boundary of Wyoming Territory in 1873, Will signed on as general assistant. His surveying skills advanced to the point that Lon entrusted him with the ruggedest part of the survey of the western boundary, for which Lon had received the contract to survey in 1874.

Late in 1874 Will went to Oakland, California, to marry Harriet Alice Hunt, whom he had met in Omaha. He worked as a surveyor and on a farm owned by her relatives. Tuberculosis forced him, his wife, and their daughter, Eleanor Alice, to move to the mountains of Colorado. He was elected county surveyor of El Paso County and city engineer of Colorado Springs, but considered it a “hand-to-mouth existence.” A friend offered him a position as foreman of a stone-crushing plant in Kansas, but that ended with the tragic death of their infant second daughter.

All this time Lon had been agitating for a western ranch as a way that he, Will, and their younger brother, Austin, could improve their frustrating lives. Finally, a Wyoming friend, Edwin S. Crocker, suggested Will try homesteading in the Bighorn Basin. Crocker had a ranch in the eastern part of the basin, and offered the hospitality of his home ranch.

Homesteading in the Bighorn Basin

Richards explored this area in 1884, locating a homestead for himself and a large tract of land for a group of Colorado investors, himself included, on the eastern side of the Bighorn River. The Desert Land Act allowed them to claim a section of land (one square mile) if they caused the land to be irrigated. Richards and his crew returned in 1885 to begin excavation of the irrigation ditch, and Richards built a cabin for his own ranch, which he named Red Bank. See full chapter.


Getting Started in Wyoming Politics

Always interested in politics, Richards began his rise in Wyoming as a member of the Northern Wyoming Agricultural Fair and Trotting and Running Association, in Buffalo, just over the mountains from Red Bank. The basin east of the Bighorn River was then part of Johnson or Sheridan counties, and Richards was the first commissioner of Johnson County to be elected from the basin. In 1886 he was nominated by the Democrats as well as the Republicans, and received 89% of the vote. See full chapter.

Appointed Surveyor General for Wyoming

Republican Benjamin Harrison was elected President in 1888. In appointing federal officials in the various states and territories, he favored “home rule.” When it came to naming a Surveyor General for Wyoming, Richards was a prime candidate because he was a surveyor and a resident of underrepresented northern Wyoming.

         One of the reasons Richards applied was so his family, which now included a new daughter, Ruth, could have access to schools and churches. His wife was a devout Baptist, though Richards himself seems to have been agnostic.

          Once he was appointed, they moved to Cheyenne in 1889 but always considered their home to be Red Bank Ranch. It would be managed by George B. “Bear George” McClellan, who had signed on at the ranch around 1886, and would become a partner in 1895.

          As surveyor general, Richards had the best possible mentor in the vital issue of land use in arid states. Elwood Mead, territorial engineer of Wyoming, had devised water laws that were adopted by dry regions worldwide.

See full chapter.

Elected Governor

In the state capital Richards became acquainted with Republican movers and shakers, principally U.S. Senator Francis E. Warren and Willis Van Devanter, probably the canniest lawyer in Wyoming. They convinced Richards to run for governor in 1894, and he was elected in the general Republican landslide.

          Wyoming had joined the union only four years earlier, and state officials had many important issues to deal with. As governor Richards worked with Mead to try to solve the arid states' thorny land-use problems. In his first message to the state legislature, Richards quoted liberally from Mead’s report in urging the acceptance of the Carey Act. Sponsored by Wyoming Senator Joseph M. Carey, the Act would turn over a million acres of Federal land within a State if the State would cause the land to be irrigated. Wyoming became the first State to accept the donation.

          Overgrazing on the open range threatened the destruction of the grasslands the livestock industry depended on. Mead and Richards began to lease state lands to stock owners so they would have their own turf, which they would have a stake in protecting by controlling grazing. The program was so successful that state lands soon ran out. Those soon ran out, yet the government would not part with more acreage. Mead, Richards, and other westerners tried to get all unappropriated federal lands ceded to their states, but were unsuccessful.

          Another reason they wanted state control was the conviction that the West’s remaining forests, like its open ranges, were not being properly managed by the faraway federal government. Some forests were set aside in reserves, unavailable to settlers for any use whatsoever but unprotected from their worst enemy, fire. In early 1897, twenty-two million acres of new reserves were created in the West after a scattershot investigation by a commission of easterners, with no input from westerners. Some settlements found themselves unable to cut timber or graze their livestock in the new reserves. Governor Richards was the most prominent western official who denounced these reserves in an influential national publication, Forest and Stream. He charged that the commission’s “blunders discredited and seriously imperiled a worthy cause.” Richards, Mead, and others favored protection of the country's remaining forests, partly because they held snowpacks that would melt slowly for dry-season irrigation.

          Early in 1898, he and Mead were among the principal speakers at the first convention of the National Live Stock Association. They both urged reform of land use to save the grasslands and forests, and maintained that states could do a better job of managing their lands. Richards’s denunciation of the Land Office was so strong that he feared it would prevent his being appointed its assistant commissioner. It didn’t.


Appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office

The General Land Office (today's Bureau of Land Management, or BLM) was the largest bureau in the Department of the Interior. It had charge of one-third of the acreage of the United States, land that remained to be claimed by homesteaders and others. Richards was appointed assistant commissioner in late 1899.

     In that position he was praised for his fair and competent handling of the Oklahoma land openings. He also found a way for President Theodore Roosevelt to create the nation's largest forest reserve, and he took steps that resulted in the exposure of the massive Benson-Hyde land-fraud scheme. Roosevelt was so pleased with Richards's performance that he appointed him commissioner of the Land Office in 1903.

Richards continued to fight the myriad forms of land fraud, was responsible for seeing that other land openings were conducted honestly, and made important contributions to Roosevelt's conservation agenda.

          Prehistoric ruins and natural wonders of the vast West were wide open to looting or exploitation. By 1903 Congress had established six National Parks, but bills to protect numerous archeological and other important sites went nowhere until Commissioner Richards acted. In 1904, after New Mexico archeologist Edgar Lee Hewett sent him a long report about places needing protection, Richards published it in a circular with photos, maps, and related documents. This led to the Antiquities Act of 1906, which empowered presidents to create National Monuments. Among them would be Jewel Cave in South Dakota, Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, the African Burial Grounds in New York City, the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, and millions of acres in Alaska. The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Petrified Forest were National Monuments until Congress made them National Parks. Richards also helped Roosevelt create the world’s first wildlife refuge, Pelican Island.

More public service—and tragedy—in later years

After eight years in the land office, Richards retired in 1907. He was in poor health and his wife had died in 1903. (Contrary to some assumptions, he was not asked to resign.) He returned to his beloved Red Bank Ranch but was soon called back to public service as Wyoming’s first Tax Commissioner. He held the office from February 1909 until December 1910, leaving office rather than serve under the recently elected governor, Joseph M. Carey, who ran as a Democrat.

        In 1911 his daughter Edna and her husband, Thomas Jenkins, were found shot to death under mysterious circumstances at their cabin at Red Bank. (Learn more) Unable to bear living at the ranch or in Wyoming, Richards accepted Mead's  invitation to visit Australia. As chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria province, Mead was promoting irrigation and immigration. Richards decided to relocate once again and take up irrigated land once again,  but he suffered a heart attack after a dinner for Mead. He died on July 25, 1912. Mead was returning to the United States, so he accompanied Richards’s body back home. His body lay in state in the Capitol building, Cheyenne, and after a military escort to Lakeview Cemetery he was buried next to his wife, Edna and Tom, and his grandson William Richards McCreery.


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