Wind River Basin


From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This page: Lander, the discovery of oil.

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Table of Contents
About This Site

Wind River, 1860, Albert Bierstadt

As noted with regard to the discussion of Fort Bridger, Frederick W. Lander's expedition of 1859 was responsible for the construction of the Lander Cutoff to Soda Springs, Idaho. The expedition, however, also had the impact of romanticizing a view of the American West. Included within the expedition were Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Francis Seth Frost (1825-1902). The two spent five months, three weeks of which were in the Wind River Basin, with the expedition making sketches and taking stereoscopic photographs. Three of Bierstadt's sketches appeared in Harper's Weekly. Upon their return to Boston they each produced epic paintings of the west, utilizing the sketches and photographs. Bierstadt became one of the leading artists of the late 19th Century and returned several times to the West including California and Oregon, with his most famous paintings being of Yosemite.

South Pass from Wind River Mountains, 1860, Francis Seth Frost
Frost's career as an artist, however, failed to materialize and he remained primarily an art dealer. The Smithsonian Inventory of American Paintings only lists seven examples of his work.

Main Street, Lander, Oct. 17-19, 1908.
In towns such as Lander, it was customary to put up temporary welcoming arches for special events. The Wyoming on the right-hand side of the photo is the Wyoming Saloon which boasted of the first electrically illuminated sign in Lander. The building also housed the Odd Fellows lodge.

Twenty-horse freight team, Lander, 1906

The use of the streets for freight teams dictated the width of the street. The building next to the sheep wagon at the end of the train is Wah Lee's Chinese Laundry and Bath.

Lander Electric Plant 1908

Although settlement near Lander did not began until 1869 with the establishment of Camp Augur, named after Brevet Major General Christopher C. Augur, many of the early expeditions passed through the Wind River area. In 1856 Ramsay Crooks, one of the original Astorians, described in a letter to the Detroit Free Press an expedition through South Pass:

Mr. David Stuart sailed from this port [New York] in 1810 for the Columbia River on board the ship 'Tonquin' with a number of Mr. Astor's associates in the 'Pacific Fur Company,' and after the breaking up of the company in 1814, he returned through the Northwest Company's territories to Montreal, far to the north of the 'South Pass,' which he never saw.

In 1811, the overland party of Mr. Astor's expedition, under the command of Mr. Wilson P. Hunt, of Trenton, New Jersey, although numbering sixty well armed men, found the Indians so very troublesome in the country of the Yellowstone River, that the party of seven persons who left Astoria toward the end of June, 1812, considering it dangerous to pass again by the route of 1811, turned toward the southeast as soon as they had crossed the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, and, after several days' journey, came through the celebrated 'South Pass' in the month of November, 1812.

Pursuing from thence an easterly course, they fell upon the River Platte of the Missouri, where they passed the winter and reached St. Louis in April, 1813.

The seven persons forming the party were Robert McClelland of Hagerstown, who, with the celebrated Captain Wells, was captain of spies under General Wayne in his famous Indian campaign, Joseph Miller of Baltimore, for several years an officer of the U. S. army, Robert Stuart, a citizen of Detroit, Benjamin Jones, of Missouri, who acted as huntsman of the party, Francois LeClaire, a halfbreed, and Adré Valée, a Canadian voyageur, and Ramsay Crooks, who is the only survivor of this small band of adventurers.

I am very sincerely yours,


The Rendezvous of 1829 was held near present day Lander. Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville's expedition of 1833 discovered an oil spring in the Wind River Basin and was the first to take wagons through South Pass. Ostensibly Bonneville's expedition was private. In reality it was at the behest of the government and was for the purpose of spying on the British who were active in the Pacific Northwest. The first oil well, Murphy #1, in the Territory was drilled in Lander at Dallas Field, southeast of Lander in the vicinity of Captain Bonneville's "Tar Sring," in 1883 by Mike Murphy. The Tar Spring had been discovered by mountain men in the Ashley Party. The field is still in production. Washington Irving in his 1837 The Adventures of Captain Bonneville described the re-discovery of the spring:

Proceeding down along the Popo Agie, Captain Bonneville came again in full view of the "Bluffs," as they are called, extending from the base of the Wind River Mountains far away to the east, and presenting to the eye a confusion of hills and cliffs of red sandstone, some peaked and angular, some round, some broken into crags and precipices, and piled up in fantastic masses; but all naked and sterile. There appeared to be no soil favorable to vegetation, nothing but coarse gravel; yet, over all this isolated, barren landscape, were diffused such atmospherical tints and hues, as to blend the whole into harmony and beauty.

In this neighborhood, the captain made search for "the great Tar Spring," one of the wonders of the mountains; the medicinal properties of which, he had heard extravagantly lauded by the trappers. After a toilsome search, he found it at the foot of a sand-bluff, a little east of the Wind River Mountains; where it exuded in a small stream of the color and consistency of tar. The men immediately hastened to collect a quantity of it, to use as an ointment for the galled backs of their horses, and as a balsam for their own pains and aches. From the description given of it, it is evidently the bituminous oil, called petrolium or naphtha, which forms a principal ingredient in the potent medicine called British Oil. It is found in various parts of Europe and Asia, in several of the West India islands, and in some places of the United States. In the state of New York, it is called Seneca Oil, from being found near the Seneca lake.

Lander, Wyo., 1910

Lander Photos continued on next page.