Henry Coffeen and the building of a state

It might be difficult today for Sheridan citizens to believe that in September of 1889 many of the people of Sheridan County, Wyoming Territory, did not want Wyoming to become a state, feeling their taxes would go up. In fact, when the public vote to grant statehood came, Sheridan was the only county which voted against it.

According to historian and author Mike Mackey in his book “Henry A. Coffeen: A Life in Wyoming Politics,” in deference to his constituents’ wishes, Coffeen, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a strong believer in statehood, actually said he would be willing to “second a motion to disband the convention,” but no-one came forward with the motion. Feeling he had fulfilled his obligation to his constituents, he went forward to work hard in developing a constitution.

Mackey holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history is from the University of Wyoming, and works as a grantsman for Sheridan County. He has written several history books, including a recent one on Wyoming’s Constitutional Convention, a project that gave him the idea to write the book on Henry Coffeen’s role.

While Mackey touches on Coffeen’s extraordinary accomplishments, he says, “Those with the most significant long-term effects on the town of Sheridan, Sheridan County and the State of Wyoming resulted from his service as a delegate to Wyoming’s Constitutional Convention.”

Wyoming historian, Dr. T. A. Larson referred to Henry A. Coffeen as “one of the 14 leaders of the convention who made significant contributions to the development of the state’s constitution.”
The issues Coffeen was primarily involved with and influenced included his support to retain women’s suffrage, which some at the convention wanted to eliminate (after women had the right to vote in Wyoming Territory for almost 20 years.) “How,” Coffeen asked, “could any delegate disenfranchise one half of the people of our territory, and that the better half?”

Other contentious issues, among many, were how to restructure representation in state government; rights of railroads, establishment of water rights, what to do with federal lands turned over to the states, taxes, child labor laws and the need for a state geologist.

Interestingly, one of the initiatives for which he fought, but which did not pass, was to place a small severance tax on coal.
This book is not a complete biography of Coffeen or even as the author says, “the last word on his political career.”

There would be so much to cover and many of his papers have been lost.

Coffeen had been a college professor, teaching natural science in Hiram, Ohio, a superintendent of schools in Illinois, a labor leader and a strong advocate of child labor laws, an author, successful business owner and land developer, rancher, lecturer, music composer and community organizer. He established the first Sheridan College and organized the Johnson County Fair when Sheridan was still a part of Johnson County. He served as mayor of Sheridan and as Wyoming’s representative to Congress in 1893-1895.
In addition, Mackey gives us a fascinating blow-by-blow description of what he calls, “the first Johnson County War,” when Sheridan County was split off from Johnson County…an issue which was revisited at the Constitutional Convention. Although Mackey appears to have great admiration for Coffeen, he has written a very balanced book.

Coffeen came under a lot of criticism during his service as Wyoming’s congressman, as a Democrat in a Republican county.
Even though Coffeen Avenue (the most well traveled street in Wyoming) and Coffeen School were named for Henry, when it came time to rebuild the school, recently, there was consideration of changing the name, as many had no idea who Henry A. Coffeen was.
Mackey’s efforts, and those of Trish Coffeen, wife of a Coffeen descendent; Judy Slack, director of the Wyoming Room at the Sheridan County Library; and Sheridan County Museum Director Nathan Doerr have had a lot to do with the emergence of Coffeen’s mostly forgotten contributions to our history.

Mary Ellen McWilliams is a long time member of the Sheridan County Historical Society.


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