William A. Richards was born in Hazel Green, Wisconsin on March 9, 1849. During his early life he resided in southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. Employment during his teen years consisted of farming and, after completing high school, teaching school, except for one brief sojourn away from his home state. Richards went to Washington D.C. in 1863, during the Civil War. He was not allowed to enlist for military service because of his young age, so for several months he drove an ambulance for the Signal Corp. He returned to Wisconsin in 1864 and resumed teaching, supplementing his income by farming during the summer.
Richards headed west in 1869. After brief employment in Omaha, he joined a government surveying crew working in southwestern Nebraska. He continued in that line of work for several years, including surveys of Wyoming Territory’s southern and western boundaries during the years 1873 and 1874. He moved to California where he married Harriet Alice Hunt on December 28, 1874. They settled in Santa Clara County, where Richards farmed and served as County Surveyor. Richards returned to the mountain west in 1881for health reasons, settling in Colorado Springs where he served as City Engineer and Surveyor of El Paso County.
Richards applied for a desert land entry and relocated to Johnson County, Wyoming in 1884. He improved the property, which became a viable stock ranch and the family home. His public service career branched away from surveyor duties when he was elected County Commissioner in 1886. However, his extensive experience in the field continued to benefit his career as he was appointed Surveyor General of Wyoming by President Harrison in 1889. He served in that capacity for four years.
Wyoming’s Republican Party nominated Richards for Governor in 1894 and he easily won the election. One of the more notable legal disputes in the state’s history took place during Richards’ term as Governor. It was presaged in Richards’ speech to the 1895 legislature, in which he stated “it is not possible to prevent the wanton destruction of large game by Indians by the enactment of a statute unless special provision is made for its enforcement.” Bannock Indians, who primarily resided in Idaho, but hunted in western Wyoming, had been hunting game under the provisions of the Fort Bridger Treaty, which gave them permission to hunt on unoccupied lands of the United States. In 1895, a Bannock named Race Horse was arrested by Uinta County Sheriff John Ward for violating the games laws of Wyoming (he had killed seven elk the previous July). Initially the U.S. Circuit Court in Cheyenne ruled that the state’s game laws did not apply to the Indians. The decision was appealed to and overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the provisions of the treaty were repealed by Wyoming’s admittance to the Union, which gave the young state all the powers of other states to enforce such laws.
Also in his 1895 message Richards observed that the state’s agricultural growth had not been what was expected in recent years. He decried the “vast wealth of land and water lying idle, side by side, awaiting only the magic touch of labor and capital, intelligently combined, to be coined into wealth.” The Carey Act had been passed by Congress and approved by President Cleveland the previous year. It was designed to encourage the settlement of arid lands, which would be reclaimed for agricultural purposes. Unfortunately, Governor Richards’ lament could be echoed in the decades following his message, as only a very small percentage of lands available under the Carey Act were successfully turned to profitable agricultural endeavors.
Richards also looked to the past in his message, recommending a “moderate appropriation” to establish a State Historical Society to collect and preserve records documenting the early history of the state. The Society was established during that legislative session, with a mission eventually inherited by the Wyoming State Archives.
Late in 1895 Governor Richards received a signed petition from noteworthy residents of Fremont County as well as other letters seeking the pardon of one George Cassidy, who had been found guilty of horse stealing the year before. Signers of the petition believed that Cassidy’s “release at this time can work no harm to the peoples of Fremont County, and may be the means of accomplishing much good.” The petitioners hoped a pardon would motivate the young man to become a law abiding citizen of the Territory. Cassidy apparently made statements that were in accord with these hopes and Richards pardoned him after he had served 18 months of a two year sentence. However, it wasn’t long before it became apparent that the kind intentions of the petitioners would not be realized in the case of “Butch” Cassidy (born Robert Leroy Parker).
The Spanish-American War began in April 1898 and Richards made sure Wyoming responded quickly to the call to arms. National Guard troops were mustered in on May 10. Richards went to San Francisco when the troops were ordered there, and “saw that they were well-equipped, and had good quarters in a transport ship” which would take them to the Philippines.
Richards did not seek re-election 1898. However, he was not out of public service long as he was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington D.C. in March 1899. He was appointed Commissioner of that office in 1903 and served in that capacity for four years. In 1909 he was appointed Commissioner of Taxation for Wyoming, a position he held until the administration changed following the 1910 election. 1912 found Richards in Australia where he studied irrigation development and caught up with old friend Elwood Mead, former State Engineer of Wyoming, who was serving as the Chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria. Richards died there on July 25.
In addition to the routine records created and received by a state executive at the time, the records of Governor William A. Richards include information on the organization of a Wyoming battalion for the Spanish-American War, the Race Horse case and other matters related to Native Americans, Thermopolis Hot Springs, and elk around Jackson Hole.