John E. Osborne was born in Westport, Essex County, New York, June 19, 1858. He studied medicine at the University of Vermont. He moved to Rawlins, Wyoming, shortly after graduating in 1880. There he served as a Union Pacific Railroad surgeon and opened a wholesale and retail drug store in Rawlins in 1882. He branched out to sheep ranching in 1884 and was credited with being the largest sheep owner in the Territory a few years later.
It didn’t take the young doctor long to get involved in politics. He was elected to the territorial legislature in 1883. However, he resigned the seat when he had to leave the Territory for a while. His delayed public service career began when he was elected Mayor of Rawlins in 1888. In 1892, at the rather tender age of 34, he was elected Governor of Wyoming, giving the young state consecutive frontier surgeons in the executive office (see “Amos W. Barber: An Army Surgeon as Governor”). Also in 1892, Osborne was named as an alternate to the Democratic National Convention.
The 1892 election saw a fusion of members of the Democratic Party with those of the new Populist Party. Fallout from the Johnson County War aided this group against the Republican Party, where the political interests of most of the state’s big cattlemen resided. Democrats supporting the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, some of whose members planned the Johnson County invasion, were expelled from the Party. Controversy following the 1892 gubernatorial election is recounted in the previously cited Postscript. In his first message to the state legislature Osborne blamed the state’s lack of growth in prosperity and population on publicity about the invasion and Republican leaders who excused the actions of the invaders.
Osborne’s political star continued to rise when he was elected to U.S. House of Representatives in 1896, narrowly defeating Frank Mondell. An unsuccessful attempt at a Senate seat in 1898 ended his string of victorious election campaigns. In 1907, at the age of 49, he married Selina Smith, a native of Kentucky. (Osborne is one of only 2 unmarried governors in Wyoming history. John Campbell married during his term and Nellie Ross was a widow during her administration.)
Under the Woodrow Wilson administration Osborne was appointed First Assistant Secretary of State and held the office from April 21, 1913 to December 14, 1915. His time in the nation’s capital, as congressman and in the Secretary of State’s office, provided opportunities to mingle and correspond with current and future presidents and other powerful political figures, such as William Jennings Bryan, with whom Osborne developed a friendship.
When Osborne resigned from the assistant secretary position, he cited a desire to return to private life. However, he was back in the political arena in 1918, when he was nominated for the U.S. Senate by the Democratic Party. He lost in the general election to Francis E. Warren, who had decided to run for the office again after initially talking retirement.
Osborne called Rawlins home for over 60 years and served as Chairman of the Board of the Rawlins National Bank. He maintained an office there until his death on April 24, 1943. He was buried at Princeton, Kentucky beside his wife.
The records of Governor Osborne maintained by the Wyoming State Archives include correspondence, appointment records, petitions for the pardon of convicted criminals, proclamations, requests for the extradition of fugitives, and records concerning Indian and military affairs. Some small privately donated collections document various aspects of his career and include a small amount of correspondence from prominent public figures.