Agnes Wright Spring (1894–1988) was the first Wyoming state historian (1918–19) and the first female Colorado state historian (1950–51 and 1954–63), making her the only person to serve as state historian of more than one state. She contributed to Wyoming and Colorado history through research, publications, collections management, and educational programming. As Colorado state historian, she advocated for women’s inclusion in historical narratives and women’s involvement in the professional study of history.
Agnes Wright was born on January 5, 1894, in Delta, Colorado, where her father worked as a wholesale fruit shipper. She was the second of four daughters. In 1903 her family moved to Little Laramie River, Wyoming, where they operated a stagecoach stop at their ten-room log house. Her duties consisted of washing laundry for her family and cutting tobacco into ten-cent pieces to sell to travelers.
Wright attended Laramie Preparatory School, where she excelled, before continuing to the University of Wyoming in 1909, at the age of fifteen. As a student, she was hired to work in the university library under suffragist Grace Raymond Hebard. This connection helped her get a job as assistant librarian to the Supreme Court of Wyoming after she graduated in 1913.
Fighting for Inclusion
After saving money for three years, Wright moved to New York City in 1916 to study at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. As a woman who grew up in Colorado and Wyoming, states where women had been able to vote for decades, Wright understood that she was the legal equal to any man. Yet when she arrived in New York, women there (and in many other states) were still petitioning for their right to vote. While at Columbia, Wright advocated for women’s suffrage by handing out pamphlets and canvassing neighborhoods, contributing to a state suffrage campaign that succeeded in 1917.
Appalled at the level of social and legal discrimination that women in New York faced, Wright requested permission to take a constitutional law class at Columbia, where women were not usually allowed to study law. When her request was denied, she protested by leaving the journalism school without graduating. Wright’s experiences in the New York suffrage movement were formative, and she carried what she learned about women’s inclusion with her throughout her career.
The Wright Person for the Job
After leaving Columbia, Wright returned to the West and began her career as an author. She spent 1917 as a freelance writer for many magazines and newspapers, including the Wyoming Stockman-Farmer and the Rocky Mountain News. In 1918 her connection to the Wyoming Supreme Court Library helped her be named to the new position of state historian. As part of the growth of professional disciplines and government bureaucracy during the Progressive era, states across the country started similar official historian positions. In her joint role as state librarian and state historian, she was responsible for managing the state’s libraries and recording state history. As World War I took its toll, she recorded the names of Wyoming servicemen. Because of her diligent research, she was named director of Library War Services in 1919, while continuing to serve as state librarian and state historian.
In 1920 Agnes left her three positions to marry Archer T. Spring and move to Denver, where he took a job at an oil company and she resumed her freelance writing. The couple never had children. They both stayed focused on their careers, with Agnes publishing her first book, Caspar Collins: The Life and Exploits of an Indian Fighter of the Sixties, in 1921. She became a regular contributor of book reviews, historical pieces, and in-person lectures.
When writing opportunities dried up during the Great Depression, Agnes Spring proposed comprehensive histories of Colorado and Wyoming to the states’ Works Progress Administration (WPA) offices. In Colorado, Spring’s proposal was rejected despite the support of the state’s Federal Writers’ Project director, LeRoy Hafen, because no funding was available. In Wyoming, however, the WPA offered to make Spring the state’s Federal Writers’ Project director if she would adapt her book proposal, which focused on women’s perspectives, to fit the agency’s state-by-state guidebook series. She accepted and moved with her husband to Cheyenne to research women’s histories and pioneer legends from across the state. Going beyond the national guidelines for the project, Spring and her team also collected indigenous and Latino histories that many at the time would not have considered properly “historic.” They were asked for two guidebooks, but the couple collected so much material that by 1941 they had produced three: The WPA Guide to Wyoming; Wyoming: A Guide to Its History, Highways, and People; and Wyoming Folklore.
Returning to Denver after completing the Wyoming project, Spring devoted her time to researching and writing western histories and stories. She published two weekly columns in the Wyoming-Stockman Farmer and monthly articles in several western journals. Her typical subjects were early settler families, who at the time were considered “pioneers” of the West. In story-like fashion, Spring retold their adventures, mishaps, and crimes. Unlike many who focused on “pioneers,” however, Spring also wrote about women, indigenous groups, and African Americans. Her terminology for these groups was rooted in her time, but these groups were not erased from her writing as they were from others’. This is especially true of her works after 1930.
In the 1940s, Spring published three more books while working part-time at the Denver Public Library. By the end of the decade, she was known and respected in historical and literary circles in Colorado and Wyoming.
Colorado State Historian
In January 1950, Colorado State Historian LeRoy Hafen temporarily left his position to take a yearlong fellowship in California. The former director of the state’s Federal Writers’ Project, Hafen respected Spring’s hard work and detailed research and asked her to fill in while he was away. As interim state historian, she supervised the Colorado State Museum, edited and published Colorado Magazine (now Colorado Heritage), and helped run the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado). She also designed new educational programs that included more female students and scholars. These efforts included public television programs, rentable films, radio broadcasts, and exhibit tours. She was just getting these new programs started when Hafen returned in 1951.
Spring’s work had impressed the board of the Colorado Historical Society, which named her Colorado state historian when Hafen retired in 1954. During her nine-year tenure (1954–63), she worked tirelessly to make history more accessible to the state’s students and residents. Not only did she collect historical artifacts and photographs for the state museum, for example, but she also worked with the Department of Transportation to add bus lanes next to the museum in order to allow schoolchildren to safely unload. Spring continued to advocate for expanding the history curriculum in Colorado schools and oversaw a program called Junior Historians, which encouraged students to write about anything historical they had studied, whether it be a topic in school or an artifact at the museum.
Spring believed in the power of technology to expand access to and interest in history. As state historian, she helped fund a project that created dozens of filmstrips of Colorado artifacts from the museum. These filmstrips and accompanying lesson plans were available to schools across the state for a small rental fee. This was just one way Spring shared history with students who could not come to the museum in person. She also participated in several educational television programs that took viewers on a special tour of exhibits in the Colorado State Museum, and she was featured in dozens of radio interviews about new exhibits, museum events, and magazine articles. She informed teachers about these broadcasts in the hope that they would assign listening or watching as homework. This was another way that she worked to include more history in the average school’s curriculum.
At a time when history was a predominantly male field, Spring encouraged women to become historians and writers, with her own life serving as proof that it was possible. During her long career, she wrote a total of 22 books while also contributing more than 500 articles to a wide range of literary and historical publications. After retiring from her role as Colorado state historian in 1963, she remained on advisory boards for the Colorado Historical Society. In 1973 she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame for her work on the history of the American West.
When Spring passed away in 1988, the Cheyenne Eagle called her “one of the human landmarks of the Rocky Mountain Region.” Her legacy lives on through the histories she shared, especially of previously neglected groups, her tireless efforts to make history more accessible to the public, and in opening the historical profession to women in the Rocky Mountain west.