Introduction and History
By Luke Anderson
June 29, 2016
The limestone and dolomite peak named Heart Mountain rises over 8,000 feet above sea level. With a prominence of over 2,000 feet, the peak dominates the surrounding valleys and solemnly keeps watch over the neighboring communities of Powell and Cody. The peak, which vaguely resembles an aorta and pulmonary artery rising from a human heart, is roughly 300 million years old. Heart Mountain has witnessed the entirety of human history in Wyoming, from the first modern humans who came through the state 12,000 years ago to the myriads of jumbo jets that leave behind contrails in Wyoming’s vast skies every day today. Of all the things that Heart Mountain has seen beyond its slopes, perhaps one of the most complicated and troubling periods in Wyoming history began at its base in 1942 in the throes of World War II. Unfairly and irrationally perceived as a threat to national security, 14,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in an internment camp that eventually came to be named after the nearby mountain. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center has become a part of Wyoming’s legacy. It is a bit ironic, actually – Wyoming is a state mostly known for its mountains. People travel thousands of miles to see the Tetons. The Wind River Range is sometimes thought of as one of the last true wildernesses in the continental United States. Elk Mountain and Laramie Peak are well-known to travelers who frequent Interstates 80 and 25. Perhaps Heart Mountain could have joined that list of revered Wyoming mountains with its unique geology and its imposing form. Instead, the mountain will forever be associated with a great injustice of the 20th century. No, people won’t come to Heart Mountain to climb it, photograph it, or paint it. People will come to Heart Mountain to remember and reflect, and to ensure such a grave mistake never happens again.
The official story of Heart Mountain Relocation Center began in 1942 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February which ultimately led to the creation of 10 internment camps dispersed all around the country. As many as 120,000 Japanese Americans were detained in the camps from 1942 to 1945. Heart Mountain Relocation Center saw around 14,000 of those incarcerees, and the plains around the peak soon turned into Wyoming’s third largest community. The camp was not a formally incorporated city, but it had all the basic civil systems that any modern city would require, including a hospital, fire, police, and judicial systems, three schools, a post office, and a newspaper. People living at Heart Mountain even developed their own agricultural system to improve their limited food supply. Over 500 babies were born at the camp, and 180 people died.
Heart Mountain Relocation Center shut down in November of 1945. Those remaining at the camp when it closed were given a train ticket and $25 to start their new lives. Many former incarcerees were able to get their lives back on track; however, others never fully recovered. In 1976, President Gerald Ford rescinded Executive Order 9066, and in 1980 President Jimmy Carter created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the effects of Executive Order 9066. The Commission reported in 1982 that the incarceration of Japanese Americans could not be justified by military necessity, as the Executive Order had claimed. Instead, the Commission found that the incarceration was motivated by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
The official history of Heart Mountain began in 1942 and ended in 1945. However, the unofficial story of Heart Mountain was already being told long before the war even began. Asian Americans had long experienced prejudice and disdain as a result of racially-motivated fear, especially on the West Coast. Japanese Americans had already been investigated as a possible threat to national security multiple times in the 1930s and 1940s. The investigations all concluded that no threat existed, but were ignored by Executive Order 9066. Over two-thirds of those detained nationwide were American citizens, and many of the rest had been living in the United States for decades. Today, we remember and preserve Heart Mountain as a dark reminder from our own past when extreme circumstances were used as an excuse to mistreat a large number of people who had already been facing discrimination. We remember and preserve Heart Mountain so we can be held accountable for our collective mistake and ensure it is never repeated.
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