Book Excerpt: Marines Invade Wyoming

From the Halls of Motazuma to the Oil Fields of Teapot Dome

In April, 1922 Albert Bacon Fall, President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, secretly leased the rich Teapot Oil field north Casper to a newly formed company, Mammoth Oil. In exchange the grateful head of Mammoth Harry F. Sinclair had rewarded Fall, who owned a large ranch in Three Rivers, New Mexico, with prize livestock and close to $300,000 in so-called Liberty Bonds, government-issued bonds that yielded at least 3 ½ percent tax free. Unfortunately, for Fall and Harry Sinclair, a rival oil man, Colonel James G. Darden, claimed he owned some of the Teapot field and by mid-summer had already begun drilling operations.
Fall had a quick temper and an intense dislike for Darden. When he learned what the colonel was up to, he demanded that his close friend Harding send in the U.S. Marines to oust these squatters, by force if necessary – a demand to which Harding reluctantly acceded. As a result, Wyoming is the only state in the U.S. ever to be invaded by the U.S. Marines. — LM.

Excerpted From The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country By Laton McCartney (Random House 2008). Chapter 23, pages 131-134:

History in Teapot Rock, Wyoming.

At least during their visits to Friendship, the President and Florence could escape the worst of the unrelenting summer heat. But back at the White House, Harding had to contend with the railroad and mining strike, which threatened to paralyze the nation. Then there was the uproar about the Naval leases. No sooner had Harding managed to still some of the criticism with his covering letter to the Senate in support of the Fall report when his Interior Secretary marched into the White House demanding to send the U.S. Marines to Teapot Dome.

Marines to Teapot? Was this some early manifestation of senile dementia, Fall reliving, as his biographer suggested, the days when he used to dispatch his quick-triggered hired hands to deal with some adversary in a range war. In this instance, he wanted the Marines to deal with an old friend and political backer of Harding’s, Colonel James. G. Darden, who held claims on part of the Teapot field that predated the Sinclair lease. Darden had gone into the deal with the Attorney General and Jess Smith, and in June he started drilling on land Fall had already leased to Sinclair. When Fall, who despised Darden. discovered what the Colonel was up to, he threw a tantrum that was off the Richter Scale.

The man behind the scenes: Albert Fall

Falls demanded to send Marines immediately to Teapot to eject Colonel Darden’s “squatters” put Harding in one of those quandaries from which he was continually trying to extricate himself. Deploy the Marines and alienate a friend and backer, not to mention the Attorney General. Reject Fall’s demands and… god only knows what the Interior Secretary’s reaction would be.

The President managed to buy a little time by telling Fall he’d talk the matter over with Darden.

The discussion went as follows: Darden arrived at the White House where he was greeted by Harding’s secretary, George B. Christian. “George, the President wants to see me,” Darden said.

“He’s busy or playing golf or something,” Christian said.

Darden. “I will come back.”

Christian: “No, wait.”

Finally Harding appeared. “Jim, how about the property you think you own in Teapot Dome?” he inquired.

Darden: “I don’t know; I couldn’t tell you. We feel naturally we own it, because we spent some money to get it.”

Harding: “Fall doesn’t think you own it. He is T.N.T. What are you going to do?”

Darden: “I guess we have to go to court, Mr. President.”

Fall, meanwhile, kept after Harding to take action. He wouldn’t let the matter rest. On Saturday morning, July 29, he took the subject up with the President again. Again Harding said he didn’t want to send in the Marines because an officer of the company (Darden) that was trespassing was a close personal friend and had contributed to his campaign fund. “Darden is a low down son-of-a-bitch,” Fall countered, reminding the President that he had earlier expressed similar sentiments about the Colonel despite Darden having sent him a campaign check. So he had, Harding conceded, finally consenting to Fall’s request.

Before Harding could change his mind, Fall sent a note to Ted Roosevelt Jr. This being a Saturday. Denby was out of the office. Roosevelt was in charge. Fall asked the Acting Secretary of the Navy to come to his office at Interior at once. There, Fall informed Roosevelt of the situation, told him he needed Darden’s crew put off the Teapot property by a Marine detachment. When Roosevelt appeared skeptical, Fall assured him there was a legal precedent for such an undertaking. This was Fall improvising. There was no such precedent, but Roosevelt was nonetheless reassured. Surely, Albert Fall wouldn’t lie about something so important.

Roosevelt’s next move was to send for the commanding officer of the Marines, Major General John A. Lejeune (yes, it’s the same general after whom Camp Lejeune was named) and ask him to select an experienced officer to a lead a detachment of Marines on a delicate mission into the wilds of north central Wyoming. Lejeune selected a WWI veteran, Captain George K. Shuler. Roosevelt approved but, of course, Fall had to have final say in the matter. In a meeting at Interior, he asked Captain Schuler what he’d do if a Federal Judge served him with an injunction telling him he couldn’t carry out this mission. When Schuler responded that a) he’d never laid eyes on an injunction and b) he’d ignore it entirely, Fall knew he’d found his man.

When Schuler went back to report to Lejeune, the general asked him how many men he’d need. Schuler responded, “If we are going out there and fight the whole state of Wyoming, we would probably have to take quite a few.” Lejeune responded that Schuler simply had to “86” a few roughnecks, not, fortunately, take on the entire state. Four Marines would probably do the trick, Lejeune calculated.

The following morning Captain Schuler, four young marines and A.W. Ambrose (the geologist who almost ruined his career by claiming there wasn’t drainage at Teapot) left Washington for Wyoming. From the Hall of Montezuma to the wells of Teapot Dome. In Casper they were met by Interior Department officials and a couple of newsmen including a reporter for the Denver Post. The party then proceeded 40 miles north to the portion of the Teapot field in dispute, section 30. “This is your battlefield,” one of the Interior officers told Schuler, pointing out an oil rig surrounded by a high barbed wired fence.

The Teapot Oil Fields

At the gate Captain Schuler faced off with the rig foreman. Schuler had orders to shut down drilling, he explained. The foreman countered that he had orders to keep all trespassers out. The Marines had carbines, pistols and enough ammunition to take on a small army of oilmen. There was much macho posturing on both sides of the fence. Schuler threatened force. The foreman conceded that the Marines looked like they meant business. Captain Schuler assured him that such was the case. The reporters were frantically taking notes. The foreman had to send for his supervisor. Of course, the supervisor was “rather peeved” (Schuler’s description), but gave in, asking the Marines to lunch after Schuler and his men slapped “no trespassing” signs all over the rig and barbed wire fence. Mission accomplished. Back in Washington, Roosevelt told Captain Schuler. “You did excellently and confirmed our pride in the ability of the Marine Corps to measure up to whatever it was put up against.”

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Read more about it: The Teapot Redux

Laton McCartney

Laton McCartney was born in Denver, Colorado and grew up on cattle ranches in Colorado and Wyoming. He is the author of the national bestseller, Friends in High Places: The Bechtel Story—The Most Secret...