Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park


When humans started visiting the Jackson Hole area about 10,000 years ago, they followed trails across the land that were created eons before by migrating wildlife. For elk and bison—and later, nomadic tribes and fur trappers—the Jackson Hole area was simply a crossroads or seasonal hunting ground. Winters were too severe for long-term residency. It wasn't until about 120 years ago that year-round residents became a prominent part of the landscape.

Native Peoples

Archeological evidence reveals that bands of Paleo-Indians made summer camps near the Tetons soon after the last major ice age ended, about 10,000 years ago. It appears that they primarily used the valley to harvest its meadows of wild plants for their edible roots and seeds. The valley's large-animal populations were hunted for their meat and skins. Historians still ponder why these early bands of people left the area between A.D. 1000 and 1600 only to be replaced by today's more commonly known tribes of Shoshone, Crow, Gros Ventre and Blackfeet. Even these "modern" tribes were infrequent (usually summer only) visitors to the Tetons; they simply followed the ancient animal trails as they crossed the Continental Divide, east of the Teton Range and Jackson Hole valley.

Explorers Arrive

After Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery expedition passed near Jackson Hole and headed eastward in late 1806, member John Colter stayed in the West to join some hunters in probing the upper Yellowstone River for beaver. Their efforts were apparently less than rewarding; Colter parted amicably with the trappers the following spring to return alone to civilization.

But Colter's journey home was postponed once again. At the mouth of the Platte River, Colter met up with Manuel Lisa's expedition, which was intent on establishing a fur trade on the Upper Missouri River. Impressed by Colter's winter trapping experience and his ability to communicate with the Indians, Lisa persuaded him to help them with their venture. After Lisa's party established Fort Raymond, near the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers in the fall of 1807, Colter traveled widely to invite local tribes to the fort for the trading of beaver furs.

Beaver brought notoriety to the area at the turn of the 19th century, when giant commercial empires were being founded on the beaver fur trade. While British and American navies battled across the Atlantic in the War of 1812, British and American fur trappers skirmished in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Fur trapping was a daring occupation: A man had to survive alone for months against treacherous weather, steep mountains, swift rivers and fierce competitors—both animal and human.

John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company sent hundreds of trappers west, up the rivers into the Rockies, while competitors from the Hudson's Bay and Northwest fur companies of British-controlled Canada swept east from Vancouver. They all wanted to control beaver-rich canyons and valleys like Jackson Hole.

Many Indians shared in the beaver business, selling horses and supplies to the fur trappers and doing some trapping themselves. But tensions grew, especially as more and more Europeans started making permanent claims to Indian lands. The arrival of white settlers also introduced American Indians to the disease of smallpox, against which they had almost no immunity.

When beaver hats fell from fashion in the 1840s, so did interest in the Tetons. Almost 50 years passed before another wave of newcomers found the valley promising enough to settle.

Survey Expeditions

In 1840, mountain man Jim Bridger led Army Captain William Raynolds' survey party through the valley. They collected information about the native tribes, farming and mining possibilities and railroad routes.

In conjunction with his exploration of the Yellowstone region, young geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden made several forays into Jackson Hole. Jenny, Leigh, Bradley and Taggart lakes owe their names to members of his 1872 survey expedition. Jenny was the Shoshone wife of mountain man and guide "Beaver" Dick Leigh, Frank Bradley was the chief geologist on the team and W. R. Taggart was his assistant. Another member who helped make the Tetons famous was William H. Jackson, team photographer, who produced some of the first photos ever made of the Tetons.

That same year, President Ulysses S. Grant declared neighboring Yellowstone the world's first national park, drawing attention to a part of the country that was little known to the civilized world. The act heralded the start of a new industry in the region—tourism—and the Tetons were soon attracting their share of visitors, many of whom came to stay.

Homesteaders Take Root

The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres of land to anyone who promised to live and build on it for five years. The offer of free land apparently convinced many ranchers and farmers to overlook Jackson Hole's poor grazing and farming conditions. New settlers—such as John Holland and John Carnes, who in 1884 built the area's first permanent homesteads north of present-day Jackson—found surviving to be almost as tough as the solitary mountain men had before them.

Just getting the basics of modern life to Jackson Hole was difficult. Pack horses and wagon trains struggled over Teton Pass. Once in the valley, they had to deal with the swift Snake River. William Menor imprinted his presence on the valley when he opened Menors Ferry in 1894 to cross the Snake River at Moose.

In 1903, hunting guide Ben Sheffield started bringing wealthy clients to his camp at Moran. Four years later, homesteader Louis Joy opened the first dude ranch in the valley. Attracting visitors from around the world proved to be far more profitable than agriculture.

The Making of a Park

The Tetons first received government protection in 1897 when Con-gress created the Teton Forest Reserve out of land not included in Yellowstone National Park. As early as 1918 congressmen were floating bills to create a larger park sanctuary by expanding Yellowstone's boundary southward to include the Teton Range and northern portions of Jackson Hole. However, local residents fought and defeated three attempts to federalize land in Jackson Hole.

Creating a park in Teton country proved to be a mere wave in an ocean of controversy. In 1929, the central peaks of the Teton Range and half a dozen lakes at their base, officially became Grand Teton National Park. The newly created park was only a third of its present-day size. Since this 1929 park did not preserve a complete ecosystem nor protect mountain views from valley developments, work continued on the political stage to expand the original boundaries.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. entered the fray in 1926, when he toured Jackson Hole with Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Horace Albright. Albright believed that the beauty of Jackson Hole country would be spoiled if the valley below the Tetons was left to uncontrolled development. Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world at the time, agreed.

Since Congress appeared deadlocked on the issue of Grand Teton National Park expansion, Rockefeller took matters into his own hands. Through the Snake River Land Company, he quietly bought 35,000 acres of farm and ranch land between 1927 and the mid-1930s at a cost of $1.4 million. Rockefeller's stated goal was to donate the property for an expanded park. But congressional and local opposition kept the government from accepting the gift for 15 years. As a last resort, Rockefeller forced the issue in 1943 by threatening to sell his holdings on the open market.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by using presidential proclamation to create the Jackson Hole National Monument, a 221,000-acre tract of valley lands around the Snake River. His move took advantage of the fact that creating a monument didn't require congressional approval the way a national park would.

Wyoming residents still felt betrayed. Congress acted by passing a bill in an attempt to abolish the monument, which Roosevelt vetoed. The State of Wyoming filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service to overturn the proclamation, but the suit failed in the court system. In a final effort to show disapproval, Congress withheld monument maintenance money from the Interior Department's budget allocation.

By 1950, a compromise was finally reached. The original 1929 park was united with the 1943 Jackson Hole National Monument, establishing a "new" Grand Teton National Park with its present-day boundaries.

Today, most people would agree that Grand Teton National Park is a valuable asset of both Jackson Hole and the nation as a whole. Since the establishment of the park, tourism has surpassed cattle ranching to become the economic foundation of the region. And, with the development of major skiing attractions in 1965, Jackson Hole now has a year-round economy.