Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

History of Yellowstone

Throughout its dynamic history, Yellowstone has inspired awe in all its visitors—American Indians, mountain men, explorers and modern-day adventurers.

The Earliest Humans in Yellowstone

The human history of the vast Yellowstone region goes back more than 11,000 years. How far back has yet to be determined, but their presence probably coincided with the end of the last period of ice coverage, approximately 14,000 years ago. Human occupation of the greater Yellowstone area seems to follow environmental changes of the last 15,000 years. Glaciers covered most of what is now Yellowstone Park. They receded and left behind rivers and valleys that people likely followed in pursuit of Ice Age mammals such as the mammoth and the giant bison.

The first people arrived in this region sometime before 11,000 years ago. Archeologists have found little physical evidence of their presence other than distinctive stone tools and projectile points. From these artifacts, scientists surmise that they hunted mammals and ate berries, seeds and roots.

As the climate in the Yellowstone region became warmer and drier, the animals, vegetation and human lifestyles also changed. Large Ice Age animals that were adapted to cold and wet conditions became extinct. People, who could no longer rely on large mammals for food, depended on smaller animals, such as deer and bighorn sheep. Plants such as bitterroot and prickly pear also became important staples.

Historic Tribes

Tribal oral histories indicate extensive use of the Yellowstone area during the Little Ice Age. Kiowa stories place their ancestors here from around A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1700. Ancestors to contemporary Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d'Alene, Bannock, Nez Perce, Shoshone and Umatilla, and other tribes continued to travel the park on the already established trails. They visited geysers, conducted ceremonies, hunted, gathered plants and minerals and engaged in trade. Some tribes used the Fishing Bridge area as a rendezvous site.

The Crow occupied the country generally east of the park, and the Blackfeet occupied the country to the north. The Shoshone, Bannock and other tribes of the plateaus to the west traversed the park area annually to hunt on the plains to the east. Other Shoshonean groups hunted in open areas west and south of Yellowstone.

In the early 1700s, some tribes in this region began to acquire horses. Some historians believe the horse fundamentally changed lifestyles because tribes could now travel faster and farther to hunt bison and other animals of the plains. The horse, however, does not seem to have changed the tribes' traditional use of the Yellowstone area.

The "Sheep Eaters"

Some groups of Shoshone who adapted to a mountain existence chose not to acquire the horse. These included the Sheep Eaters, or Tukudika, who used their dogs to transport food, hides and other provisions.

Sheep Eaters acquired their name from the bighorn sheep whose migrations they followed. Bighorn sheep were a significant part of their diet, and they crafted the carcasses into a wide array of tools and implements. For example, they made bows from sheep horn made pliable from soaking in hot springs. The tribe traded these bows, clothing and hides, to other tribes.

The Explorers

The written history of Yellowstone dates back to a vague and superstitious journal entry written by William Clark when he interviewed an American Indian after his return to St. Louis nearly 200 years ago: "There is frequently heard a loud noise like thunder, which makes the earth tremble, [Indians] state that they seldom go there because [their] children cannot sleep—and conceive it possessed of spirits, who were adverse that men should be near them." American Indians laugh at this. They were not afraid. Explorers Lewis and Clark did not venture into the land, even for a look, during their expedition across the northwest region of the continent from 1804 to 1806.

A member of their expedition, John Colter, however, hadn't had his fill of the wilds when Lewis and Clark headed back to St. Louis, Missouri, after their epic journey. He spent a full winter, probably during 1807—1808, trapping and wandering through what is now the park, looking for American Indian trading partners. Three years later, he related his discoveries in St. Louis, but his stories of the region were mocked and called "mad hallucinations."

Talk of this strange, almost alien, landscape resisted verification. Most of the eyewitnesses, fur trappers and traders, gave up their profession when the beaver hat went out of style around 1840, and Yellowstone was abandoned by the European Americans again and left to the American Indians.

Recounting doubtful tales of wonder became a mountain man's game, a form of pure entertainment far removed from the serious matters of daily life.

No one seemed to enjoy the storytelling more than the notorious trapper Jim Bridger. His very real contribution to the mapping of the West was often a side note to his many outrageous "Bridger Stories," which still live on as part of Yellowstone's legendary past.

After the Civil War, people turned their attention once again to the western frontier where gold miners were just giving up their mostly futile search for gold in Yellowstone. Called lies or delusions of drink, the miners' tales nevertheless fanned curiosity in the local saloons. A group of eager adventurers, Folsom, Cook and Peterson, tired of the speculation and determined to experience it all for themselves. Upon seeing the eruption of the Great Fountain Geyser, "We could not contain our enthusiasm; with one accord we all took off our hats and yelled with all our might."

National Park Status

Fortunately, one of the friends of those early adventurers would become the park's first superintendent, Nathaniel P. Langford. Recalling Bridger's tall tales, he rallied a distinguished group of local leaders, including the surveyor general of Montana, and set out the next year, in 1870, to sort fable from fact. These men, in awe of the landscape, plotted out the campaign that would help protect this magical place from private ownership and exploitation.

At their urging, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, director of the U.S. Geological & Geographical Survey of the Territories, mounted an official exploration. Knowing Congress would have to see proof to believe it, Hayden brought along Thomas Moran, a renowned artist, and William Henry Jackson, the famous landscape photographer. Their visual accounts and a 500-page land survey confirmed the incredible truth. Congress voted to set aside 2.1 million acres for Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872.

The establishment of Yellowstone marked a revolution in the human relationship with nature. For the first time, preservation of America's most remarkable landscapes became a common national and international goal.

Exhibits at the Albright Visitor Center bring the fascinating story of Yellowstone's history to life.