I. Strange Land of "Volcanoes" and "Shining Mountains"
The Yellowstone-Grand Teton region was not officially
discovered and its scenic marvels were not publicly pro claimed until
the 1870's, beginning with the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition. For
thirty years before, from 1841 to 1869, this region was a Paradise Lost,
rarely visited by white men. But for thirty year before that, or
from 1807 to 1840, this region had hundreds of appreciative visitors.
These were the Rocky Mountain fur trappers. While searching for the
golden-brown fur of the beaver, destined for the St. Louis market, these
adventurers thoroughly explored this fabulous region. Although news of
their discoveries received scant public notice back in the settlements,
or was discounted as tall tales, to them belongs the honor of being the
first actual explorers of these twin parks.
Neighboring Yellowstone and Grand Teton, established
as National Parks in 1872 and 1929, respectively, are separately managed
today as units of our National Park System. But geographically, now as
well as in the early nineteenth century, they embrace one unique region,
characterized by topographic and geologic features that are the
crescendo of a great scenic symphony. Here, at the heart of the
continent, the source of the three major river systems of the
continentthe Columbia, the Colorado, and the
Missouri-Mississippimay be found the greatest geyser basins, the
largest mountain lake, the most colorful of kaleidoscopic canyons, one
of the richest arrays of wildlife, and one of the most spectacularly
beautiful mountain ranges in the world. The Yellowstone-Grand Teton
region has historical unity, also, particularly during the obscure but
heroic age of the Rocky Mountain fur trade.
"Colter's Hell"bearing the name of the
legendary discoverer, and conjuring up visions of a primitive "Dante's
Inferno"is the term which visitors today associate with the early
history of Yellowstone National Park and its universally famous
hydrothermal wonders. Actually, the wandering, bearded, buck-skinned
beaver trappers never referred to the geyser region of the upper Madison
as Colter's Hell. As we will see, the real Colter's Hell in Jim
Bridger's day was another place altogether, having nothing to do with
anything within Yellowstone Park itself. In trapper times the
Yellowstone geyser area had no fixed name but was variously described by
them as a region of "great volcanoes," "boiling springs" or "spouting
fountains." On the recently discovered Hood and Ferris maps (see below)
it is labeled "the Burnt Hole" (although this name seems to have been
restricted by Russell and others to the Hebgen Lake Valley). Captain
Bonneville tells us that his men knew of this region as "the Firehole"
and this name, as applied to the river draining the geyser basins,
Yellowstone Park, carved out of territorial Wyoming,
Montana, and Idaho, is a rough-edged rectangle of 3,500 square miles
that straddles the twisting course of the Continental Divide. It is a
geological circus, a unique creation of ancient volcanoes and glaciers,
flanked on the southeast and east by the Absaroka Range, on the north by
the Snowy Range, on the northwest by the Gallatin and Madison ranges, on
the west by the Centennial Range, and on the south by the Teton
Indians at Jackson Lake.
From the Park flow the headwaters of two continental
rivers and their major tributaries. From here the Snake River arcs
southward toward Jackson's Hole and the cathedral-like Tetons, destined
to join the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. Here the Firehole and
Gibbon rivers, draining the principal geyser basins, unite to become the
Madison River, and here also arises the Gallatin, these being two of the
Three Forks of the Missouri. Here arises a branch of the North Fork of
the Shoshone River, a tributary of the Bighorn. And here, after its
birth near Two Ocean Pass, begins the mighty Yellowstone River which,
after passing through its vast mirror-like lake and its prismatic
canyon, flows out onto the plains to receive the Bighorn and join the
Missouri on its marathon journey to the Mississippi River and the Gulf
This region held a fortune in coveted beaver skins,
but it was remote, snowbound, haunted by the vindictive Blackfeet, and
plagued by weird visions, sulphurous fumes, and uncanny noises. Here
indeed was fertile soil for a legend.
On a clear day Yellowstone Park visitors can see to
the south the mountain spires which identify Grand Teton National Park
of Wyoming, an indefinable shape of 500 square miles. (The actual
boundaries of these neighboring parks are separated by a scant five
miles.) The Tetons are perhaps the most distinctive of the granite
giants which comprise the Rocky Mountains. A series of sharp pyramids of
naked rock, the peaks stand like sharks' teeth against the sky. The most
precipitous sides and the most needle-like summit belong to the highest
of these, the Grand Teton, which rises over 7,000 feet from its
immediate base, nearly 14,000 feet above the level of the distant
The Teton Mountains are the most conspicuous
landmarks of a region which contains the scrambled sources of the three
greatest river systems of continental United States. As we have seen,
Yellowstone Park to the north gives birth to the eastward-flowing
Missouri and the westward flowing Columbia waters. East of the Tetons,
in the Wind River Mountains, is the head of Green River which rolls
southward to merge into the mighty Colorado River, tumbling through the
arid lands to the Gulf of California.
Jackson's Hole is that part of the Upper Snake River
Valley which lies at the eastern base of the Teton Range. One of the
largest enclosed valleys in the Rocky Mountains, its glaciated floor
extends about sixty miles north and south, and varies up to twelve miles
in width. It is bounded on the west by the Tetons, on the east and south
by the less pretentious Mount Leidy Highlands and the Gros Ventre and
Hoback Mountains. The Gros Ventres merge imperceptibly into the Wind
River Mountains farther east, the crest of which forms the Continental
Divide. The southern extremity of the Tetons merges with the eastern end
of the Snake River Range near the canyon where the Snake River escapes
from the valley.
Historic Jackson's Hole, also known as "Jackson's Big
Hole"but now politely refined to just plain Jackson Holewas
named in 1829 for David Jackson, one of the partners of the Rocky
Mountain Fur Company. To the early trapper a "hole" was a sizeable
valley abounding in game, and usually (with the exception of
Yellowstone's "Firehole") associated with some distinctive
personalityhence Brown's Hole, Pierre's Hole, Gardner's Hole, etc.
However, Jackson's Hole was more than just a pleasant spot for trapping
and camping. Research gives substance to the view that this was the
historic crossroads of the Rocky Mountain fur trade.
Jackson's Hole was destined by geography to become a
traffic center of the Western fur trade. Between South Pass at the head
of the Little Sandy and the northern passes above the Three Forks of the
Missouri it offered the most feasible route across the Rocky Mountain
barrier. In addition, it was the focal point of a region that was highly
prized and vigorously contested because of its populous beaver streams.
Here trappers' trails converged like the spokes of a great wheel and,
after Lewis and Clark, most of the important trapper-explorers crossed
Jackson's Hole on their journeys.
Indian "Buffalo Jump"Yellowstone Valley.
In historic times there were seven gateways to and
from Jackson's Hole: northward up Snake River; northeastward up Pacific
Creek to Two Ocean Pass; eastward up Buffalo Fork to Twogwotee Pass;
eastward up the Gros Ventre to Union Pass; southward up the Hoback to
Green River; westward via Teton Pass or Conant Pass (at the south and
north extremities of the Teton Range) to Pierre's Hole.
The Tetons received their name from French-Canadian
trappers who accompanied the earliest British expeditions into this
territory. As they approached the range from the west, they beheld three
towering mountains upon which they bestowed the name of "Trois Tetons"
("Three Breasts"). This romantic designation was readily adopted by the
lonely trapping fraternity to whom the sharp snowy peaks (now known as
the Grand, Middle and South Tetons) became a beacon to guide them
through the hostile wilderness. To the Indians the Tetons were variously
known as "The Three Brothers," "The Hoaryheaded Fathers," and "Tee
Win-at," meaning "The Pinnacles." The earliest Americans in the region,
being more practical than romantic, could find no better name for the
silvery spires than "The Pilot Knobs," while an official Hudson's Bay
Company map indicates with equal homeliness, "The Three Paps." The name
"Three Tetons" survived, however, and was officially recognized by
cartographers. The name first appeared publicly in the Bonneville Map of
"Dawn of Discovery"Exhibit in Fur Trade Museum,
Grand Teton National Park.
The Upper Snake River (i.e., above the mouth of
Henry's Fork) was called "Mad River" by the Astorians. Others simply
referred to it as the "Columbia River" or "the headwaters of the
Columbia," but to most of the fur trappers it was "Lewis River" or
"Lewis Fork," so originally named in the Clark Map of 1810 for Capt.
Meriwether Lewis, as Clark's Fork of the Columbia was named after his
fellow explorer, Capt. William Clark. This name was much more
appropriate than its present one, which is derived from the Snake or
Shoshone Indians, and first appears on the Greenhow Map of 1840.
In spite of past efforts by water power advocates to
"improve" it by a dam, Yellowstone Lake remains just as it was when
first discovered by John Colter, the original "Lake Eustis" of the Clark
Map of 1810. Jackson Lake, however, was enlarged by a dam built in 1916
by the Bureau of Reclamation. This lake is identifiable with the "Lake
Biddle" of the Clark Map of 1810, the "Teton Lake" of Warren A. Ferris,
and the "Lewis Lake" referred to frequently by another trapper, Joseph
L. Meek. There is today a tributary of the Upper Snake known as Lewis
River, heading in a Lewis Lake within the confines of Yellowstone
National Park, neither of which are to be confused with the historic
"Lewis River" and "Lewis Lake".