Grand Teton
National Park
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National Park

sketch of beaver trap

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 continent—the Columbia, the Colorado, and the Missouri-Mississippi—may 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, survives today.

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 Mountains.

sketch of Native Americans
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 of Mexico.

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 sea.

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 Hole—was 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 personality—hence 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.

sketch of buffalo jump
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 1837.

museum exhibit
"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".


Colter's Hell and Jackson's Hole
©1962, Yellowsone Association
Grant Teton Natural History Association

colter/chap1.htm — 05-Mar-2004