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VIII. Epilogue: 1841-1870

After 1840 Yellowstone Park was likewise virtually left in primeval solitude. There is tangible evidence of only four visits of white men during this period, and one attempted visit which failed. In his recently published biography, William Clark Kennerly has it that in 1843 a grand hunting expedition headed by Sir William Drummond Stewart, and including such notables as Sublette and Baptiste Charbonneau, camped one evening among the geysers, having particularly great sport in vain efforts to throttle "old Steam Boat." In 1844, according to Chittenden, a party of trappers, identity not disclosed, entered Upper Yellowstone Valley from the south, and "passed around the west shore of Yellowstone Lake to the outlet, where they had a severe battle with the Blackfoot Indians, in a broad open tract at that point. The remains of their old corral were still visible as late as 1870." (This might be a variant of the same battle of 1939, told by Hamilton.)

The remaining three expeditions were guided by James Bridger, who in 1843 had set up Fort Bridger on Black's Fork of Green River, to cater to the emigrants who were beginning to follow the Oregon Trail. James Gemmell claims to have been among those present in 1846 when Bridger led "a trading expedition to the Crows and Sioux," north up the Green River through Jackson's Hole to West Thumb, making a tour of the "wonderful spouting springs" and other scenic features before continuing down the Yellowstone. E. S. Topping states that in 1850 Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and twenty-two others on a prospecting trip out of St. Louis "crossed the mountains to the Yellowstone and down it to the lake and the falls; then across the Divide to the Madison River. They saw the geysers of the lower basin and named the river that drains them the Fire Hole. . . . The report of this party made quite a stir in St. Louis."

The only historically discernible "stir" made by Bridger's reports consisted of the usual incredulity and scoffing, exemplified by the timidity of a Kansas City editor who in 1856 let immortality slip through his grasp by refusing to publish Bridger's own version of "the place where Hell bubbled up." By this time, however, one notable Bridger story had actually broken through the literary overcast, and two more would soon appear to vindicate the famous trapper. In 1852 Lieutenant Gunnison, who had been a member of the Howard Stansbury exploring party which Bridger guided to Great Salt Lake in 1849, published a romantic but essentially accurate description of the principal scenic features. Here is a "lake, sixty miles long," a "perpendicular canyon," the "Great Springs" on successive terraces, and "geysers spouting seventy feet high." In his letter mentioned above, published in 1863, constituting a report on his participation in the Fort Laramie treaty council of 1851, Father De Smet located what is substantially the present Park "in the very heart of the Rocky Mountains, between the 43d and 45th degrees of latitude, and the 109th and 111th degrees of longitude; that is between the sources of the Madison and the Yellowstone," regarding it as "the most marvellous spot of all the northern half of the continent" because of its boiling springs, calcareous hills, escaping vapors, steamboat noises, subterranean explosions and, near Gardner River, "a mountain of sulphur." In this case likewise the source of his information was Bridger, "who is familiar with every one of these mounds, having passed thirty years of his life near them."

Even more illuminating to the historian than the well-known De Smet letter are five unpublished maps traced by that missionary. These maps had little contemporary influence and, though noted by his biographers in 1905, they have been neglected by subsequent historians. They are documents of signal import, which should inspire renewed respect for the ubiquitous Bridger and yet increase the stature of the versatile and indefatigable De Smet, already one of the giants of western history. Of these five maps four are still at St. Louis University, which was his headquarters. These are among dozens which were made by him in the course of his several western journeys, the information obtained by acute personal observation as well as "from trappers and intelligent Indians." The draftsmanship of the first three, while not striking, is respectable. One shows "Yellow Stone" River and tributaries as high as "Gardner's F." A second, embracing the Upper Missouri, Yellowstone, and Upper Platte regions, shows a nameless bladder-shaped lake at the head of the Yellowstone and a conspicuous "Hot Sulphur Spring" north of the lake. A third, embracing the entire West from the Great Basin to the Forks of the Platte, shows essentially the same features. The fourth map in the St. Louis collection is the most intriguing. This depicts that remarkable twisted region of the Rocky Mountains where the headwaters of the Yellowstone, the Wind, the Green, the Snake, and the Missouri rivers unwind before rolling to their respective oceans. The undated map is crude and smeary, and it has all the earmarks of being sketched in the field without benefit of desk or blotter. In view of De Smet's express testimony that the most famous trapper of all supplied him with his geographic data, at least for the "Yellowstone Park" section, it is a fair guess that this was drawn by De Smet with Bridger at his elbow. Here, on a rough chart consigned to the oblivion of a library vault, is where "Yellowstone Park" first comes into clear focus. Allowing for pardonable distortions, all of the principal scenic features are in evidence: the geyser basins of the Firehole ("volcanic country"); Mammoth Hot Springs ("Sulphur Mountain" near "Gardener's Cr."); a shapeless Yellowstone Lake ("60 by 9") with "Hot Springs" and "Great Volcanoes" alongside; the Grand Canyon and "Falls 290 feet"; and Hayden Valley ("Volcanic country [?] Steam Springs"). Two Ocean Pass, Jackson Lake, and "Colter's Hell" on Stinking River are other conspicuous features near by.

The "Bridger Map" is the obvious source of the Yellowstone data found on the fifth De Smet map, embracing the western United States, which is more carefully drawn than the others. This large untitled map, with a bold floral border, is dated 1851, and contains the following fading inscription within curved palm fronds: "respectfully presented to Col. David D. [?] Mitchell [by] P. J. De Smet, Soc. Jes." As to the circumstances under which this map was drawn, De Smet explains as follows in a letter dated July 1,1857, to officials of the Department of the Interior:

When I was at the council ground in 1851, on the Platte River, at the mouth of the Horse creek, I was requested by Colonel Mitchell [superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis] to make a map of the whole Indian country, relating particularly to the Upper Missouri, the waters of the upper Platte, east of the Rocky mountains and of the headwaters of the Columbia and its tributaries west of these mountains. In compliance with this request I drew up the map from scraps then in my possession. The map, so prepared, was seemingly approved and made use of by the gentlemen assembled in council, and subsequently sent on to Washington together with the treaty then made with the Indians. In my humble opinion, therefore, it can be of very little service for your purposes, in which accuracy of instrumental measurements and observation seems to be absolutely necessary. . . .

The final gesture of modesty may explain why this revealing map, prepared and made available to the government twenty years before the first official Park exploration got under way, was duly glanced at by the department authorities and then tucked away, a needle in the haystack of official files, in Washington D C., where it still reposes. It contains all the features of the "Bridger Map," but with refinements. Here is a "Great Volcanic Region [?] now in a state of eruption," drained by "Fire Hole Riv." The lake now appear as "Yellowstone or Sublette's Lake," still oddly sausage-shaped. There is a "Little Falls" at the head of the canyon but the more impressive Lower Falls are unexplainably omitted. To the southwest, in the position of present Shoshone Lake, is "De Smet Lake." To the east at the forks of "Stinking Fr." appears the "Sulphur Springs or Colter's Hell Volcano" which, due to the unavailability of this map, has led so many historians astray. This map, with its manuscript forebears, ranks with the Ferris journal and map and the Potts letter as one of the principal historical documents pertaining to early Yellowstone.

Trappers in Pierre's Hole, west of "Les Trois Tetons".

It is not evident that information given by Gunnison and De Smet or any of their predecessors relative to unusual phenomena on the Upper Yellowstone greatly impressed representatives of the Federal Government. Certainly no eagerness to verify these reports is betrayed in the official instructions dated April 13, 1859, by which Captain Raynolds, Corps of Topographical Engineers, was directed "to organize an expedition for the exploration of the region of the country through which flow the principal tributaries of the Yellowstone river, and of the mountains in which they, and the Gallatin and Madison forks of the Missouri, have their source." However, since one of the objects of this exploration was to ascertain the principal topographical features and since, moreover, the indispensable Bridger was secured as a guide, it would seem that the Yellowstone marvels were just about to be officially discovered and proclaimed. Not so, however. The expedition left winter camp on Platte River in May 1860. While a detachment under Lieutenant Henry E. Maynadier went north along the eastern slope of the Absaroka Range, the main party ascended Wind River to Union Pass, then turned north seeking the headwaters of the Yellowstone. Deep snow and a great "basaltic ridge" blocked their efforts before they reached Two Ocean Pass, and they had to satisfy themselves with encircling the Park area via Jackson's Hole, Teton Pass, Henry's Fork, and Raynolds' Pass. By way of the Madison, they rejoined Maynadier at the Three Forks. Raynolds' report and map became the first recognition by the Federal Government of the possible existence of volcanic activity in the region, of the Upper Yellowstone. For information regarding the "burning plains, immense lakes, and boiling springs" and other unverifiable phenomena mentioned he was, of course, indebted to his guide Bridger, with trimmings added by Meldrum. On his "Map of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers," within the "enchanted enclosure" which now constitutes Yellowstone National Park, the soldier-explorer had the courage to place "Yellowstone Lake," "Falls of the Yellowstone," "Burnt Hole," "Sulphur Mountain," and "Elephant's Back Mt.," all now recognizable features. This was an extraordinary demonstration of faith in Bridgers veracity. Because of the Civil War, publication of the report was delayed until 1868, but the map itself was first issued separately a few years earlier.

It was the discovery of gold, first in California and later in Colorado, which started the population moving centrally westward in great numbers and diverted whatever attention might otherwise have become focussed on the Upper Yellowstone region. It was the discovery of gold in western Montana which brought about its rediscovery and early creation as the world's first National Park. Although there was desultory prospecting previous to 1862, it was in that year that the news of several major gold strikes was broadcast and a full scale stampede to the diggings began. In the spring of 1863 at least two prospecting parties entered the Park. Although they were feverishly preoccupied with the search for gold the unusual character of the country did not escape them entirely, and the leader of one party made something akin to the first scientific eyewitness report. This was Walter W. DeLacy, a professional surveyor. In August 1863 he fell in with an expedition of forty-two men bound for Snake River, and was elected captain. Their search being unrewarded, fifteen of the party deserted at Jackson Lake, the others deciding to push north. From the junction of the Lewis and the Snake they went over the Pitchstone Plateau to discover Shoshone Lake and Lewis Lake. From there they crossed over the Divide to the geyser basins of the Firehole. Although amazed at the "Steamboat Springs" they had little time for sight-seeing, and left the Park by way of the Gallatin. DeLacy's discoveries were incorporated in his "Map of the Territory of Montana," which was published "for the use of the First Legislature of Montana" in 1865. His accurate firsthand knowledge of the western section of the Park is reflected in the correct relationship of "Jackson's Lake" and unnamed Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake, and in the "Hot Spring Valley" or geyser basin at the headwaters of the Madison. Identifiable features of the unvisited eastern section consist only of a misshapen "Yellow Stone Lake" and the "Falls."

We have recognized the Ferris map of 1836 and the De Smet map of 1851, based on the undated "Bridger Map," as the earliest authentic maps of the Yellowstone Park area, but these remained unpublished and unheralded. The Raynolds and DeLacy maps, though purporting to reveal the scenic wonders, were scanned mainly by single-minded gold seekers before they became obsolete. As to other contemporary published maps, the persistence of this geographical blind spot in the face of testimony offered by such prime witnesses as Potts, Ferris, and Bridger is demonstrated by the fact that for over half a century of map making by such respected cartographers are John Arrowsmith, Albert Gallatin, Bonneville, Fremont, and Gouverneur K. Warren there was no improvement in the "Yellowstone Park" section of the Clark map of 1810, with its "Lake Eustis" and "Hot Spring Brimstone." There were only occasional meaning less variations of nomenclature. For instance, on the Robert Greenhow map of 1840 and on E. F. Beade's "New Map of the Great West," published in 1856, "Hot Sulphur Springs" is substituted. On Charles Wilkes' "Map of Oregon Territory" which appeared in 1845 and on the J. H. Colton map which accompanied Horn's Overland Guide, published in 1856, this phenomenon becomes "Steamboat Sp." and Eustis is transformed into "Sublette's L." However, on the famed Colton map of 1867, just five years before the first boat was launched from its shores, the phantom lake—Eustis Sublette, or Yellowstone—has disappeared entirely!

Contemporary newspaper accounts and later published reminiscences reveal several prospecting expeditions which traversed the Park area during the period 1864-1869, but the partial and foggy reports of "a lost world" given out by these treasure hunters did little to dispel the curtain of mystery stubbornly surrounding the area. The cumulative effect of such reports and rumors, however, was destined soon to convince intelligent listeners that no wild tale could be so persistent, and that there must be something at the headwaters of the Yellowstone worth looking into. In September 1869, David E. Folsom, Charles W. Cook, and William Peterson packed south out of Diamond City, Montana, without distracting thoughts of beaver hides or gold, but with the express purpose of exploring that neighborhood and reporting their findings without adornment. General Henry D. Washburn, Hon. Cornelius Hedges, Hon. Nathaniel Langford, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, and Photographer William H. Jackson were standing in the wings. The brief era of definitive discovery was dawning.

First picture ever made of Yellowstone Lake from watercolor by Henry W. Elliott, 1871. Picture courtesy of Haynes Studios, Inc.


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

colter/chap8.htm — 05-Mar-2004