Grand Teton
Historic Resource Study
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Everyone in Jackson Hole is an environmentalist—until their ox is being gored.

—Anonymous, 1980

Welcome to Jackson Hole, where men remain boys and women work three jobs.

—Unnamed Local Pundit, 1990

tourists with car a scenic overlook along lake

This history is as much a story of place—Jackson Hole—as it is of people. Traditionally, historians perceived the history of the American West as a process whereby successive waves of frontiersmen moved west to tame the wilderness. Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier hypothesis, first proposed in 1893, was the genesis of this view. Turner's theory imposed the view that the significant history of the West ended with the closure of the frontier in 1890. With the passing of time, historians found this approach insufficient to explaining Western history, particularly in the twentieth century. As historian Patricia Limerick observed, "Turner's frontier was a process, not a place." [1] Thinking of Western history as a story of place, rather than a process, offers new perspectives and makes developments in the West since 1900 much more comprehensible.

Viewing the history of Jackson Hole as a "place" raises a second point; the most persistent theme binding this story together is the interaction between humans and the environment. Beginning with prehistoric people, successive groups have passed through this valley. Each perceived and used the land and resources differently. Native Americans and their prehistoric ancestors prized the roots and seeds of many native plants that grow here. Hunters and gatherers, they depended exclusively and directly on natural resources for their survival. Few in number, Indians had a light impact on the land. The first Euro-Americans, fur trappers, quickly drove the beaver to commercial extinction in Jackson Hole. Unlike later ranchers and farmers, grubbing sage and turning over virgin soil held little appeal for mountain men.

The arrival of settlers ushered in a new era. For the first time, people took up permanent residence in the valley. They perceived resources differently than trappers or Indians, initiating changes that reshaped the valley's landscape. Unlike prehistoric people, settlers made little use of edible plants, instead relying on transportation links to haul in food staples as demonstrated by trash piles of tin cans revealed by snow melting under the spring sun. Opposing perceptions of resources and appropriate uses formed the essential conflict between nineteenth-century developers and conservationists. Few places illustrate this story so well as Jackson Hole. Federal laws created reserves, principally national parks and national forests, which halted settlement and development on much of the public domain. Private philanthropy joined the fray when John D. Rockefeller Jr., donated the money to buy back private lands and return them to the public domain. His initiative did not just stop the clock, it turned the clock back.

History is fundamentally the study of continuity and change. The clash between preservationists and developers persists today in the West, demonstrating the continuity with our past. It is wrong to presume that many of today's issues in the West are new. They are rooted in the past. However, historians Michael P. Malone and Richard W. Etulain caution that "the overriding feature of modern western history is a persistent barrage of change." [2] Four developments were critical in shaping the history of this valley.

First, the fur trade was very important to Jackson Hole. Mountain men were the first Euro-Americans to breach the mountain barriers encompassing this valley, opening the door for later migrations. Situated in the heart of prime trapping country, near the headwaters of the majority of the West's great rivers, Jackson Hole became the crossroads of the fur trade in the northern Rockies. Further, it was mountain men who guided explorers and trappers west.

The arrival of John Holland and John Carnes in 1884 marked the beginning of dramatic changes. Settlers introduced domestic plants and animals, displacing some native species. The impact of overgrazing is evident in the valley. Native animals perceived as threats were killed off most notably the gray wolf. Homesteaders cut ditches to irrigate fields, which drastically affected water resources. The Jackson Lake dam memorializes government sponsorship of massive reclamation projects.

The rise of the conservation movement occurred concurrently with the settlement of the frontier. The creation of federal reserves withdrew millions of acres from the public domain, preventing their transfer to private ownership, and enabling government to introduce conservation practices and regulation to reduce wasteful consumption of resources. The enabling legislation for Yellowstone National Park, and the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 endure as the most significant laws in the history of the conservation movement. The fact that more than 96 percent of the land in Teton County is public land administered by federal agencies has been decisive in shaping this valley's history.

The last major development occurred when tourism blossomed, displacing cattle ranching as the dominant economic activity in Jackson Hole. This event caused significant changes in perceptions regarding the highest value and use of resources.

Two other influences, technology and population growth, fostered significant change in this valley. Technological improvements in transportation, notably the internal combustion engine, reduced the geographic isolation of Jackson Hole, an element that lent it a special charm at one time. The advent of the automobile led to modern highways, often through seemingly impenetrable routes like the Snake River Canyon. Improved snow removal equipment enables road crews to keep passes and highways open year round today, a difficult task 40 years ago, impossible 75 years ago. Today, a modern airport allows people to ride modern planes in comfort, their only inconveniences lost luggage or bad coffee.

In 1900, fewer than 700 people lived in Jackson Hole; today more than 11,000 people live in Teton County. In 1929, about 10,000 visitors came to the newly-created Grand Teton National Park; today roughly 2,500,000 visitors tour the park annually. Increases in both the permanent and migratory population have elevated the pressure on resources significantly.

Less tangible than technology or population, but no less pervasive in the history of the Teton country, are myths. Sooner or later, Limerick observed, "when professional scholars investigate the past, friction is almost inevitable." [3] In the course of my research, I found information that refuted local myths about people and events. However, conflicts between history and myth are not bad. James Robertson, in his book American Myth, American Reality found that myths serve a valuable purpose by providing "good, 'workable' ways" for people to understand confusing and contradictory events and complex people and their behavior. For scholars, myths provide important clues about peoples' perceptions and make good history better. [4]

For example, according to local legend, Jackson Hole's preeminent poacher, "Beaver Tooth" Neal, was never caught or convicted for his illegal activities. A number of tales portray Neal as a crafty individual, who consistently outwitted game wardens, usually characterized as dim-witted buffoons. In reality, Neal had a lengthy record of convictions. In 1909, Pierce Cunningham, as justice of the peace, fined Neal $50 plus court costs after Forest Service rangers caught him in the act of poaching and arrested him. In 1914, Neal's neighbors, Jack Shive and Nate Smith, traveled to Kemmerer, Wyoming, to testify against Neal regarding poaching charges. Nineteen years later, in 1933, a court sentenced Neal to 90 days in jail and fined him $100 for illegal possession of 11 untagged beaver pelts. The Jackson's Hole Courier noted that Neal had for two decades "occupied a prominent place in the Justice Court's records." [5] The Neal myth illustrates two important points from a historian's perspective. First, some in Jackson Hole regarded poachers as folk heroes, despite the harm they wreak on wildlife. Second, anti-government sentiment, the underpinning of the Neal myth, runs strong in the Teton country.

A more significant conflict with local myths occurs over the activities of the National Park Service and Snake River Land Company in connection with park extension efforts in the 1930s. John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Horace Albright were special targets for vilification. Even though Senate sub-committee hearings proved all charges baseless, save the A. W. Gabbey incident, rumors still persist about strong-arm tactics used in the land purchase program. With the exception of one first-hand account, I found no evidence of perfidy. Also, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, some continue to believe the Rockefeller family bought resorts and dude ranches to monopolize the tourist industry. While myths, used judiciously, augment history, they make an accurate reconstruction of events more difficult.

The lack of sources or incomplete or contradictory sources also make the historian's task difficult. These are common problems in all fields of history, but are especially prevalent in local history. For example, few ranchers kept records that provide exact dates of construction of buildings. Hence, in many cases, research can only establish a period of construction for structures on a property. The story of Bill Blackburn's fiddle illustrates the difficulty of researching local history.

Bill Blackburn was a pioneer in the valley and one of its characters. Wilford Nielson, an attorney and editor of the Jackson's Hole Courier, told this story about Blackburn. A man of strong opinions, Blackburn once engaged Nielson and others in the newspaper office in a debate over the traits that gave violins their musical quality. Blackburn firmly believed that age was the most critical factor. To prove his point, he left the Courier office, gathered all the violins he could lay his hands on, and returned. He tested each violin and compared their dates of manufacture. His bore the inscription "Anno 1711," therefore played the sweetest music.

After Blackburn left to locate other violins, Nielson wrote "Anno 1709" on brown wrapping paper and secured it to one of the violins. Feigning surprise, Nielson showed his discovery to Blackburn when he returned. Blackburn took one look and grunted, "yours is 1709 and mine is 1711. Mine is just two years older." Nielson had to concede defeat. [6] This story inspired me to create a file titled "Blackburn's Fiddle;" this file became the repository for suspect information, inconsistent dates or information, and riddles of Jackson Hole history that appear to have no solution.

This study establishes the historic contexts pertinent to Grand Teton National Park. Not all have representative resources that fit them, nor do all properties within a context warrant nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, some subjects are classified as elements of a larger context. The following are significant contexts: Fur Trade; Explorers and Scientists; Homesteading (Pre-1900, Post-1900, and Farming); Irrigation/Reclamation; Cattle Ranchers; Dude Ranching; Commerce/Communities; Conservation (Forest Service, Park Service, Snake River Land Company); and Tourism. Several properties fitting these contexts stand out. Their absence would have made a difference in the history of Jackson Hole.

The Murie Ranch is significant because of its association with Olaus and Margaret Murie. For 17 years, Murie directed the activities of the Wilderness Society, confronting numerous environmental issues of national importance. Murie was an important spokesman and leader of the modern environmental movement. After his death in 1963, Mardy Murie continued promoting environmental causes. The Murie's youngest son, Donald Murie, expressed his feelings about his father in a letter to his mother. While driving to the ranch from the town of Jackson, he observed trumpeter swans, a few early elk on the refuge, and a red-tailed hawk suspended in the sky. "I was very suddenly hit by an overwhelming feeling that great as my loss was, theirs was even greater. They had lost an important interpreter and ambassador, an influential lobbyist in the human court." [7]

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Menor's Ferry represents the transportation frontier. From 1894 through 1926, the ferry served as a major link in Jackson Hole's transportation system. Nearby is the Maud Noble cabin, a part of Menor's Ferry, significant for one event, the 1923 meeting of citizens concerned over the commercialization of the valley. While the meeting has been debunked by some in recent years, it was important because local conservationists and Horace Albright decided on a course of action to protect Jackson Hole.

Beaver Creek is significant for its associations with early park administration and, even though altered, the old administration building for its association with the early Forest Service. The rustic log buildings served as the first headquarters from 1930 to 1958. The log buildings also possess architectural significance, representing the best of WPA-CCC construction.

Along the Snake River is the Bar BC. The second dude ranch in Jackson Hole, it is the most important for several reasons, among them its association with Struthers Burt, an author, conservationist, and pioneer dude rancher. It was among the earliest dude ranches in the West and operated until the 1940s. Burt's Diary of a Dude Wrangler helped assure the Bar BC's place in history. This ranch represents a way of life and a context extremely important to this valley's history and identity today.

At Jenny Lake, two buildings are especially important. One is the Crandall Studio. Harrison Crandall established himself as the park's greatest publicist, taking thousands of pictures sold as postcards and large framed prints. The Jenny Lake Ranger Station, moved in 1930 from the Lee Manges place, was the park's first ranger station and museum.

Finally, there is the Pierce Cunningham cabin. A crude structure, it may be the oldest homestead cabin surviving in the valley. Listed in the National Register, it is preserved and interpreted by the park today. Pierce Cunningham was one of the valley's outstanding citizens, serving as a justice of the peace and later, county commissioner. Also a rancher, he raised cattle for years, then turned to sheep ranching for a time. The cabin was saved originally because it was the scene of the shootout where a posse gunned down two alleged rustlers.

When historians reach the end of their research and hitch it to the present, the temptation to speculate on the future, though dangerous, is irresistible. For example, years ago, forecasters predicted that the work week of Americans would decrease, allowing more leisure. This has not happened for most Americans, because of economic and social change. Recent studies indicate that Americans work longer each week than in the past. In addition, more women have entered the workforce, either by personal choice or economic necessity. This has resulted in less leisure time for many Americans. Working couples struggle to schedule vacations together. Less leisure time has resulted in shorter, but more frequent, family outings.

Several observations can be made about Jackson Hole today that will most likely remain true in the future. It is a community grappling for an identity, which is reflected in ongoing debates over land-use planning, zoning, and development. Teton County claims the distinction of having the highest cost of living in Wyoming. Conversely, because low paying jobs in the tourist industry comprise the bulk of employment, the county has the lowest average wage in the state. People working two to three part-time jobs is not uncommon. It has the staunchest environmental base in Wyoming. Yet it is environmentalism tinged with self-interest. I have often heard individuals protest forcefully against commercial extraction of resources in the national forest, yet remain blind to impacts caused by recreational uses that they favor. While the valley promotes its Old West character, using slogans like "Welcome to Jackson Hole—the last of the Old West," the town of Jackson exhibits a blend of Colorado ski resort and national park gateway community. Its western heritage is the product of marketing, not history or reality.

The truest and most realistic frontier people are still going strong—real estate speculators. Historian Patricia Limerick observed, "if Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western history, its movies would be about real estate," and its heroes, surveyors, realtors, and lawyers. From the treaty that divided the Northwest Territory between Great Britain and the United States to surveyors plotting lots in the town of Jackson, the history of the American West has always been, at its most basic level, about property. [8] Prior to 1900, a wealthy dude named Moser hoped "to buy the whole valley because he felt this valley would one day be worth a lot of money and he could make a cleaning on it." And could the signers of the 1925 petition supporting a "museum on the hoof" in Jackson Hole been motivated in part by real estate speculation when they qualified their offer to sell their land "at what we consider a fair price?" Harrison and Hildegard Crandall considered subdividing their property near String Lake, before deciding to sell to the Snake River Land Company, Around 1940, rumors circulated that J. D. Kimmel planned to subdivide the Geraldine Lucas property south of Jenny Lake. Set in the heart of land that park supporters sought to protect, one observer believed that "nothing more disastrous would happen to the proposed project of preserving the valley." [9]

The conquest of land continues today, the competition heated and stakes high, with the advantage to the bearer of the biggest bank account, moderated only by the ebb and flow of boom-and-bust cycles. Rather than present an Old West shootout on summer evenings at the Jackson square, a real estate closing or even a foreclosure would capture a more prevalent western experience.

In 1970, the United States became the first nation in the world where suburbanites outnumbered urban and rural residents. Suburbanization has reshaped the character of Jackson Hole. Molded by the automobile, the valley exhibits all the elements of the "crabgrass frontier," historian Kenneth T. Jackson's label for suburbanization. Homes are designed with garages stuck prominently on the front facade, as subdivisions consume agricultural land in the valley. Developers coin names like "Buck Meadows, then proceed to pave over those meadows with asphalt, preempting more mule deer range. Drive-up windows have become a prominent feature of businesses; strip development best describes Broadway, Jackson's "main drag;" and shopping centers, suburbia's marketplace, have erupted with their trademark behemoth parking lots. Even Grand Teton National Park has not escaped the suburban influence with two government housing areas at Moose and Colter Bay that are tract developments. [10] This process will continue in Jackson Hole so long as private land is available.

In recent years, cities have experienced a phenomenon called gentrification, a process whereby affluent people buy up residences and businesses in decayed urban neighborhoods and renovate them. Gentrification escalates property taxes and rent, driving out lower income people. A similar trend is occurring in Jackson Hole today. People with higher incomes are buying land and residences as second homes. This has driven real estate values to a plateau that makes home ownership difficult for people earning low to moderate incomes. Concurrently, rental housing costs have increased significantly. Like suburbanization, the second home trend is "a manifestation of such fundamental characteristics of American society as conspicuous consumption, a reliance upon the private automobile, upward mobility, the separation of family into nuclear units, the widening division between work and leisure, and a tendency toward racial and economic exclusiveness." [11]

Finally, thanks to advanced communications and improved transportation, people relocate here and either commute by airplane to work, or use computer technology to work out of their homes. This development will increase for the foreseeable future.

If the future remains difficult to predict, does the history of a place called Jackson Hole teach us anything? Its most fundamental and persistent theme is the interaction between humans and the environment. This valley's history teaches us how dependent we, and our civilization, are on the environment and its resources. Pressure on natural resources continues as the valley's population increases, perhaps more from visitors than year-round residents. Conflicts over resources will intensify, particularly between environmentalists and developers. How much private land should be set aside for scenic easements? Should public money be used to buy easements? How many board feet of lumber should be harvested annually from national forests? How much development is needed to provide for the public enjoyment of Grand Teton National Park? When all available private land in Jackson Hole is developed, how much pressure will be exerted to gain access to public lands and what form will it take—land exchanges, boundary adjustments, leases, outright de-authorization? These questions are rooted in the past and will preoccupy the people of Jackson Hole in the future.

The history of this valley teaches us to be less anthropocentric in our outlook. Living before the Teton Range reinforces the concept that humankind is not the center of the universe and brings people closer to the natural world. Earth history is much longer than human history by a long shot. Four and one-half billion years of earth history should teach us that this planet and its ecosystems got along fine without humans and could do so again.

The Teton country has many moods that stimulate the senses, but one must pay attention. Fresh, clean air carrying the scent of evergreen or willow is here for the taking. Wind strumming the leaves of quaking aspen, and the unforgettable bugling of elk in the fall, remind us of our wild past, not so long ago. In the long night of winter, a snowfall can envelop the park in a silence so profound that it be comes a presence. It is a silence that most of packed humanity does not know exists. On a hot, summer day, dipping your feet in the snow-fed rush of Cascade Creek feels fine briefly, before the icy water begins to numb your feet. Bluish-black huckleberries come into their prime in summer and have a sharp, sweet taste all their own. Evening sunsets wash the granites and snowfields of the Teton Range in colors that neither cameras nor artists' paints can capture with exactitude. Nor do words duplicate the alpenglow that teases the eye with pale yellow, changes to gold, then to auburn, and finally a deep rose, before retreating in darkness. The clear night sky of the Tetons reveals a host of new stars, a night sky from our ancient past, not diminished by urban lights. All of these things make the Teton country a special place and, like other wild places that remain today, teach us to hope.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004