Fur Trappers, Mountain Men, & Miners

As visions of westward expansion consumed American, Canadian, and European politicians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was inevitable that the remote life of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe in Yellowstone would be disturbed. French Canadians first arrived in the area in the late 1700s in search of prized beaver pelts. Following one of the Missouri River’s largest tributaries, the Yellowstone River, these explorers and fur trappers named the area “Roche Jaune,” meaning Yellow Rock. Their journals indicate that yellow rock cradled the river; however, no mention is ever made regarding Yellowstone’s thermal features.

When Lewis and Clark made their famous westward journey to the Pacific Ocean and then back to Missouri between 1804 and 1806, their travel plans bypassed the park’s northern boundary by just fifty-six miles. Noting the area’s unique features and possessing an innate inquisitiveness, John Colter left the Corp of Discovery on its return journey and headed to the Yellowstone Region. Although Colter was in search of beaver, what he discovered was far more important than a string of glossy pelts. During his employment at a Yellowstone River trading post between 1807 and 1808, Colter revealed Yellowstone’s curiosities to the civilized world for the first time. His journals detailed unbelievable tales of bubbling mud pots, steaming geysers, mountain waterfalls, incredible canyons, and an endless beaver population. When Colter returned to Missouri, few believed his tales, chalking them up to a fanciful imagination. After all, Lewis and Clark had never mentioned hot springs. Why would Colter encounter anything different than the famous Corp of Discovery? Some, however, took Colter’s recounting seriously and headed to “Colter’s Hell” and the Yellowstone Region for themselves.

Among the few who believed Colter’s tales were several of the American West’s most famous mountain men. Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Daniel Potts frequented the area between the 1820s and 1840s, lending further credibility to Colter’s detailed regional account. Tales of the mountain men’s adventures eventually reached the East and sparked a renewed intrigue in the area. When Montana gold was discovered in 1862, the curious stories about Yellowstone and dreams of striking it rich finally spurred many to undertake their own exploration. Although hopeful miners scoured every square mile of the park, their search for gold was fruitless. Their adventures, however, produced the evidence and maps needed to finally launch exploration parties to the area.

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