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Mountain Men in Yellowstone

A Brief Synopsis of Mountain Men in Yellowstone 1807-1850
with a brief summary of gold mining expeditions 1860s.

The history of man in Yellowstone National Park is long and varied. It is believed that ancient peoples were in the Yellowstone area as early as 13,000 years ago and continued their haunts up through the 1860s. During the historic era of the early west many groups of Native Americans utilized the Yellowstone Plateau on a seasonal basis, including the Nez Perce, Flathead, Shoshone, Crow, Kootenai, Northern Cheyenne, the Confederated Salish, and others. Only the Sheepeater groups of the Shoshonis are believed to have lived in the park on a year-round basis. As the presence of white men increased in the 1860’s-70s, the Indian presence decreased and the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 effectively banished their presence except for a few isolated and well-publicized cases.
[Nez PerceBannocks]

 Although the written history of Yellowstone only goes back to the very early 1800s, most casual Yellowstone aficionados probably know of John Colter’s reported journey in and around Yellowstone in 1807 and of Jim Bridger and his wild tales of a mountain of glass and petrified birds in petrified trees. But further general knowledge probably jumps to the fall of 1869 when the Folsom-Cook-Peterson exploration roamed through the wilds of Yellowstone. It was a private venture and their adventures were published in the Chicago Western Monthly the following year. However, there was a lot of activity in Yellowstone between 1820 and 1869 which is mostly unknown to the general public. That history consists primarily of the fur trapping era and the prospecting expeditions in the 1860s. Although the record is incomplete and fragmentary, enough is known to present a fascinating story.

Enter the Mountain Men  
The roster of mountain men, generally referred to as Mountaineers in their time, traveling and trapping the Yellowstone area for beaver fur is long indeed. But relatively few of the names of these hardy souls are known to history. In accounts from those times they are listed mostly as a “brigade of a dozen men,” or perhaps several dozens, and in a few years were reported to be counted in the hundreds. The larger forces could be somewhat problematic in that they required larger supplies of game meat to be obtained along the route and greater amounts of basic provisions, such as coffee, tea, sugar, flour, salt, etc. to transport, and perhaps lower profits. But they also afforded much greater protection from the natives. Tribes would generally not attack forces that large, although sneaking around camp at night to abscond with horses was a favorite past time and gave great honors to those Indians who were successful.
The fur trade flourished in the Rocky Mountains in the early 1820s to 1840s, with Yellowstone country being a popular destination for famous trappers such as Jim Bridger, Joe Meek, Jedediah Smith, Daniel Potts, David Jackson, Johnson Gardiner, Warren Ferris, Osborne Russell, and many others.

Western Life - The Trapper,  by Charles Deas                                

John Colter Meets the Crow, by John Clymer 

John Colter

The Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-06 journied through Montana, but got no closer than 50 miles from the Park while traveling along the Yellowstone River. No doubt they heard some stories from the Indians about the area at the headwaters of that great river, but did not venture south of what is now Livingston, Mt. The first known white man to visit the Yellowstone area was John Colter in 1807-08, who had been a member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. He was on a trading mission that winter to the various tribes for Manuel Lisa, who had established a trading fort on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Big Horn River. Colter’s journey has been very controversial and the little documentation and tales available are ambiguous at best and his route has been debated incessantly by a multitude of historians. It is accepted that he was in the area immediately east of the park and to the south. But whether he actually passed through the present boundaries of the park is speculative. “Colter’s Hell,” which came to be a descriptive term for Yellowstone, was actually located near Cody Wyoming at the DeMaris Hot Springs.

  Donald MacKenzie The Canadians & French

The next known visit is believed to have been by Donald MacKenzie, on a trading and trapping mission for the North West Fur Co. (later incorporated into the Hudson Bay Co.) On his explorations of the Snake River Basin, he spoke of, "Boiling fountains, having different degrees of temperature, were very numerous; one or two were so very hot as to boil meat. In other parts, among the rocks, hot and cold springs might alternately be seen within a hundred yards of each other, differing in their temperature." This description has been assumed to refer to Yellowstone, although there were also active thermal areas at nearby Soda Springs and Lava Hot Springs region.

In 1824, Alexander Ross, a compatriot of Mackenzie’s, also visited the Yellowstone Plateau and recorded that, "Saturday 24th [April] - we crossed beyond Boiling Fountains. The snow is knee-deep. Half the people are snow blind from sun glare." In 1880, ES Topping, author of “The Chronicles of the Yellowstone,” reported having conversations with Baptiste Ducharme and wrote, “During the summer of 1824 he [Ducharme] went up the Yellowstone to its head and trapped on that stream and the head of Snake river till fall; then he went down the Fire Hole Fork of the Madison, on which the geysers are located, to the prairie. In 1826 he took nearly the same trip. Each time he saw the geysers and can yet describe them quite accurately.” Aubrey L. Haines, author of “Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment,” claims Ducharme came to the Rocky Mountains in 1822 with the William Ashley expedition and later became a free trapper.

The Americans

Trying to track the whereabouts of the mountain men, trappers, and traders who entered what is now Yellowstone National Park is a difficult task. I have yet to see a comprehensive and definitive text on the subject. A few of the mountaineers, such as Wm. Ashley, James Clyman, Osborne Russell, Jed Smith and others kept journals and diaries, some of which in whole or part have survived. Others may still be lurking in a dusty attic somewhere and more than a few were lost or destroyed among the primitive travel conditions. Those that were written in later years sometimes suffer the ills of memories no longer in their prime. Other men had biographies written for them with authors that sometimes exaggerated events in order to attract a higher level of readership. “River of the West” by Francis Victor regarding Joe Meek’s life, and bios about Kit Carson and James Beckwourth suffer some of those same dilemmas while still preserving valuable history.

Much of the early West in those early days was terra incognita. Accurate maps existed mostly in the minds of those exploring the land and improved upon with each year’s travel. The vast reservoir of knowledge of those unfortunate souls who “went under” took that valued resource with them to the grave. To add confusion, many geographical features were given names much different from those of today. For example, Yellowstone Lake was known at times as Sublette Lake and Lake Eustis, while the Snake River was termed Lewis River. With these factors in mind, I will attempt to delineate what information I believe to be true. This is merely a summary and more detailed information can be gleaned from the “Additional Resources” listed at the bottom of the page.

Heading for the Yellowstone, John Peterson
The American foray into the Rocky Mountains started in earnest in 1823 when a large expedition under Wm. Ashley and Andrew Henry was attacked by the Aricara Indians in June on the Missouri River near the present border between North and South Dakota. Twelve of his men were killed and many injured. An ineffective US Army response led by Lt. Col. Leavenworth, with aid from Sioux allies and mountain men, merely emboldened the Indians to commit future atrocities. In response, to avoid the now dangerous river travel, Ashley sent his brigades by land across the plains to the Rockies to trap and trade.
Wm. H. Ashley ad published in spring 1822 in Missouri newspapers.

Jim Bridger & Tall Tales

According to biographer Cecil Alter, Jim Bridger trapped the Yellowstone region in 1825 and reportedly saw, “Geysers spout up seventy feet, with a terrible hissing noise, at regular intervals. In this section are the great springs, so hot that meat is readily cooked in them; and as they descend on the successive terraces, afford at length delightful baths.” Others members of his brigade are not specifically mentioned. Yellowstone seemed to have beeen a favorite haunt for Bridger and he is believed to have been in the park in 1826, 1831-32, 1834-36, 1838, 1846, 1850 and perhaps other years.
Many tall tales about the park have been attributed to Bridger over the years, but his stories of  “. . . petrified birds, sitting in petrified trees with petrified leaves singing petrified songs” in Yellowstone may have actually been “borrowed” from Moses ‘Black’ Harris who had visited the Petrified Forest in the Black Hills and imparted bold stories to those who would listen. Harris has sometimes been knighted, “the greatest liar of them all.” George Ruxton in his “Life in the Far West,” characterizes Harris as "The darndest liar....for lies tumbled out of his mouth like boudin out of a buffler's stomach."   However, those comments may have been meant as a compliment, based upon his superb ability to embellish his escapades to entertain fellow trappers, traders and unsuspecting greenhorns in St. Louis. “Swapping Lies” was a time-honored tradition around the fur trappers’ campfires and Bridger, Harris, and Jim Beckwourth were among the best. Beckwourth, trapping in the park in 1826, gained the resplendent moniker of “The Gaudy Liar,” a name he may very well have been proud.

1994 First Day of issue Cover with Jim Bridger & James Beckwourth and Tower Falls

1826 Notables
After the Rendezvous of 1826, a large contingent of trappers traversed the Yellowstone region under Wm. Sublette. A veritable Who’s Who of mountain men accompanied that expedition and included David Jackson, Robert Campbell, Daniel Potts, Jim Beckwourth, Moses ‘Black’ Harris, James Clyman, Thomas Eddie and Robert Newell. Author John Sunder writes in Bill Sublette: Mountain Man, “After crossing a divide, they [Sublette, Jackson & company] reached the headwaters of the Yellowstone at the west thumb of Yellowstone Lake . . . it was Sublette's first crossing of the present-day national park. They saw paint pots and geysers, but could not delay to enjoy their surroundings . . ."

Daniel Potts

Daniel Potts, a member of the 1926 Sublette & Jackson brigade, wrote of his adventures in a letter to his brother in July 1827, which was subsequently published in the Philadelphia Gazette & Daily Advertiser on Sept 27, 1827, under the pseudonym of DTP.

It has been said to be the first published written descriptions of the thermal areas by someone who actually saw them. The author of the article was not disclosed until the 1940s when a pair of older ladies offered the letters for sale to the National Park Service.

  Potts Hot Springs, NPS Photo

“On the south borders of this lake [Yellowstone] is a number of hot and boiling springs—some of water and others of most beautiful fine clay. The springs throw particles to the immense height of from 20 to 30 feet in height. The clay is white and of a pink. The water appears fathomless; it appears to be entirely hollow underneath.”

Joe Meek, Jed Smith, Johnson Gardner

Joe Meek and Jedediah Smith trapped the Yellowstone in 1829 and Meek was also there in the 1831 and 1835-36. Meek was impressed by the thermals and in the Frances Victor’s “River of the West,” he is reported to have claimed, "…the whole country was smoking with the vapor from boiling springs, and burning with gasses, issuing from small craters, each of which was emitting a sharp whistling sound." Jed Smith was unfortunately killed by Indians along the Santa Fe trail in 1831 and with him went a wealth of information and mental maps formed by the great early explorer. 1831 saw Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick (also 1832), Wm. Sublette, Meek and his brother Stephen, and Johnson Gardner in the park environs. Gardner returned in 1832 lending his name to park features Gardner’s Hole and the Gardner River. Aubrey Haines believed those to be the oldest place names in the park.

Joe Meek Jed Smith Crossing the Mohave Desert, by
Frederick Remington
Gardners Hole & Electric Peak
Photo by the Author

Manuel Alvarez & Warren Ferris

In 1833 Manuel Alvarez was in Yellowstone with a party of 40 and viewed many of the geysers and thermal areas. Gathered around the smoky campfires during the following Rendezvous, he wove tales of the wonders and intrigues he had witnessed. Warren Ferris, an American Fur Co. trapper listening in awe, was so impressed he decided to visit the geysers himself and in 1834 visited the region with two Pend d’Orielle Indians. In his account published in the “Western Literary Messenger” in 1842, he described the amazing sights he had beheld.

Castle Geyser, by Thomas Moran

In 1940 Ferris' accounts were recounted in a piece, entitled, “Life in the Rocky Mountains 1830-1835.” Ferris wrote,
"From the surface of a rocky plain or table, burst forth columns of water, of various dimensions, projected high in the air, accompanied by loud explosions, and sulphurous vapors, which were highly disagreeable to the smell."
Aubrey Haines has claimed Ferris to be the first tourist in Yellowstone, visiting merely to behold the unique spectacles.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson is well known for guiding John Fremont on several of his exploratory expeditions into the West, his unfortunate dealings with the Navajo and was memorialized in the dime novels published during his lifetime that sensationalized his Indian fighting abilities. Before those days though, he started out his career as a mountaineer and trapper. He headed from St. Louis to Taos in 1826 as a laborer on a merchant caravan. He soon went into the trapping business and accompanied Ewing Young and his band to Arizona and California in 1829. Two years later he hooked up with Thomas Fitzpatrick and began his 10-year trapping career in the Rockies. He was known to have trapped in Yellowstone in 1835 with Jim Bridger, Joe Meek, and others. He later returned to the park in 1850 with Bridger and a few other men. One oft-repeated anecdote about Carson related to an army officer, somewhat of a hero-worshiper, who, upon meeting Carson, exclaimed, effusively:
"So this is the great Kit Carson, who has made so many Indians run!" "Yes," drawled Carson, "sometimes I run after them but most times they war runnin' after me."
Kit Carson, from L.A. Public Library Kit Carson, Beadle Dime Novel, ca1878 John Fremont, Legends of the West, 1994

Osborne Russell

Osborne Russell first ventured to the Rockies with Nathaniel Wyeth’s second expedition in 1834. He soon chose the Yellowstone country as one of his favorite trapping areas. He trapped the region from 1835 through 1839, with two trips the final year. He was often accompanied by mountaineer Elbridge Trask. Russell was not known as an exceptional mountain man, but he was well educated and was unique in that he was a keen observer, and he kept, and managed to preserve a journal, which documented his experiences in the mountains. The journal provides a glimpse into the everyday life of the Mountain Man, the foods they ate, the types of shelter they used, how the fur brigades traveled and sustained themselves, and how mountain life changed with the seasons.

Page from Journal of a Trapper, by O. Russell

Lamar Valley, a favorite haunt of Russell. Photo by the Author
From his journal Russell opined, "For my own part, I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic Splendor." Russell’s last trip into the park was in 1839 and his small party was attacked by Indians near West Thumb. Russell and one other man received arrow wounds and narrowly escaped with their lives. His work, “Journal of a Trapper: or, Nine years in the Rocky Mountains, 1834-1843,” was first published in 1914 and continues to be an important fur trade resource.


From William T. Hamilton’s, “My Sixty Years on the Plains,” came this story from 1839: “A party of forty men started on an expedition up the Snake River. In the party were Ducharme, Louis Anderson, Jim and John Baker, Joe Power, L'Humphrie, and others. They passed Jackson's Lake, catching many beaver, and crossed the Continental Divide, following down the Upper Yellowstone (Elk River) to the Yellowstone Lake. They described accurately the Lake, the hot springs at the upper end of the lake; Steamboat Springs on the south side; the lower end of the lake, Vinegar Creek, and Pelican Creek, where they caught large quantities of beaver and otter. They also told about the sulphur mountains, and the Yellowstone Falls, and the mud geysers.”  Hamilton also claimed they had a fight “. . . with a large party of Piegan Indians at the lower end of the lake on the north side, and on a prairie of about half a mile in length. The trappers built a corral at the upper end of the prairie and fought desperately for two days, losing five men besides having many wounded. The trappers finally compelled the Piegans to leave, with the loss of many of their bravest warriors.”

Bridger & James Gemmell, 1846

The formal Rendezvous system of the Rocky Mountain fur trade ended after 1840. It was not the end of the fur trade by any means, as often proclaimed by many historians, but it did subside. References to trappers in Yellowstone after 1839 are rare, but according to an interview with James Gemmell in 1880, published in “Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana,” it was said that, “In 1846 I started from Fort Bridger in company with old Jim Bridger on a trading expedition to the Crows and Sioux. We left in August with a large and complete outfit, went up Green River and camped for a time near the Three Tetons, and then followed the trail over the divide between Snake River and the streams which flow north into Yellowstone Lake. We camped for a time near the west arm of the lake and here Bridger proposed to show me the wonderful spouting springs on the head of Madison. Leaving our main camp, with a small and select party we took the trail by Snake Lake (now called Shoshone Lake) and visited what have of late years become so famous as the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins.”

Map from L.O.Honig, "James Bridger - The Pathfinder of the Early West"

Bridger & Carson in 1850

Left: Jim Bridger
Above: Kit Carson, Legends of the West stamp, 1994

ES Topping in his book “Chronicles of the Yellowstone,” related that, “Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Lou Anderson, Soos, and about twenty others came overland from St. Louis to the Bannock Indian camp on Green River, late in the fall of 1849. They fixed up winter quarters and stayed with these Indians till spring. Then they went up the river and as soon as the snow permitted crossed the mountains to the Yellowstone and down it to the lake and 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.” However, Topping described the venture as a prospecting expedition, not trapping and if true, it is probably the first publicized quest for gold in Yellowstone. It’s not unlikely that some mountain men encountered gold-bearing streams during their earlier adventures, but their primary focus was on beaver skins.

Bridger & Raynolds in 1859

In 1859 Capt. William F. Raynolds of the US Corps of Topographical Engineers was assigned to find a route, "From the Yellowstone to the South Pass, and to ascertain the practicability of a route from the sources of Wind river to those of the Missouri."  Guided by Jim Bridger, Raynolds had hoped to pass from the head of Wind River to the head of the Yellowstone, but due to heavy snow in the mountains, Bridger had said at the outset that this would be impossible. Bridger,  ". . . remarked triumphantly and forcibly to me upon reaching this spot, "I told you you could not go through. A bird can't fly over that without taking a supply of grub along." Raynolds could do nothing but silently agree. He was later again unsuccessful in attempting to enter Yellowstone via the Snake River region, once more not paying attention to the sage advice of this wizened old mountain man.

"Up the Winds and Over the Tetons: Journal Entries and Images from the 1860 Raynolds Expedition By William F. Raynolds (Author), Daniel D. Merrill (Editor)



The fur trade in Yellowstone and the West in general, brought important results.  The land west of the Mississippi was mostly unknown to Americans in the early 1800s but the explorations of Lewis & Clark began to expose the potential of the lands. The trappers, explorers such as John Fremont, and the many topographical expeditions, and later on the miners, explored most every nook and cranny in the West. As the resources of the land became better known, maps were filled in and became more accurate. And the primitive Indian trails became more substantive as these hardy men continued their explorations. As Montana historian K. Ross Toole put it, "Before the emigrant's wagon ever rolled a mile, before the miner found his first color, before the government authorized a single road or trail, this inhospitable land had been traversed and mapped."

In Yellowstone, the strange and seemingly wild tales told by trappers such as John Colter, Daniel Potts, Moses "Black" Harris, Jim Bridger, Warren Ferris, Osborne Russell and others plucked the strings of imaginations of an attentive and often mis-believing public. Official and unofficial explorations in the late 1860s - early 1870s by Cook-Folsom-Peterson (1869), the Henry Washburn Expedition (1870) and the Hayden & Barlow surveys of 1871 confirmed the existence of a truly incredible landscape, and some of the once unbelievable stories slowly became fact. With the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, a new era of exploration opened up to an amazed general public.

The Trapper's Campfire, by Fanny Palmer

Copyright 2009 by Robert V. Goss. All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced
or utilized in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by an information storage and retrieval system
without permission in writing from the author.

Additional Resources
    Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment by Aubry L. Haines

For more information about the Rocky Mountain fur trade in general, browse the website of the Museum of the Mountain Man (click on photo at right).

When visiting the Yellowstone Region, visit the Museum of the Mountain Man, located in Pinedale, WY, about 75 miles south of Jackson WY. The town sits near the base of the Wind River Mountains and is located a few scant miles from six of the original fur trade rendezvous locations that were held in the 1830s.

The Museum presents a visual and interpretative experience into the romantic era of the 1800s Mountain Man and provides a comprehensive overview of the Western Fur Trade’s historical significance. Situated in the heart of the country that was once the hub of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous system, the Museum stands as a monument to the men and the commerce that opened the West.


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