There are many wonders in the world that are awe inspiring enough to ignite a person’s soul, but few hold a candle to the magnificent geysers, subtle bubbling pools, serene wildlife, and rich history that lays preserved here in the United States’ first National Park. The true wonder is its ability to leave a metaphorical monument within our memories that lasts and constantly reminds how much we want to return. Those seeking to immerse themselves within the boundaries of the park leave satisfied, and maybe a little exhausted. There is just so much to experience and you may find yourself creating lists of tasks you want to do “next time” which leaves you wistfully anticipating your next visit. Us who live here, still have these lists.
I find that it is often best to look at things from the beginning so let’s get the most ominous part out of the way. Yellowstone in all its glory sit majestically on top of a massive super volcano. There has been a lot of professional research on the volcano’s exact age since the eruption, and this research has narrowed it down between 500,000 and 700,000… which to a geologist is a fairly close estimate! Additionally geologist predict that the volcano erupts every 600,000 years which again is fairly impressive estimation. All that being said, the volcano is either very overdue, or will erupt in 100,000 or more years. Either way, an eruption on this scale would be catastrophic, and would scatter ash from here to California and Texas, choking a large portion of the United States, and temporarily change the climate to be much colder. To be clear within the next 100,000 years the volcano will erupt next, and it will be an event that effects the worldwide ecosystem, but just like 600,000 years ago the world will recover.
To understand what brought ancient humans so far from their previous homes on the Asian Continent to the Americas in the first place, we don’t need to look much further than the Allman Brother’s song, Rambling Man:
There is so much rich history built around Yellowstone and what has gone into creating this vast wilderness preserve. We could go back to one of the first Anglo Americans, John Colter, who initially described to his fellow mangy trappers a land of gushing water and bubbling mud. These men no doubt paid a pint per the retelling, and they soon dubbed the land he described as Colter’s Hell. Or we can travel further back to the local natives of the land that frequented the area, such as the Crows and the Sheep Eater tribes. These, and some other groups, would pass through on the outskirts but would rarely actually enter Yellowstone’s Wilderness except to hunt or for spiritual reasons. This area to them was seen as full of danger and mystery, and still is too many who come to visit today. Or we can travel further back hundreds of thousands of years to when the rocks cracked, and a whole section of the land blew into the sky in an epic eruption that left a crater that is still visible today and stretches 34 by 45 miles.
“Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man,
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can.
And when it’s time for leavin’,
I hope you’ll understand,
That I was born a ramblin’ man.”
From what we can gather the indigenous people in the Americas and Yellowstone came across the land bridge between Asia and Alaska around 23,000 years ago which was followed by a few other migrations. These were people most likely following game trails and “trying to make a living” the best they could. They could have also been pushed out by other tribes and cultures but they came into a wild and vast continent and made a life and dynamic culture in the Americas for over 20,000 years. The earliest evidence of man in the Yellowstone area was 11,000 years ago when a person chipped a shard of obsidian off Obsidian Cliffs, south of Bunsen Peak, and used it for tool making. It was then used in trade and the obsidian has been found as far away as Ohio.
Due to Yellowstone ranging climate and general inaccessibility, there was no big draw for Native Americans to dive into the interior around todays Old Faithful and Lake Areas. They would on occasion, but for the most part they stayed around the Norther Range of the park which is abundant in deer, sheep, elk, and bison herds. They also would on occasion hunt the predators such as the wolves, bears, and cats within the park. It was only in the last 3,000 years that the indigenous tribes regularly came into the Northern Range of the Park for their yearly hunts, but then they normally would winter in lower elevations where the weather was a lot more reasonable. In example, the Tukudika or Sheep Eaters would frequent the Swan Lake Flats on the South side of Bunsen Peak. From there they would regularly hunt the Big Horn Sheep in the area for substance, clothing, and tools. They were especially known for soaking the horns from the big horn sheep in hot springs to craft bows which was a significant item in trade to other tribes.
For 20,000 year the residence of North America thrived. Sure they had their wars, squabbles and issues, but they obtained an understanding that was ingrained into their tribal society. When the first European trappers came into their land, they came with a mentality and culture so different that it clashed in many regrettable ways. The one place where we can see some overlap and concession was when fur trappers who started branching out into the wild North West that was the Rockies. In many instances these mountain men were mistaken for natives themselves and they developed a way of life that entwined the two cultures. This isn’t to say there weren’t many cultural issues remaining, and bloody instances as a result. However, the trappers and mountain men of the North West certainly saw many benefit of the Native American’s practices and aimed to incorporate them in their own standard of living as a means to secure a livelihood within these treacherous mountain ranges.
There are many individuals whose names became iconic for the recorded exploration of the Yellowstone area, but John Colter probably gets the most renowned as the first recorded trapper to delve into what we know as the Greater Yellowstone Region. I say region because it is uncertain if Colter actually entered Yellowstone proper. Many readers probably recognize Colter’s name from the United States history books which put him shoulder to shoulder with the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a scout and guide who led the way. He spent a lot of time by himself looking for the best paths through the craggy wilderness so his party could make good time in their endeavor. Lewis and Clark’s path never took them into the Yellowstone Area but it did pass closely to the north. Then around the end of the expedition, John Colter had the opportunity to stay in the mountains as a member of the Missouri Fur Trading Company, and he took it. Between his time with Lewis and Clark and the Fur Trade he is largely considered one of the first great mountain men who trekked the North West.
One of his tasks with the Missouri Fur Trading Company was to map and setup trade with Native Americans in the region. To do this he was sent by himself on a 500 mile trek across the country side through a dangerous region. It was on this trip that he came across the remarkable site that other have recorded for him. His story reported of water gushing from the ground and mud bubbling like hot tar. This sounds familiar to anyone who has wandered through the park today, but him having a reputation as a tall story teller it is no surprise that he was not taken too seriously. After enough retellings, those who knew him and his tales gave the location the honorific title of Colter’s Hell even though the exact location that he found is mostly speculation. Some believe that he may have stumbled onto a patch of thermal features outside the park, but this does not discount that his stories and those of others led to the expeditions that followed and resulted in the mapping and recording of the Yellowstone Area with the intent to unbury its secrets.
Daniel Trotter Potts
Colter’s account of the Yellowstone area was definitely suspect to speculation. He was known for his tales and he also spent many hours alone in the wilderness. So his stories mostly remained just that, stories. However, 20 years later from 1820 to 1829 an educated man by the name of Daniel Trotter Potts was so enamored with the mountain man mentality that he went into the West to have his own experiences. He started off as just a traveler but later progressed to be a trapper in his own right, attending the years Rendezvous and trading for supplies to sustain himself in his new lifestyle. He was one of the few who actually knew how to read and write, and he also had the desire to share his adventures and misadventures with his family back at home in Pennsylvania so he would occasionally write to them. His letters were so exciting to his family and friends that they were published in the Philadelphia Gazette & Daily Advertiser.