The Yellowstone Region

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park [Credit: National Park Service].

The Flight of the Nez Percé

Refusing to sign a treaty ceding their lands to the United States and move onto a reservation, in June 1877 more than 750 Nez Percé men, women, and children, with 2,000 horses led the U.S. Army on a 1,200-mile chase across the Pacific Northwest and the plains. The Army hoped to trap the Nez Percé as they left the Yellowstone Plateau near the impenetrable Clarks Fork Canyon. The Nez Percé executed a feinting maneuver and escaped north. They made it 40 miles from the Canadian border before surrendering. Chief Joseph said, “I will fight no more, forever.”

The Beartooth Scenic Byway

Straddling the border between Wyoming and Montana is the Beartooth Scenic Byway, an auto route over one of the most formidable obstacles to modern transportation in North America. The Beartooth Plateau is the result of mountain building, 70-55 million years ago, and of the Pleistocene glaciation. In 1882, Gen. Sheridan crossed the plateau where the highway follows today.

American Indians of Yellowstone

The volcanic resources of Yellowstone have influenced American Indian cultures for thousands of years. Elders have described the geysers and geothermal hot springs as spiritually significant, and the use of obsidian derived from lava is a well-documented source for tool making. Recent discoveries also suggest that prehistoric people may have lived year-round at high elevations. Whitebark pine nuts, along with mountain sheep and deer, may have been important high elevation food resources for native peoples.

The Flight of the Nez Percé

By Julie Francis

In the mid-1800s, the Nez Percé were evading the U.S. Army after refusing to sign any treaties for ceding their homelands. After a long chase, the troops thought they had the tribe trapped at the impenetrable Clarks Fork seen in this photo but the Nez Percé instead came down a different canyon, led by Chief Joseph.

As settlers and miners moved into the Columbia Plateau during the 1850s and 1860s, the Wallowa bands of the Nez Percé (Nimíipuu) refused to sign any treaties ceding their Snake and Salmon river homelands to the United States. By May 1877, “non-treaty” Nez Percé were given a 30-day ultimatum to “voluntarily relocate” by U.S. Army Gen. Oliver Otis Howard. As the bands prepared to move, a small group of warriors killed several settlers trespassing on their lands. Rather than face retribution from the U.S. Army, about 700 Nez Percé, under the leadership of chiefs Joseph, White Bird and Looking Glass, fled their homelands in mid-June with the goal of joining the Lakota and Sitting Bull in Canada. With only a few hundred warriors, women and children, and a herd of horses, the Nez Percé led 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers on a chase of nearly 1,500 miles through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

The Flight of the Nez Percé - Wyoming Cultural Geology Guide

The Nez Percé outmaneuvered, held-off, or defeated a formally trained and much better armed military at several locations. Finally, on Oct. 5, 1877, Joseph surrendered to Col. Nelson A. Miles at Bear Paw Mountain, Montana, just 40 miles from the international border of Canada.

Between August 23rd and September 8th of 1877, the Yellowstone region served as the backdrop for this monumental pursuit. The Nez Percé entered the park from the west, with the objective of crossing the Yellowstone Plateau and reaching the Crow Agency.

Almost immediately they encountered two groups of tourists, took food and supplies, conscripted a Nez Percéguide, and burned a ranch and at least one bridge. Several people were killed, but survivors were brought to the Nez Percé camps and ultimately released.

Nez Percé
Nez Percé [Credit: National Park Service].

With few places to descend the Yellowstone Plateau, Gen. William T. Sherman laid a trap for the Nez Percé as they emerged from the mountains. With Gen. Howard following from the west, troops were to be placed at Mammoth Hot Springs on the north, the Clarks Fork on the northeast, the Shoshone River on the east and the Wind River on the south. As the Nez Percé approached Dead Indian Pass, they observed troops, commanded by Col. Samuel D. Sturgis, positioned near Heart Mountain. In view of the Army, they feinted a move to the south towards the Shoshone River. Sturgis took the bait and moved his troops south, while the Nez Percé, screened by timber and topography, headed north. Many scholars have inferred that the Nez Percé moved down Dead Indian Gulch and through the nearly impenetrable Clarks Fork canyon. More recent research indicates that the Nez Percé moved down Paint Creek to the river below the mouth of the canyon.

Though only used once, the Nez Percé Trail was designated a National Historic Trail in 1986. Wyoming Hwy 296, which follows some of the route out of Yellowstone, was designated the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway in 2000. Since 2008, the National Park Service, in cooperation with the Nez Percé tribe and the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist, has been researching historical and archaeological sites associated with the 1877 campaign within Yellowstone to resolve enduring questions about the route and experience of the Nez Percé on this part of their odyssey.

References

Brown, M. H., 1967, The Flight of the Nez Percé: New York, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons.

Eakin, D.H., 2013, Archaeological investigations along the Nez Percé Trail, Yellowstone National Park, in Yellowstone Archaeology: Southern Yellowstone, edited by Douglas H. MacDonald and Elaine S. Hale: University of Montana Contributions to Anthropology 113(2), p. 127-152.

The Learning Project, 2015, Nez Percé conflict of 1877: Moscow, University of Idaho, at www/webpages.uidaho.edu/~rfrey/4222NPConflict1877.htm, accessed June 16, 2015.

Lang, W.L., 1990, Where did the Nez Percé go in Yellowstone in 1877: The Magazine of Western History 40(1), p. 14-29.

Beartooth Plateau - Up and Over the Top of the World

By Julie Francis

The Beartooth Mountains present one of the most formidable obstacles to modern transportation in North America. First uplifted during the Laramide Orogeny between 80 and 55 million years ago, folding and faulting continued in the southern portion of the uplift until 2 million years ago. This created the high tablelands of the Beartooth Plateau. Pleistocene glaciation has clearly left its mark. Just as glacial ice sculpted the mountain peaks, glaciers flowed down the sides of the plateau, carving the steep valleys of the Clark Forks and Rock Creek and scouring portions of the plateau to the Precambrian core.

The Beartooth Plateau was known and used by American Indians. However, elevations near 11,000 ft., a harsh alpine climate, high winds, and unimaginably steep and rugged topography limited 19th century exploration to a few prospectors and trappers. It was not until 1882 that the first organized expedition, lead by U.S. Army General Philip Sheridan, successfully crossed the plateau from Yellowstone Park to the lower Clarks Fork Valley. Nevertheless, with the discovery of gold and other precious metals near Cooke City, Montana in 1869 and the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the need for access to the high country for both tourists and miners became clear.

Bearthooth Highway - Wyoming's Cultural Geology Guide

Yellowstone opened to automobiles in 1915; dude ranches were established as early as 1910, and the desire to open a Red Lodge to Cooke City automobile road grew. Five miles of road from Red Lodge up the mountain were built in 1919 by local promoters with their own funds, and lobbying of politicians and agency officials ran heavy. Finally in 1931, the U.S. Congress passed the National Park Approaches Act with an appropriation of $3 million. The Red Lodge to Cooke City approach road was the first project to receive funding under this act for construction of 60 miles of roadway beginning eight miles southwest of Red Lodge to the northeast gate of the Park. The remaining eight miles into Red Lodge was built by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Public Roads.

Beartooth Plateau
Beartooth Plateau, Park County, Wyo. [Credit: Chamois Andersen, WSGS, 2015]

The route of what is now designated as U.S. 212, or the Beartooth Scenic Highway, followed much the same route taken by Sheridan’s 1882 expedition – from Cooke City to Colter Pass, along the Upper Clarks Fork, over Beartooth Pass and across the Plateau at the “Top of the World.” Construction was completed in segments and by several different contractors between 1931 and 1936 and included major rock cutting, grading, innumerable switchbacks, and 13 bridges. Landscape architects helped design bridge abutments and guardrails to “harmonize” with the setting. Quickly dubbed the “World’s Most Scenic” roadway, the Beartooth Highway received national attention. Most segments have been upgraded since 1936, and the highway is open only during the summer months. For its lasting contributions to the history of the region and its engineering, the Beartooth Highway was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

References

Hale, E.S., 2014, National Register Nomination for the Red Lodge-Cooke City Approach Road Historic District: Laramie, On file at the Wyoming SHPO Cultural Records Office.

Hutton, P.A., 2013, Phil Sheridan and his Army: Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.

Pickett, M., 2011, Bridging the Beartooth: Montana Standard, June 19, 2014.

Complex Relationships - American Indians of Yellowstone

By Julie Francis

Perched atop the Continental Divide, the Yellowstone region lies at the juncture of three major “culture areas” defined by early anthropologists – the Great Plains, the Columbia Plateau, and the Great Basin. Recent reviews of archaeological, ethnographic and historic data, combined with interviews of tribal consultants, document long-standing use of the region by diverse groups of people. Yellowstone figures prominently in the cultural identities of many tribes. The thousands of geysers and mud volcanoes are reminders of the dynamic geology of the region, but they also served as portals to supernatural worlds and were used for fasting and vision quests.

American Indians of Yellowstone - Wyoming's Cultural Geology Guide

The Crow hunted, gathered plants and minerals, used the geysers for fasting and retain many place names for spots in the eastern part of the park. Supernatural beings resided in some places. The Kiowa in Oklahoma trace their origins to somewhere near Yellowstone National Park. The Blackfeet clearly roamed into and through the Park from the north; the Salish speaking Flathead and Pend d’Oreille certainly hunted bison and may have occasionally wintered in Yellowstone. The Nez Percé hunted bison east of the Bitterroot Mountains and had knowledge of trails and geography of the park prior to the 1877 war. Much of the 1878 Bannock War was fought just outside the park boundaries. The eastern Shoshone guided military expeditions into and through the park on well-established trails and included Yellowstone as part of their aboriginal land claims. Indeed, the Sheepeaters, or Mountain Shoshone, were year-round residents.

Often portrayed as impoverished, backwards and fearful, the Sheepeaters were, in fact, sophisticated hunters of mountain sheep, highly skilled flint knappers and craftsman, builders of wooden traps and wickiups, and also kept many dogs as beasts of burden. Ancestors of the Sheepeaters and other Shoshone likely also created the intricate and complex rock art known as the Dinwoody tradition.

Geyser
Geyser at Yellowstone National Park. [Credit: Chamois L. Anderse, WSGS, 2013]

Native tribes were removed from their traditional homelands onto reservations throughout the 1870s and thus forced to relinquish claims to the Yellowstone region. With the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 as a natural area to be preserved for the public, American Indians were effectively banned from the park. However, many indians often left the reservations to hunt in their traditional areas. Anxious to quell the fears of tourists, especially after the 1877 Nez Percé and 1878 Bannock wars, Park officials asserted that American Indians did not use the area because they feared the geysers and mud pots as places of evil. In 1879, the Sheepeaters were removed from the park, and in 1880 all hunting was banned. Thus, Indians could be arrested for poaching in their traditional hunting territories. Rumors of Bannocks on the loose in the park persisted into the 1890s. Many traditional ties were broken and are only now being restored to tell a far more rich and complex picture of human and natural history.

References

Francis, J.E. and Lawrence, L.L.,2002, Ancient Visions: Petroglyphs and pictographs of the Wind River and Bighorn Country, Wyoming and Montana: Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press.

Francis, J.E., 2013, The view from the highway: Twenty Years of WYDOT Archaeology in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: 11th Biennial Rocky Mountain Anthropological Conference, Taos, New Mexico.

Kornfeld, M., Frison, G.C., and Larson, M.L., 2010, Prehistoric hunters and gatherers of the High Plains and Rockies, third edition: Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press.

Morgan, C., Losey, A., and Adams, R., 2012, High altitude hunter-gather residential occupations in Wyoming’s Wind River Range: North American Archaeologist 33(1), p. 35-79.

Nabokov,P. and Lawrence, L.L., 2004, Restoring a presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park: Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.

Yellowstone Archaeology

By Julie Francis

The volcanic origins of the Yellowstone region have influenced American Indian cultures for thousands of years, with the use of obsidian as the best known example. Obsidian is natural glass formed when some types of lava cool quickly. With fresh edges sharper than many steel razors, the rock is suited for many types of stone tools and was a highly valued resource. Each different lava flow exhibits a unique chemical signature, and modern trace-element analyses can tie individual artifacts to specific sources. Obsidian Cliff is the best known, and stone from this source was traded as far east as the Ohio Valley. Several other obsidian sources have been identified in southeastern Idaho, the Grand Tetons, and in Yellowstone National Park. The distribution of obsidian artifacts from these sources across Wyoming points to complex social networks and relationships between ancient peoples across thousands of miles.

Archaeology of Yellowstone
Obsidian Cliff
Obsidian Cliff, Yellowstone. [Credit: National Park Service]

The elevated Yellowstone Plateau, severe winters, and rugged glacial topography have also influenced archaeologists’ perceptions of how ancient peoples used this area. Traditionally archaeologists assumed that the region was used mainly in the summer by people heading to the mountains from the plains and that modern tribes only moved into the area within the last few hundred years. Sites such as Mummy Cave, with a continuous record of occupation for 10,000 years, and Dead Indian Creek, with evidence of deer hunting, ceremonialism and at least one residential structure over 4,000 years old, provided hints of something more complex. More recent research, much of which has been sponsored by the Wyoming Department of Transportation, indicates that highly sophisticated hunters of medium game animals, such as deer, pronghorn and in particular mountain sheep, moved into the high elevations soon after de-glaciation. Sinuous drive lines of deadfall timber follow high ridges and lead into cleverly disguised catch pens where sheep were trapped and captured, sometimes using juniper bark nets. Once subdued and killed, the animals were completely used for food.

Village sites near treeline, with evidence of intensive white bark pine nut gathering and processing, have also been discovered. Evidence from several other sites also suggests that ancient American Indians may well have lived in the mountains on a year-round basis. Winter camps have been found in Sunlight Basin and along the North Fork of the Shoshone River; spring usage for both intensive pronghorn hunting and root gathering has been found in the Pinedale area. Most of the stone tools and waste flakes are made from “local” sources, including obsidians and various cherts and quartzites found in the Absaroka volcanics. Notably absent are stone tools made from sources in the nearby Bighorn Mountains and on the plains. All of this points to the presence of a year-round, resident native population in the mountainous Yellowstone region beginning at least 10,000 years ago and continuing into modern times, forming an increasingly complex picture of the region’s ancient peoples.

Wickiup
Wickiup, American Indian historic campsite. [Credit: National Park Service]

References

Francis, J.E. and Lawrence, L.L.,2002, Ancient Visions: Petroglyphs and pictographs of the Wind River and Bighorn Country, Wyoming and Montana: Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press.

Francis, J.E., 2013, The view from the highway: Twenty Years of WYDOT Archaeology in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: 11th Biennial Rocky Mountain Anthropological Conference, Taos, New Mexico.

Kornfeld, M., Frison, G.C., and Larson, M.L., 2010, Prehistoric hunters and gatherers of the High Plains and Rockies, third edition: Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press.

Morgan, C., Losey, A., and Adams, R., 2012, High altitude hunter-gather residential occupations in Wyoming’s Wind River Range: North American Archaeologist 33(1), p. 35-79.

Nabokov,P. and Lawrence, L.L., 2004, Restoring a presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park: Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.