Early Yellowstone Visitors


By Josh Kelly

For centuries, Yellowstone has been a destination for travelers with diverse purposes for visiting the area. Even though large scale tourism did not begin until the 1880s when the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Gardner, Montana, Yellowstone was frequented by groups of Indians as early as the last Ice Age. Before Americans arrived in the West in the 1800s, groups of Shoshone, Bannock and Crow regularly used the area for gathering foods, hunting, ceremonial purposes and trade. 

Yellowstone experiences some of the most severe winter conditions in the lower 48 states because of its high elevation. Therefore, most groups returned to more hospitable climates for the winter. However, anthropologists believe that there is good evidence that small groups of Shoshone called Tukudeka, or Sheep Eaters, did stay in Yellowstone year round. Archeologists have found remnants of winter camps in well sheltered areas. Sheep Eaters followed game herds to lower elevations in the winter and as temperatures rose and snow melted in spring, they returned to alpine regions to pursue bighorn sheep. 
Yellowstone supplied its visitors with an abundance of flora to gather and fauna to hunt.

Because of the volcanic qualities in its soil, it can support large and diverse populations of wildlife. Elk, bison, deer and bighorn sheep as well as other large mammals thrive in Yellowstone and attracted visitors during the summer months. Indian groups employed a variety of means to procure game. Those with horses could pursue game by chase, or they also had the option of herding and corralling it as well. Those who did not have horses employed other means. Some Indians were known to manipulate the landscape to their advantage by burning the dense timber and undergrowth. This made their pursuit easier and made herds of animals more accessible.

Not only does Yellowstone possess an abundance of wildlife, but it is also well endowed with geological peculiarities such as geysers and hot springs. Shoshone, Bannock and Crow incorporated the geological features there into their religious beliefs and practices. The sacred thermal features were believed to possess healing and supernatural powers. Not only did Yellowstone connect visitors to the forces beneath the ground, but it also provided access to those in the sky. Some of the peaks in Yellowstone also became spiritual destinations for individuals on vision quests. 

The Yellowstone region provided a variety of physical and spiritual resources for natives to obtain materials necessary for sustenance throughout the year. It also provided enough resources to supply a generous trade before the arrival of Europeans and Americans. The 1800s caused a significant increase of traffic, both native and non native, through region. The need for fur bearing animals brought more hunters and trappers who were looking for furs into the region. Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Salish and several other tribes became very familiar with Yellowstone as they supplied trade and commerce throughout the West. Continue to the next page, Excerpt from an essay by George Robinson.

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