Fur Traders in Yellowstone


by Josh Kelly

Soon after Captains Lewis and Clark passed to the north of the Yellowstone region in 1806, white Americans began to explore it. Some came in search of furs and wealth, some heard stories of the wonders that the landscape possessed and wanted to satisfy their curiosities, while others were forced into the area by circumstances beyond their control. Whatever their intents and purposes for traveling there, Yellowstone usually left a distinct impression on its visitors.

A discharged member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter, is claimed to have been the first white man to travel in the area and to see Yellowstone Lake as well as the other features for which the area is known. Colter was commissioned to alert Crow and other Indians in the area to the presence of the Missouri Fur Trading Company that employed him. In 1807 the Missouri Company built Fort Raymond at the mouth of the Bighorn River to the east of Yellowstone. Colter’s experience in Yellowstone was especially unique in that he traveled five hundred miles in the fall and winter of 1807 and 1808 and he managed to safely return to Fort Raymond in the spring despite the harsh mountain winter. That winter provided Colter with invaluable knowledge of the region that he passed on to his peers.

The next recorded travelers in the Yellowstone were Canadians who worked for the North West Company in 1818. Another group of Canadians who worked for the Hudson Bay Company went through the area in 1824. Europeans and Americans tread lightly in the Northern Rocky Mountains between 1812 and the early 1820s because of the sensitive relationship that the War of 1812 left between the United States and the British. Claims to much of the territory in the Pacific Northwest were undecided, and although the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 included the land up to the Continental Divide, most of the region was unknown.

In 1822, however, William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company invaded the upper Missouri. Men like Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith and Daniel Potts entered the Rocky Mountains in pursuit of furs and adventure. This began a uniquely American way of life that came to be known as the mountain man’s.

Daniel Potts wrote a letter to his brother in 1827 and described his wanderings among the wonders of Yellowstone. His brother forwarded the letter to the editor of a newspaper in Philadelphia who rewrote it and published it. That became the first published account of Yellowstone that Americans read.
Joe Meek, another well-known fur trapper, was forced into Yellowstone in 1829. He did not go there by choice because he was forced to flee from an attack by Piegans near the mouth of Tom Miner Creek on the Yellowstone River. As a result, Meek followed the river upstream and over the Mammoth springs near the current north entrance of the park. Eventually he ended up in Norris Geyser Basin and later provided a description of it.

Johnson Gardner, formerly of the Rocky Mountain Company, joined the American Fur Company in 1832 and he established a post on the branch of the Yellowstone that now bears his name. He intended to extract all of the beaver from that region, but clearly the territory was too large for one man to do it alone. Meanwhile, two of the most well known mountain men, Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick, trapped in other periphery areas of the park that same year. Bridger may have been learning about Yellowstone’s peculiarities that fueled the tall tales for which he later became known. The next summer, a group of American Fur Company trappers followed Gardner to the Yellowstone and penetrated the interior of the region. They found the geysers along the Firehole River and their accounts of them inspired the curiosity of more visitors.

Hearing of the wonders in Yellowstone at the annual fur trade rendezvous in 1833, Warren Ferris decided to see them for himself the next year. Trained in New York as a surveyor, Ferris had a keen sense of geography and an insatiable curiosity about the western landscape. Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines called Ferris the first Yellowstone tourist because of his curiosity about the region and his apparent lack of interest in trapping there. Ferris did more than tour, however. During his brief stay, he made crude measurements and made observations about the thermal features on the Firehole River. He described them in comparison to the geysers in Iceland and he was also the first person to use the term "geyser" for these features. He also filled in a large gap on his own map of the West. His map, however, was ignored in 1830s and was not published made available to the public. After his return to the East in 1836, Ferris turned his journal into a book called Life in the Rocky Mountains, but was not published until it resurfaced in 1940.

Another devoted chronicler trapped beaver in Yellowstone the year after Ferris passed through. Osborne Russell trapped in the Lamar Valley in 1835 and provided a rare, early account of a group of Sheep Eaters. The beauty that surrounded him there struck Russell. He liked it enough to return several more times in the following years. The following year he and his companions discovered Two Ocean Pass which had long been the object of great speculation. Such a place even occupied Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts three decades earlier as he commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Atop the Continental Divide, the waters from one mountain spring divided into two streams. One stream flowed east to the Atlantic, while the other flowed west to the Pacific. The existence of such a place, however, was not confirmed until 1860 when a military expedition led by Captain W. F. Raynolds found it again.

By 1840, the fur trade came to a halt. Some trappers turned to cultivating the land in the East or on new frontiers. Others found ways to stay in the mountains by guiding overland immigrants to Oregon and California. During the next two decades, Yellowstone partially remained a landscape known to the old trappers and a few others who had passed through. Yellowstone was recreated by the stories of the mountain men. Interest in the region increased again the 1860s when prospectors began to populate the northern Rockies. Continue to the next page, Shoshone and Bannock in Yellowstone.

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