Wylie camp maids with brooms; Photographer unknown; Around 1908

“Bed Bugs” at a Wylie Way Camp Around 1908.

As Yellowstone Park became a popular tourist destination, a colorful terminology emerged to label the people who worked and visited there. The excerpt below from a newspaper describes that terminology as it existed in 1922. But it misses earlier usage and some categories of people.

The article says “savages” was the term used to label all the people working in the park, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, savages were a very specific group of employees in the 1880s and 90s. The term applied exclusively to the drivers of the six-horse teams on Tallyhos, the huge stagecoaches that carried thirty or more passengers from the railroad station at the end of the line to the hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs.

It took highly skilled teamsters to drive the giant coaches up the crooked, rocky and steep road. Men who could do the job were hired for their driving ability, not their civility. Apparently  such men often had crude manners and profane speech. That’s why they were called “savages.”

In 1915 cars were allowed in the park and buses soon replaced the tallyhos. The buses had transmissions that were difficult to shift, so their drivers became known as “gear jammers,”—and everybody who worked in the park became known as “savages.

The excerpt implies that all park visitors were called “dudes,” but that wasn’t true, even when the article was written. At that time “dude” referred exclusively to the guests of hotels and touring companies. People who provided their own transportation and shelter were called “sagebrushers” because they often had to pitch their tents in sagebrush flats when the park was crowded.

The term “sagebrushes” survived even after the Park Service began providing free campgrounds and people toured in their own cars. Another term missed in the excerpt below is “swaddies,” a label applied to the soldiers who managed the park from 1886 to 1916. Swaddie apparently was a corruption of the British-Indian army’s “swattie.” For decades swaddie bands provided music for dances at Yellowstone hotels where dudes and sagebrushes mingled.

Here’s a description of “Yellowstonese” as it was used in 1922.

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“Hello! You Dudes; how do you do?
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you.
Oh, how we like to see you smile,
And we like to sing to you.
Hello, you Dudes; how do you do.”

Have you ever been a dude? If you have you’ll remember the happy times when your gear-jammer rolled you up before a big rustic camp building, and while the pack rats scurried with the baggage you were greeted with this pawn of welcome by a flock of pretty savages from their roost atop a high log.

But if you have never been a dude you’ll probably not understand what all the foregoing is about; for the language is pure Yellowstonese, and in it “dude’ means a traveler through the great playground, which this year is celebrating its golden anniversary.

A “savage,” generically speaking, is anyone who works there, but in actual use of Yellowstonese more minute classifications are made. The “gear jammer” is the driver of your big yellow bus, the “pack rat” is one of the college boys who work as porters, and when you speak of a “savage” you usually are referring to one of that merry band which has become as celebrated in the Yellowstone as Old Faithful itself—the college girls who earn books and tuition during the summer as guides, waitresses and tent girls in the Yellowstone camps and who keep the great wonderland lively with their songs, plays and adventures.

She is a happy and self-reliant creature, the savage, and the best hype of American girl. Should you change to go up to old Yellowstone celebrate its fiftieth year as a national park you’ll meet her on every hand. She’ll sing you in, she’ll feed you. Your tent in camp will be spotless and neat under her capable hands, and when you hike she’ll tell you what makes the geyser gyse and introduce you to the bears. She’ll sing to you the quoin Yellowstone songs around the campfire at night, and if you look credulous, relate or two of the weird and wonderful Yellowstone stories invented particularly for dude consumption.

And in her leisure hours you’ll find her everywhere. She’ll be climbing or hiking or fishing, holding a fish-fry by the river or a marshmallow roast on the mountain side, adventuring everywhere, and then turning up fresh as a daisy to take up her camp duties or help stage a dance or an entertainment for the park’s guests.

Real girls! And when you are told that out of all the applications that pour in only the first six thousand are considered, and out of that number four hundred-odd girls are finally selected, then you commence to realize what a picked, genuinely representative group of the best young American womanhood the savages really are. And when you find a Chi Omega from Vassar serving your hot cakes and a Kappa Epsilon from California showing you the geysers or falls you begin to grasp the fact that here are representatives of colleges and national sororities from every portion of the country.

The savages’ summer commences at Salt Lake City when the “Savage Special,” a real limited pulls out of the station and heads north for west Yellowstone in June. It is an unusual train. Old Acquaintances belong renewed and all the old park yard being tried out on new girls keep things in a gale of fun. Ukuleles and unlimbered and every station is serenaded right up to the park entrance itself, where, piling into waiting busses, the savages scatter to the various camps.

Some of them will become waitresses, and here you learn some more Yellowstonese, for then the savages are known as “heavers.” The girls who draw the dishwashing jobs become “divers” and to the tent girls immediately accrues the euphemistic title of “bedbugs” among their fellows. Then, every week they all change around, the “bedbugs” become “divers”,” these change to “heavers” and the erstwhile “heavers” draw the coveted detail of making up beds. The latter is the soft job. Its holders are off for the day in their particular row is made up, and their fun begins.

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  • Excerpt from Eyre Powell, “The Sophisticated Savage of Yellowstone.” New York Tribune, July 16, 1922. (Pages 5-6)
  • National Park Service Photo, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.
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