I’ve been preparing a talk titled “Mountain Men Discover Yellowstone” to present at the Cooke City Museum on Saturday, August 8 at 8 p.m. It’s part of the Musuem’s “Joe’s Campfire Talks,” an outdoor summer series. I’ve presented there before and really enjoy the venue.
The topic a new one for me so I had to dig through my files to find stuff, but I’m glad for a reason to explore my collection of 300 or so tales of early travel to Yellowstone Park. I always discover new things when I take a fresh look.
I’ll begin my presentation with to following story about a first sighting of geysers:
It was a scene of absolutely uncanny desolation, and as we looked at it we ceased to wonder at the names bestowed upon it by its first discoverers, such as “Devil’s Paint Pots,” “Hell’s Half-acre,” [and so forth]. One of our guides told us in graphic language of his first sight of this region.
“You see,” he said, ” a party of us were out prospecting for mines, and we had traveled all day through pretty thick forests, and were pushing towards an opening we could dimly see through the trees, where, we hoped to make a comfortable camp for the night. We were very tired, and were “hurrying to get into camp, when suddenly, just as we reached the edge of the forest without a moment’s warning, we heard a most awful rumbling, the ground shook under our feet, and there burst into the air a column of water and steam that looked as if it reached the skies.
We just fairly lost our senses, and never stopped to take a second look, but wheeled about in an instant, put spurs to our horses, and crushed away through the underbrush and tree-trunks as if the Evil One himself were after us. And the fact is,” he added, “we did not know but that he was. For what else, we asked ourselves, could such goings-on mean, but that we were on the very edge of the lower regions? We never rested till we had put miles between us and that awful place, and for years we never spoke of it for fear the fellows should think we had really been to hell, and were sold to the old fellow who lives there.”
When I first began collecting Yellowstone travel stories, I thought such tales of freight and flight at first sight of boiling fountains of water 200 feet high would be common. But they’re not. In fact, that’s the only story like I have like that. And it’s from a reminiscence published in 1883. Since the narrator says he was “prospecting for mines” we can tell it probably was from the 1860s, decades after mountain men discovered the wonders of what became Yellowstone Park.
The first white man to see Yellowstone was John Colter, who passed through the area in 1807 while looking for Indians to trade with. Colter, who had been a member of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, later told his old boss William Clark what he had seen and Clark included the information in a map he published later. While Clark’s map proves that Colter saw geothermal features, the information provided in them is vague.
The first person to write about geysers he had actually seen was a trapper named Daniel Potts who described them in his famous “Letter From Sweet Lake,” date July 8, 1827. A newspaper published the letter anonymously and it’s author was unknown until the 1940s when two elderly ladies offered to see the original to the Park Service.
The first mountain men who saw the geothermal features of the upper Yellowstone didn’t even know the word geyser, but their descriptions makes it clear they saw geysers. I’ll demonstrate this by reading a couple of 1834 descriptions — one by Osborne Russell and another by Warren Angus Ferris.
I’ll end my talk with Osborne Russell’s delightful description of trappers telling tall tales around a campfire.
It should be a fun presentation and I’m really looking forward to it. So if your looking for something to do on Saturday, come to Cooke City and hear about the early history of Yellowstone Park.
- Excerpt from H.W.S., “A Lady’s Visit To The Geysers Of The Yellowstone Park,” Friends Intelligencer May 19, 1883. Pages 218-221; May 27, Pages 234-237.