Human history in Yellowstone National Park can be traced back 11,000 years. Just because it is the United States' oldest protected piece of land, Yellowstone has not been precluded from being affected by people. Nomads, native tribes, pioneers, and present day tourists and rangers have all left their mark on this massive natural area. Hopefully the longest lasting mark left will be on your memory!
Archaeologists have found spear points within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park that date back nearly 11,000 years. Receding glaciers at the end of the most recent Ice Age uncovered fertile hunting grounds that were used as the population of North America began in earnest. The Bannock Trail reaches back through the annals of human migration through the Yellowstone area, but it is difficult to trace. Seasonal parties may have even congregated along the shore of Yellowstone Lake, according to archaeological findings.
Modern-day plants and animals populated Yellowstone more regularly than people over the next 6000 years of history. Timeline evidences show that hunting methods evolved from spears to bows and arrows, and it is assumed that edible vegetation was also harvested when happened upon. Single tribe history begins its lineage 3000 years ago, with ancestors of the Salish Tribe being placed in the area during that timeframe.
There are 26 Native American tribes associated with Yellowstone National Park. Reservations for those tribes are spread across 8 states today, but each of them can trace ancestral lineage and past generational usage to the resources available at Yellowstone. Geologic features associated with the volcanic region were important for weapon making (obsidian) and medicinal/mythological purposes (geysers). Some spent more time in the area than others.
Ancestors of the Kiowa Tribe hold one of the longest and strongest connections. Bison were a major source of sustenance for all of the Native Americans around Yellowstone, but the Kiowa truly bonded lifestyles with the animal. They were one of the only tribes that stayed in constant reach of the land during what became known as the Little Ice Age, which spanned from the year 1450 until nearly 1800.
Members of the Crow and Lakota Sioux moved into Yellowstone during the end of the Little Ice Age. It was during these late years of the 1700s that the first European fur trappers came as well. Horses became a new commodity to the local native population, and a new evolution in tribal hunting began.
Very little changed for Native Americans in the Yellowstone area for the first 60 years of the 1800s, then there were rapid, forced shifts in their ways of life. A couple of US government sanctioned expeditions set out to pay more attention to this area that fur trappers and tribal populations held so much esteem for. This was likely spurred on by the discovery of gold outside of Yellowstone National Park in 1862.
United States Army forces cleared Yellowstone native tribes shortly after it became the newly minted, world's first national park in 1871. Propaganda was spread that there were no full-time residential troupes in the area, but oral histories have claimed otherwise. There are reported to be as many as 1600 important cultural sites within the park boundaries.
In 1877, the Nez Perce were chased out of Oregon and spent 13 days in Yellowstone while being pursued. A number of visitors to the park happened to be taken hostage by the tribe, and a couple even ended up being killed. Ultimately, the band was caught 40 miles south of Canada, and while some were killed in a siege, most were transplanted to Oklahoma reservations.
Early American Influence
Fur traders first came to Yellowstone in the late 1700s, making this area one of the last fully explored regions of North America. They came in following the Yellowstone River and stayed toward the northern area of the modern-day park. It is likely they helped to introduce horses to the Native tribes they dealt with.
Lewis and Clark did not go through Yellowstone. It was not until explorations in 1807, led by John Colter, that the United States government began showing interest beyond simple ownership. The War of 1812 delayed any formal expeditions, however. Written accounts of the area by trappers begin to seep into public consciousness in the mid-1800s.
Gold rushes were big business in the 1800s, but no strike was ever found in the boundaries of modern-day Yellowstone. Small amounts were found north of the park. This likely spurred on the undertaking of full expeditions.
Scientists and naturalists were especially excited by the reports sent back by the 1869 group of Folsom, Cook, and Peterson. Giant waterfalls, hot springs, major bodies of water across a widespread plateau, and no human population to speak of. This all sounded like a dream. A better equipped expedition, Washburn, Langford, and Doane, was dispatched nearly immediately. This is the group that gave Old Faithful its name. An 1871 expedition by Hayden, featuring 10 scientists, artists, and even more support staff, solidified all of the previous news that had been brought out of Yellowstone regarding its wonder.
March 1, 1872: United States President Ulysses S Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act.
Yellowstone was officially signed as the first National Park in the United States on March 1, 1872 by President Ulysses S Grant. This precedent-setting move immediately led to the difficulties of figuring out how to manage public lands for recreational purposes. There was very little funding in the early days, and several park managers were shuffled through, including a stint by the U.S. Army. Philetus W. Norris, the second Park Superintendent, was responsible for creating the Grand Loop Road and built a headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Poaching was one of the key concerns that has been dealt with in Yellowstone. Bison were high on the list of targets for these poachers, and after public outcry resulting from an article published by Emerson Hough, laws were strengthened to help punish those who would kill animals on protected lands. Ed Howell, 1894, was the first to be arrested for the crime. Wolves were another main target, but both animal populations have rebounded to healthy numbers inside the park.
Cars were first allowed into Yellowstone in 1915. This made trips easier for the public and tourism skyrocketed. The few lodges inside the park and surrounding communities showed a major boon in increased business. Modern sites and trails are the same sites and trails that have been enjoyed by visitors over the last hundred years!
The National Parks Service was formed in 1916 and helped to develop many areas of Yellowstone, among other locations across the US. It was the creation of the Parks Service, in part, that helped to protect Yellowstone resources from being harvested during World War II. A second major push to help develop the park was undertaken postwar, called Mission 66.
Today, the park remains relatively unchanged over the past 100+ years of management. New plans have been put in place to help protect and better serve wildlife and tourist interactions. Bears and bison have both caused multiple human fatalities, but information spreading and policy enforcement to keep humans and animals separate are working toward any future incidents. It is imperative that the natural splendor of Yellowstone be maintained for future generations to experience it's awe and wonder!