A Tale: Snow Stymies An Attempt To Explore Yellowstone — 1870

When my Summer 2011 issue of Pioneer Museum Quarterly arrived, I immediately went through it to find my article, “Fred Bottler: Yellowstone Pioneer in Paradise.” It’s always thrill to see my stuff printed on slick paper in justified columns.

Philetus W. Norris

Fred Bottler started the first permanent ranch in the Paradise Valley in 1867 in a spot halfway between Bozeman and Mammoth Hot Springs, a day’s ride from each of them. That made Bottler’s a perfect overnight stop for early travelers on their way to Yellowstone Park. Also, Bottler hunted elk and prospected for gold in the park before he started ranching so he was the perfect guide.

Many early travelers mention Bottler in their journals and reminiscences and I began collecting information about him several years ago. When Pioneer Museum Director John Russell asked me to write an article for the Quarterly, I organized my Bottler file and went to work. The result is an account of Bottler’s life and a collection of stories about him.  Here’s a sample.


In 1870, Philetus Norris, who became the second Yellowstone Park Superintendent, hired Bottler to guide him to the wonders of the region. Perhaps driven by the knowledge that others were planning a similar expedition later that summer, Norris and Bottler headed into the park in early June. Deep snow prevented them from getting to the grand geysers, so they decided to try to cross the mountains to Mammoth Hot Springs.

Norris described their trek this way: “Although the snow-capped cliffs and yawning chasms in the basaltic or ancient lava beds, fringed with snow-crushed, tangled timber and impetuous torrents of mingled hot-spring and snow-melt water made our progress—mainly on foot, leading our horses—slow, tedious and dangerous, we persevered until we came to a large river.”

It was the snowmelt-swollen Gardner River, a knee-deep stream 20 feet wide. When Bottler stepped into the rushing water, the torrent knocked him off his feet, swept him away and carried him downstream. Bottler grabbed an overhanging cottonwood branch and hung on. Norris rushed up barely in time to save him. Bottler had lost his rifle and ammunition belt in the icy water.

Norris summarized the situation like this: “With my only companion sadly bruised by the rocks, benumbed, the remnants of his dressed elk-skin garments saturated by snow water, without gun or pistol, in a snow-bound mountain defile in an Indian country, even a June night was far from pleasant for us.”

The next morning, Norris surveyed the area with his powerful field glasses and spotted steam rising from Mammoth Hot Springs eight miles away. The men decided they couldn’t make it to the springs over the mountain torrents swollen by melting snow. Besides, they had only one gun to provide meat and protection from wild animals and Indians. The river accident had banged Bottler up too much for him to climb back over the mountains, so they headed down the second canyon of the Yellowstone River, which later became known as Yankee Jim Canyon.

Bottler returned to his ranch to recuperate, and Norris went to Missoula to attend to business. From Missoula, Norris proceeded to the Pacific coast where he heard in August that a party headed by Montana Surveyor General Henry Washburn had returned from exploring the upper Yellowstone. Apparently, the news that others had beat him to documenting the wonders of the Yellowstone upset Norris greatly. “I was intensely mortified,” he said, “to learn that Messrs. Langford, Hauser and others had gone up the Yellowstone.”


— Excerpt from M. Mark Miller, “Fred Bottler: Yellowstone Pioneer in Paradise,” Pioneer Museum Quarterly, Summer 2011, pp. 13-18.

— You can read the rest of my stories about Fred Bottle by buying a copy of the Quarterly at the Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.  Better still, join the Gallatin Historical Society and get a free subscription.

— Photo, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.

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