When I was a boy my father told me that Indians never went into the Yellowstone Park area because they were afraid of the geothermal features. But that’s not true. Archeological evidence shows that Indians traveled through the area and hunted there for at least 11,000 years. The erroneous assertion appears to have been started by officials to assure early tourists they could travel safely to the park.
At least one band of Shoshone Indians, the Sheep Eaters, were permanent residents of the area. The mountain man Osborne Russell told about meeting a group of them in 1834 in his famous Journal of a Trapper. (He referred to them by the more generic term “Snake Indians,” which was what early travellers called several tribes that lived around the Snake River.)
Russell found the Sheep Eaters (so-called because bighorn sheep made up a large portion of their diet) when he traveled up the Snake River to the Yellowstone Plateau in 1834. Here’s his description.
We crossed the mountain in a westerly direction through the thick pines and fallen timber, about twelve miles, and , encamped in a small prairie about a mile in circumference. Through this valley ran a small stream in a northerly direction, which all agreed in believing to be a branch of the Yellowstone.
We descended the stream about fifteen miles through the dense forest and at length came to a beautiful valley about eight miles long and three or four wide, surrounded by dark and lofty mountains. The stream, after running through the center in a northwesterly direction, rushed down a tremendous canyon of basaltic rock apparently just wide enough to admit its waters. The banks of the stream in the valley were low and skirted in many places with beautiful cottonwood groves.
Here we found a few Snake Indians comprising six men, seven women and eight or ten children, who were the only inhabitants of the lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy.
They were rather surprised at our approach and retreated to the heights, where they might have a view of us without apprehending any danger, but having persuaded them of our pacific intentions we succeeded in getting them to encamp with us. Their personal property consisted of one old butcher knife nearly worn to the back, two old, shattered fusees which had long since become useless for want of ammunition, a small stone pot and about thirty dogs on which they carried their skins, clothing, provisions, etc., on their hunting excursions.
They were well armed with bows and arrows pointed with obsidian. The bows were beautifully wrought from sheep, buffalo and elk horns, secured with deer and elk sinews, and ornamented with porcupine quills, and generally about three feet long. We obtained a large number of deer, elk and sheep skins from them of the finest quality, and three large, neatly dressed panther skins, in return for awls and axes, kettles, tobacco, ammunition, etc.
They would throw the skins at our feet and say, “Give us whatever you please for them and we are satisfied; we can get plenty of skins but we do not often see the Tibuboes” (or “People of the Sun”). They said there had been a great many beavers on the branches of this stream, but they had killed nearly all of them, and, being ignorant of the value of fur had singed it off with fire in order to drip the meat more conveniently. They had seen some whites some years previous who had passed through the valley and left a horse behind, but he had died during the first winter.
They are never at a loss for fire, which they produce by the friction of two pieces of wood which are rubbed together with a quick and steady motion.
One of them drew a map of the country around us on a white elk skin with a piece of charcoal, after which he explained the direction of the different passes, streams, etc. From these we discovered that it was about one day’s travel in a southwesterly direction to the outlet or northern extremity of the Yellowstone Lake, but the route, from his description being difficult, and beaver comparatively scarce, our leader gave up the idea of going to it this season, as our horses were much jaded and their feet badly worn.
Our geographer also told us that this stream united with the Yellowstone after leaving this valley half a day’s travel in a westerly direction. The river then ran a long distance through a tremendous cut in the mountain in the same direction and emerged into a large plain, the extent of which was beyond his geographical knowledge or conception.
— Excerpt from “In the Yellowstone Country—A Garden of Eden Inhabited by a Small Party of Snake Indians.” Pages 31-34 in Osborne Russell and Lem A York, Journal of a Trapper 1834-1843. Boise, Idaho: Syms-York Co. 1921.
— Painting by Alfred Jacob Miller, Wikipedia Commons.
— You might enjoy other tales by Osborne Russell. To find them just insert his name in the Search box above.
3 thoughts on “A Tale: Trappers Encounter Peaceful Indians on the Yellowstone Plateau — Osborne Russell, 1834”
Thanks, Mark. Interesting to try to figure out just where they were. Deanna
I was also told, as a child, that Indians never went to Yellowstone because it was “bad medicine.” YUK. If I’d given that half a thought the “bad medicine” alone would have indicated no one in my family had a clue. Thanks for keeping us all better informed.
Thanks Mark, a fascinating excerpt.