"The place where Hell bubbled up"
A History of the First National Park
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For more than 10,000 years people have trod the Yellowstone wilderness. In the beginning human visits were rare and brief. Those who approached the vicinity of Yellowstone were already many generations and thousands of miles removed from their ancestral Asian origins, and most of them in the early days came to the region to hunt rather than to live.

The first men arrived during the decline of the last ice age. Their small and highly mobile population possessed a limited material culture and left little physical evidence of their presence—mainly distinctive stone tools and projectile points now classified under such terms as "Folsom" and "Clovis." They traveled along rivers and down major valleys in pursuit of such denizens of the ice age as the mammoth, the ancestral horse, and the giant bison, as well as the familiar animals of today. They supplemented game with berries, seeds, and roots. Though they were few in number, their weapons and tools made them comparatively efficient, and their hunting, combined with the warming of the climate, may have contributed to the disappearance of many primeval mammals. When the last glacial stage ended about 8,500 years ago, many animals that were adapted to colder, wetter conditions became extinct. This environmental change also altered the habits of man.

As the climate in the Yellowstone region warmed up, the surrounding plains grew extremely hot and dry but mountainous areas remained well watered. The population in the region increased steadily as a new lifeway—hunting for small game and foraging for plants—replaced the endless wandering of the original hunters. Hunting could be done more efficiently after the small bands acquired the bow and arrow, and so large game became more prominent in the diet of man in Yellowstone.

By about 1600 Yellowstone was occupied by semi-nomadic populations that left many stone tools and projectile points, domestic utensils, and campsites. When the horse arrived in the high country of the West in the late 17th century, it upset old Indian patterns of living, and in some places produced entirely new cultures. The Indians could now follow the bison herds and other gregarious game of the plains. Mountain areas, more difficult to travel over by horseback, rapidly lost much of their population. When the first frontiersmen came to Yellowstone in the early 19th century, few people were living there. Only occasional hunting parties of Crows, Blackfeet, and Bannocks crossed its vastness, while small bands of Shoshones lived in its mountains.

The Crows occupied the country generally east of the park and the Blackfeet that to the north. The Shoshonean Bannocks and probably other tribes of the plateaus to the northwest traversed the park annually to hunt on the plains to the east. But other Shoshonean groups were probably more influenced by the horse. They had been pushing northward along the eastern edge of the Great Basin (west and south of the park), and the acquisition of horses both intensified this movement and scattered them in diverse bands. About 1700 the Comanches separated themselves from the rest of the Western Shoshones and moved southeastward into the plains. Most of the Shoshones hunted in the open areas west and south of Yellowstone. But some, either through the conservatism of their culture or the lack of opportunity, did not acquire horses. They continued to hunt and forage on foot in the mountains of Yellowstone, where there was little competition. A band of these people occupied the highlands until 1871, when they rejoined their kinsmen on the Wind River Reservation in west-central Wyoming. Because of the importance of mountain sheep in their diet, they had become known as "Sheepeaters." Their occupation left no more mark on the land than did the occasional visits of Crows, Blackfeet, or other Shoshones. After they left and the tribes from the outside ceased to hunt in Yellowstone, there remained only the scattered ruins of the hearth sites and brush lodges that had once been their simple homes.

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Last Updated: 04-Nov-2009