Research Tips: Family History, Concessioners
March 11, 2014
A group of "pillow punchers" or maids for the Yellowstone Park Camping Co., circa 1915.
The largest group of former employees for Yellowstone National Park is actually the “savages,” or concessioner employees, rather than the National Park Service. This is because the concessioners, especially the Yellowstone Park Company, employed hundreds each summer to serve guests at the camps, hotels, stores, and gas stations. Many of the employees were college students, recruited for their enthusiasm, endurance, and often their ability to entertain in the evening. The students might only work a summer or two, but would always recall their experiences fondly. Despite the short tenures, the savages are a tight-knit community with their own lingo, alumni group, and occasional reunions.
Researching a family member’s past as a savage depends upon when and for whom they worked. As stated in our previous blog, “Family History, Getting Started,” it helps to know a few things first. Full names, including maiden names, approximate dates, and where within the Park the employee was stationed can be especially helpful. It’s not impossible to proceed without this information, but it can be time consuming.
The best starting point is the Yellowstone Park Company (YPC) records, housed in the Archives of the Heritage & Research Center. There is a finding aid online, but it doesn’t list all the names mentioned, especially those within documents. Nonetheless, it never hurts to run a key word search; occasionally a potential employee wrote an inquiry letter or penned a report which is cataloged. The next step is to dig into the records and look at those recording personnel information. For the YPC, the Archives houses payroll registers from 1931-1960. A few of the earliest registers cover only Mammoth and nearby duty stations. Searching can be a challenge; they are organized by location first and then position, rather than alphabetically. Finally, registers from 1947 to1958, are restricted to staff-only searches and cannot be copied because of the presence of social security numbers. The archives also has a few records for the YPC predecessors: the Yellowstone Park Camps Co., the Yellowstone Park Hotel Co., and the Yellowstone Park Transportation Co. Of these records, the Camps Company ledgers from about 1922 to 1930, occasionally include names of employees. Again, these lists tend to be organized by duty station and position, rather than alphabetically. Information gleaned from the records usually includes duty station, position worked, and amount of wages.
Another source of information is personnel lists. These seem to have been generated for the purpose of keeping in touch after the season ends as they often list home addresses. Lists were created at Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Lake, Mammoth, and Old Faithful, and date inconsistently from the late 1940s to 1970.
Montana State University’s Special Collection and Archives also houses some records from the YPC. Of note for genealogists is their collection of employee records from the Transportation department. While there may be some overlap in the information recorded in each collection, it does seem that some transportation employees were not included in the main payroll records. Again, there are some access restrictions to protect personal privacy, but immediate family members may request details. Contact MSU for more information: (406) 994-4242 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Personnel records for the Hamilton Stores, Haynes Photo Shops, the Wylie Camping Company, and other early concessioners do not appear to have found their way to an archives. Records for the current concessioners remain with those companies.
If you are willing to dig a little, you might also wish to look through some of the photograph albums and other manuscript collections created by former concessioner employees. These albums frequently include group images of employees. Full name identification is rare, but there are often first names and sometimes home states listed. Knowing when and where your ancestor worked will help narrow the search considerably here. Brief descriptions to these collections may be found in our library catalog, http://wyld.state.wy.us/yrl/ (search by location and include the keyword “concessioner”), or browse our detailed finding aids at http://www.nps.gov/yell/historyculture/manuscript.htm.
The Archives can provide a limited amount of assistance to distance researchers; digging deeper will require a visit to the research room. Contact us for more information or to make a research appointment.