Grant Area Natural Highlights, Page 7

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Shoshone Lake as seen at sunset

Shoshone Lake

Shoshone Lake, the park's second largest lake, is located at the head of the Lewis River southwest of West Thumb. It is possible that fur trapper Jim Bridger visited this lake in 1833, and fellow trapper Osborne Russell certainly reached the lake in 1839. According to James Gemmell, he and Bridger visited the lake in 1846 (in Wheeler, "The Late James Gemmell," pp. 131-136). Gemmell referred to it then as "Snake Lake," a name apparently used by the hunters.

Fr. Pierre-Jean DeSmet's 1851 map showed a "DeSmet's L." in the approximate position of present-day Shoshone Lake. In 1863, prospector Walter DeLacy visited the lake and named it "DeLacy's Lake." The lake was also called "Madison Lake" because it was erroneously thought to be the head of the Madison River. Cornelius Hedges of the 1870 Washburn Expedition named the lake after the party's leader, Gen. H.D. Washburn. By 1872, Shoshone Lake had already borne four or five names when Frank Bradley of the second Hayden Survey added a sixth. Bradley wrote: "Upon crossing the divide to the larger lake, we found it to belong to the Snake River drainage, and therefore called it Shoshone Lake, adopting the Indian name of the Snake [River]" (American Journal of Science and Arts, September 1873, p. 201). Bradley's name thus returned in spirit to Gemmell's and the fur trappers' name "Snake Lake."

Park Superintendent P.W. Norris thought that the name Shoshone Lake was "a fitting record of the name of the Indians who frequented it" (Fifth Annual Report, p. 44). The Shoshones lived mainly to the west and south of present-day Yellowstone National Park, but there is evidence that they occasionally entered the area and may have visited the lake each summer. Their arrowheads and other artifacts have been found in various places around the park.

The meaning of "Shoshone" has long been debated. Some authorities believe that the word represented an uncomplimentary Sioux expression given to the tribe by their Crow neighbors. David Shaul, a University of Arizona linguist, believes that the word literally translates as "those who camp together in wickiups" or "grass house people."

Shoshone Lake is 205 feet at its maximum depth, has an area of 8,050 acres, and contains lake trout, brown trout, and Utah chubs. Originally, Shoshone Lake was barren of fish owing to waterfalls on the Lewis River. The two types of trout were planted beginning in 1890, and the Utah chub was apparently introduced by bait fishermen. This large lake is the source of the Lewis River, which flows to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake River system. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that Shoshone Lake may be the largest lake in the lower 48 states that cannot be reached by road. No motorboats are allowed on the lake.

Shoshone Point

This point on the Grand Loop Road is located halfway between West Thumb and Old Faithful. It was named in 1891 because Shoshone Lake could be seen from here. In that year, Hiram M. Chittenden began constructing the first road between Old Faithful and West Thumb, and he probably named the point himself.

Shoshone Point was the scene of a stagecoach holdup in 1914. One bandit, armed and masked, stopped the first coaches of a long line of vehicles and robbed the 82 passengers in 15 coaches of $915.35 and about $130 in jewelry. Edward Trafton was convicted of the robbery and sentenced to five years in federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Map shows headwaters of Snake River originating from Yellowstone National Park


Snake River

The Snake River is a major tributary of the Columbia River and has its headwaters just inside Yellowstone on the Two Ocean Plateau. Various stretches of this important river have had at least 15 different names. The name, which comes from the Snake (Shoshone) Indians, was applied to the river as early as 1812, making it one of the oldest place names in the park. Shoshone Indians referred to some parts of the stream as "Yampa-pah," meaning "stream where the Yampa grows" (yampa is a food plant) and later as "Po-og-way" meaning "road river" (a reference to the Oregon Trail, which followed sections of the river) or, less often, "sagebrush river."

In 1872, the second Hayden Survey to Yellowstone gave the name "Barlow's Fork" (of the Snake) to the part of the river above the mouth of Harebell Creek, honoring J.W. Barlow who had explored that area in 1871. The group thought that Harebell Creek was the Snake River's main channel, an interpretation of the stream that was changed by the Hague surveys during the 1880s. Frank Bradley of the 1872 survey gave the name "Lewis Fork" (of the Snake) to the present-day Lewis River. The Snake name comes from sign language--a serpentine movement of the hand with the index finger extended--that referred to the weaving of baskets or grass lodges of the Snake or Shoshone Indians.

The source of the Snake River was debated for a long time. The problem was to find the longest branch in the Two Ocean Plateau, which is thoroughly crisscrossed with streams. Current maps show the head of the Snake to be about 3 miles north of Phelps Pass, at a point on the Continental Divide inside Yellowstone National Park. In 1926, John G. White showed a photo in his hand-typed book Souvenir of Wyoming of the "true source of the Snake," writing that "it is near the Continental Divide upon two ocean plateau. A number of springs gush forth upon the hillside. Uniting, they form a small stream, which, at an altitude of two miles above sea level, begins its arduous the Pacific" (p. 309). The Snake River is the nation's fourth largest river; 42 miles of it are in Yellowstone National Park.

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