Historical Archeology

Photograph of the original Tower Falls Soldier Station near Calcite Springs Overlook, 1905. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo from NPS Collection.
Photograph of the original Tower Falls Soldier Station near Calcite Springs Overlook, 1905. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo from NPS Collection.

NPS Photo

Historical Archeology
by Elizabeth Horton & Thomas James

Public perceptions of archeological sites in the Northern Rocky Mountains are heavily geared towards prehistoric sites, such as lithic scatters, quarries, tipi rings, and bison jumps. Although these types of archeological sites are important in that they reflect the majority of human occupation in the area, there is much to be learned from the more recent past, also known as the historical period.

What exactly is historical archeology and why is it important?

Historical archeology examines the remains from literate societies that could record their own histories (Deetz 1996, Little 2007). This is vastly different from prehistoric archeology, which studies all of human history before the onset of written records. In North America, this begins when European Americans entered the region until roughly 50 years before the present. Unlike archeologists who focus on prehistory, historical archeologists must think on a global scale as objects were now part of a global economy, and cultural ideas were now being transported across vast oceans and around the world, often coming into conflict with one another. We use written records and oral traditions to better understand the meanings and functions of the artifacts we recover. Museum collections often retain the rarest and valuable objects which often accurately reflect the lives of important persons featured in history, not those of ordinary people and those underrepresented in the history books. Sometimes the smallest items can tell the biggest stories (Deetz 1996). We may not think much of a U.S. Army key in a museum; but when we find one at the bottom of a privy, it relays to us an immediate story of how it got there and why it was left behind by a soldier.

Think about it - we do most of our daily activities without really thinking about them. Do we write down explicitly how we do the laundry or grocery shopping? No, we just do those things; and our explanations for why we do them a certain way, or use certain items, are passed on verbally through teaching them to others. When was the last time you read an account of where a person’s favorite mustard was manufactured? What about knowing where a child’s favorite toy was crafted or why different families use different things? Have you ever wondered what kinds of things and people you might have seen at a saloon 150 years ago? What exactly were they wearing, eating, drinking, and doing? Historical accounts answer in a general way, such as telling us they played cards and drank whisky, but which brands were the most popular? What types of meals did the saloon serve? Who frequented those establishments? Were they wearing the latest fashion trends as seen in nineteenth century magazine advertisements or their work clothes? What about their buttons and accessories, their hats, belts, and shoes? Was it the same at every saloon in town? What about through time and across the region, how did tastes change? These are the stories of the day-to-day lives of people like us, and their lives are fascinating.

These are the nuances that historical accounts often gloss over, but which we can learn much about through archeological research. We find that artifacts correlate with historical records, but can often conflict with those accounts as well. We sometimes find that wealthier people were eating cheap foods, choosing to spend funds on fancy dinnerware to show off at occasional meals through conspicuous consumption (Veblen 1896), not at all what we expect when reading of the sumptuous foods offered at their fancy dinner parties. We try to understand the meaning and importance of various items from the perspective of the people who originally used those objects, so that we may better contextualize our archeological findings. We use these patterns to better understand our historical trajectories or the journeys we took to arrive at our modern world.

There is a wealth of historical archeological resources in Yellowstone; and the development of the park is directly connected to larger social and economic changes occurring across America, including widespread settlement of the American West and a shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy. There is a diverse range of historical sites and topics reflected in historical archeological sites related to the development of the park (Hunt 1993, 2010), such as European-American exploration and fur trapping, U.S. Army management, the National Park Service system, the rise of the tourism industry (camping companies, hoteliers, guide and transportation companies, as well as park visitors), construction of road and trails, changes in frontier health and sanitation, alterations in the cultural landscape, as well as research questions related to the daily lives of those who traveled through, worked, and lived in the park. This article explores how historical archeology has helped us better understand the park’s historical period through the daily lives of ordinary people who lived in and visited this stunning wonderland.

European American Exploration
The first known European American person to visit the Yellowstone region was John Colter, a soldier with the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. Although Lewis and Clark passed within 50 miles of the park’s northern border, John Colter returned to the region and entered Yellowstone lands with a group of fur trappers in 1807, visiting at least one geyser basin (Cramton 1932, Mattes 1962). After the War of 1812, the fur trade in the central Rocky Mountains was monopolized by the British, but American trappers also visited the area. While within sight of the Teton Range in 1818, Alexander Ross of the North West Company, an American nineteenth century fur trading company, observed “boiling fountains having different degrees of temperature” (Ross 1855), but failed to describe nearby landmarks which could confirm he was in (what is now) Yellowstone. Credible reports suggest that Joseph Meek visited the area in 1829 (Victor 1871); and we know that Osborne Russell (Russell 1914) and James Bridger each visited Yellowstone in the 1830s, the latter extensively through the 1870s (Cramton 1932).

Currently, archeological evidence of fur trappers is relegated to historical observations. Superintendent Philetus W. Norris observed in 1881 near the Mystic River “J.O.R, August 29, 1819” carved into a pine tree that also contained small wooden pins inset into it, typically used by fur trappers. Hiram M. Chittenden observed the same carving 14 years later, but it was heavily obscured by overgrowth (Haines 1974). There are remains of trapper cabins in the park, and we work closely with NPS backcountry law enforcement rangers to protect these sites. These may have been erected by trappers using American Indian trails which travelled throughout the park, many of which are now trails used recreationally by visitors. While constructing the Norris Road near Obsidian Cliff, workmen found a cache of iron traps, noted by Supt. Norris as being manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company more than 50 years earlier (Norris 1879).

Government exploration of the area began in 1860, with an expedition led by Captain William F. Raynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Jim Bridger was a member of that party as a guide, while Dr. F.V. Hayden served as geologist (Cramton 1932). They attempted to explore the Yellowstone Plateau and investigate reports of the natural features, but were unable to reach the park interior due to late spring snow (Haines 1974, Baldwin 1976). An 1863 expedition led by Captain James Stuart encountered many setbacks and was forced to turn back (Cramton 1932).
In 1869, David Folsom, Charles Cook, and William Peterson made the first major foray with the sole intent of exploration into Yellowstone. Leaving Bozeman, they made their way to the Yellowstone River and followed it past Tower Falls, up the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River to Yellowstone Lake. They then visited geyser basins at West Thumb, Shoshone Lake, and the Firehole River, publishing the wonders they observed in Western Monthly (Haines 1974). The Washburn expedition of 1870 followed the route of the 1869 expedition, and conducted more exploration and scientific analysis of the geologic features of the park (Haines 1974). Hayden’s 1871 Expedition truly cemented Yellowstone as a wonder in the public mind, partly due to the scientific results obtained by the expedition’s biologists and geologists, but particularly due to the photography of William Henry Jackson and the magnificent paintings of Thomas Moran. Following these major forays into the park, the Yellowstone National Park Protection act was signed in 1872 and thus the world’s first National Park was born (Haines 1974).

The Park’s Formative Years
We have a great deal of information about the earliest park headquarters on Capitol Hill and the earliest Army encampment in the park, Camp Sheridan (1886-1891), which was located just north of the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces on and surrounding Capitol Hill. Philetus Walter Norris became the second Park Superintendent in 1877, and soon afterwards he established the park’s headquarters in Mammoth. Norris built a blockhouse atop Capitol Hill in 1878, accessed by a wagon road. At the base of the hill there was a reservoir, a barn, a blacksmith shop, and extensive fencing (Norris 1879). The blockhouse was raised in 1909 by the U.S. Army (Haines 1996a); however, archeological deposits are still present.

Through a partnership with the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist, the park completed archeological investigations of Capitol Hill in 2014 (Peterson and Clayton 2014). An irregular depression on top of the hill denotes the location of Norris’ blockhouse, and foundation remains of his house are present. Analysis of associated scatters of historic glass, ceramics, and metals have informed on the types of materials available at that time, to both the initial administrators of the park and particularly of the later Army occupation of the area, with the majority of artifacts manufactured between 1879 and 1909. Some evidence of the fencing that Norris built remains, but the barn or blacksmith shop was not relocated (Peterson and Clayton 2014).

The U.S. Army
The U.S. military presence in Yellowstone is unique. In August 1886, to enforce regulations and prevent illegal harvesting of big game the U.S. Army took over administration of the park. While stationed at the park, troops routinely patrolled the roads and tourist areas and fought forest fires while maintaining military readiness, which included training and drills (Rust 2017).
Camp Sheridan was established near the Mammoth Hot Spring terraces, and consisted of a T-shaped barracks, a storehouse/warehouse, a guardhouse, a cavalry stable, and a quartermaster stable. An officers’ quarters, a post hospital, and a headquarters office were added in 1887. The hospital and the officers’ quarters were located at the base of the western slope of Capitol Hill, in close association with Norris’ blockhouse. Soon after that, the army constructed five more buildings: a commanding officer’s stable, an enlisted men’s quarters, an ammunition and gunpowder magazine, and an ice house (Haines 1996b). All of the Camp Sheridan buildings were demolished in 1915 (Brett 1915). The U.S. Army officially ceded control of the park to the Department of Interior in 1918 (Battle and Thompson 1972).

Artifacts recovered during excavations held in 2014 (Peterson and Clayton 2014) reflect what the soldiers were using in their daily lives. Officers, considered part of the aristocratic class in Victorian society (Adams 2009), visited the hotels to call upon the guests (U.S. Dept. of the Interior 1907, Brett 1914). We can see how military personnel, many of whom were from the eastern part of the country, adapted to life in a remote outpost, and what eastern luxuries they either procured locally or brought with them to their posting. For example, in the area of Camp Sheridan, Peterson and Clayton found a Curtice Brothers Ketchup bottle from Rochester, NY; several export-style beer bottles; a salt-glazed ceramic mineral water bottle from either Germany or the Netherlands; the remains of three domestic cats; an Ed. Pinaud perfume bottle from Paris, France; and numerous other glass shards, can fragments, ammunition casings, and so on (Peterson and Clayton 2014). We can also see what activities they were engaged in that may not have been authorized by military and post regulations, such as alcohol consumption. Through analyzing these materials we better understand how the soldiers were participating in regional and global economies through their purchases. The building remains, though somewhat sparse, help us understand the daily lives of the park and military personnel before Fort Yellowstone was established at Mammoth Hot Springs, and we work with NPS Law Enforcement to protect these important non-renewable archeological resources. The Camp was replaced by Fort Yellowstone in 1891, constructed on the northeastern side of Capitol Hill near Camp Sheridan (Haines 1996b). Dozens of buildings were constructed, and many of these buildings stand today and are used as park offices and residences.

During their tenure, U.S. Army personnel also established Soldier Stations across Yellowstone, including Lake Outlet, Mud Geyser, Norris Geyser Basin, Fountain Flats, Thumb Bay, Specimen Creek, Grand Canyon, Heart Lake, Riverside, Tower Falls, Lamar River, Sylvan Pass, Soda Butte, and Bechler. These buildings were either constructed or rehabilitated from the former park gamekeeper’s cabin (Soda Butte), mail station (Riverside), or quarters for assistant superintendents (Haines 1977); and some were occupied year-round (Karsmizki 2001). Only two of these remain standing today (Haines 1996): the Bechler Soldier Station, now used as a Ranger Station, and the Norris Soldier Station which houses the Museum of the National Park Ranger. A network of back country snowshoe cabins were also constructed, from which the military could better protect the park’s resources through regular patrols. Four of these cabins remain today: at Buffalo Lake, Thorofare, Fox Creek, and Harebell. Built in 1912, the Buffalo Creek cabin is the oldest in the park (Culpin 1997).

Little documentation on the daily lives of the soldiers at these stations survives, excepting weekly and monthly reports which are brief and narrowly focused, such as daily patrol routes, game seen observed, and numbers of registered visitors (Karsmizki 2001). Soldiers were infrequently visited by officers and reported a sense of loneliness, particularly in the winter (Rust 2017). Alcohol bottles were recovered at the Fountain Flats Soldier Station, indicating that soldiers were able to procure it (Karsmizki 2001). As they were viewed in Victorian society as lower class citizens ( Agnew 2008, Adams 2009), enlisted men were not allowed to go into the hotels unless invited by hotel managers to attend dances at the hotels, in their dress uniforms (Brett 1914, Park Orders 1914), and did meet young ladies staying at the hotels (Rust 2017).

Archeological resources are associated with occupation of these Solider Stations, such as refuse dumps and sheet middens, a thin layer of debris scattered in a halo pattern around the buildings. Limited excavations at the Tower Falls, Fountain Flats, and Soda Butte Soldier Stations have provided important data. Fieldwork conducted between 1995 and 2002 at Tower Falls Soldier Station, including magnetometer survey and excavations, has identified potential locations of several structures, such as an officers quarters and cabin, as well as a well, corral, and refuse dump (Karsmizki 2000b; Sanders et al. 2003). Artifacts recovered include a plate, bowl, bottle fragments, tin can fragments, bullets, leather, comb fragments, buttons, and architectural materials such as square and wire nails, lumber, and mortar (Karsmizki 2000b).

The archeological site at Fountain Flats was identified in 1959, and excavated between 1992 and 1995 identifying the probable location of the station and its root cellar, stable, and corral (Taylor 1964, Cannon and Phillips 1993a, Hartley et al. 1993, Hunt et al. 1994, Hunt 1995, Karsmizki 2001). Numerous military items were collected during this work, including rock, brick, window glass, nails, mortar, ammunition, animal bones, and alcoholic beverage containers (Karsmizki 2001). At Soda Butte, two potential building foundations and seven refuse dumps as well as a sheet midden were identified, and more than 1,000 artifacts were collected by archeologists between 1995 and 1997 (Sanders 1995, Karsmizki 1998). Analysis of butchered animal bones reflect soldiers hunting elk and deer to supplement their military rations (Karsmizki 1998, Rust 2017).

By comparing materials collected at the Soldier Stations to those recovered at Mammoth, the archeological record reflects the lives of soldiers far away from headquarters, providing insights that either support or disagree with historical documents. Today, we ensure that significant archeological deposits related to Camp Sheridan and Fort Yellowstone are protected during construction-related activities, so that we may preserve this part of our heritage for future generations.

Transportation Improves Visitor Access
The park was difficult to access in its early days. In the early 1870s, there were two options; by railroad to Corrine, Utah, and then overland by stagecoach to Virginia City, Montana, or by travelling up the Missouri River to Fort Benton, Montana, and then by stagecoach to either Bozeman or Virginia City. Visitors traversed the final leg of their journey by following the Madison River through what is now West Yellowstone or the Yellowstone River through Gardiner (Culpin 1994). Portions of these early wagon road routes either parallel or were incorporated into modern roads, such as North Entrance Road and the West Entrance Road. These early roads are considered important archeological resources and are designated National Historic Districts. Supt. Norris initiated construction on the general route for the Grand Loop Road, the park’s major transportation corridor today, and built many bridges throughout the park which became important waypoints for the earliest tourists to visit Yellowstone.

Also in 1871, “Yellowstone Jack” Baronett constructed a toll bridge over the Yellowstone, near where the current Yellowstone River Bridge now sits. Baronett mainly served miners travelling to and from Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. Though partially burned by the Nez Perce during their flight from the army, it was rebuilt by the U.S. Army in pursuit, using materials from Baronett’s own cabin as planking (Wilfong 2006). With these repairs, the toll bridge continued in operation until its eventual abandonment in 1880 (Culpin 2003). Remnants of this bridge are still visible today along the Yellowstone River.

Travel to the park improved with extension of railroad lines. In 1883, Northern Pacific built a line to Cinnabar (between modern Corwin Springs and Gardiner), extending it to Gardiner in 1903 with the depot located near Roosevelt Arch (Haines 1977, Butler 2006). Cinnabar was abandoned that year, and several buildings were relocated to Gardiner (Dick 2011). Union Pacific began operating a line to West Yellowstone in 1908, becoming the quickest route to the iconic Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin. This line ran until 1960 and was the last railroad line operating to a park entrance. Other lines offered access to the park, but not so directly, switching from train to stagecoach or bus in Lander or Cody, Wyoming, and Red Lodge, Montana (Butler 2006).

A series of building foundations and a dump site in Cinnabar were examined by archeologists from the University of Montana between 2007 and 2008. Through analyzing the functions of artifacts recovered, the team identified a hotel, blacksmith shop, and privy. In addition, domestic materials, such as tablewares and foods, and personal items, such as toiletries, clothing, and footwear are helping us learn about tourist behaviors in the early years (Dick 2011), such as what items did they bring, and how do they reflect their visitor experiences?

When automobiles were allowed into the park in 1915, a new era of tourism began in the park. Tourism shifted from mainly a group activity to allowing opportunities for individual travel (Hunt 1993, 2010). One of the earliest roads into the park was the Virginia City and National Park Free Road, which followed the Madison and Firehole rivers to the Lower Geyser Basin (Hunt 2004). Soon after, Mary Mountain Road connected this geyser basin to the Hayden Valley (Hunt 2004), which General Howard utilized in his pursuit of the Nez Perce though the park in 1877. All of the major park roads, the North Entrance Road, West Entrance Road, Northeast Entrance Road, South Entrance Road, East Entrance Road, and the Grand Loop Road, are either listed on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places for their scenic character, individuals involved in construction, national significance as first of their kind, or a combination thereof (Culpin 1994). Many of these roads have been realigned to better serve visitors or protect natural resources, and many of the dozens of abandoned road segments are part of the current network of trails. Likewise, many of the road bridges, Fishing Bridge for instance, are significant works of artistic engineering that reflect the Park Service’s ethos of laying lightly on the landscape.

Tourism Flourishes with Concessioners
Entrepreneurs also established businesses in these early years to take advantage of bourgeoning tourism. Harry Horr and James McCartney were the first to build permanent developments in the park. Three bath houses and hotel were placed in Clematis Gulch at Mammoth close to Liberty Cap in 1871, the year prior to the establishment of the park, and catered to those who believed that the springs might have healing powers and to pleasure seekers (Peale 1999, Culpin 2003). The first in the park, McCartney erected a 25x35 ft., one-story, sod-roofed hotel, described by the Earl of Dunraven as a “little shanty which is dignified by the name of hotel” (Culpin 2003). Little development occurred in the Mammoth area beyond the bathhouses and hotel at this time (Rydell and Culpin 2006), and as of yet we have no archeological evidence of these bathhouses. Further north, McGuirk established his Medicinal Springs in 1871, but it only lasted three years as he failed to lodge a land claim prior to the establishment of the park. McGuirk’s buildings were used as government housing between 1874 and 1889, until razed by the Army in 1889 (Culpin 2003). We are planning upcoming archeological investigations to examine the remains of these buildings and associated archeological deposits to learn more about this period in its history.

Over the coming decades a wide variety of concessioners would continue with their efforts to service travelers in the park. Construction on the Queen’s Laundry Bathhouse started in 1881, but due to a change in Superintendents the building was never completed (Culpin 2003). The remains of the 9x19 ft. structure are the oldest extant remains of a concessioner-built structure in the park and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2001. William Wylie established a very early camping concession in 1883, the Wylie Permanent Camp Company. In 1889, he began building permanent tent camps throughout the park, including near Apollinaris Spring, Swan Lake Flats, the Upper Geyser Basin, Lake Outlet (Fishing Bridge), Grand Canyon, and Camp Roosevelt, which is now home to Roosevelt Lodge (Haines 1996a, 1996b, Culpin 2003). Wylie abandoned his enterprise when motorized vehicle access to the park eliminated the need for places to stop for tourist traveling throughout the park (Haines 1996a, 1996b). Archeological investigations in the Swan Lake flats area identified refuse dumps, and historical artifact sheet middens at the camp which once had tents, privies, a pavilion hall, dining rooms, a kitchen, bath house, and staff office and quarters (Karsmizki 2000a). Metal grommets, used to fasten down the tents, as well as sanitary food cans, solder-dot milk cans, lard and other tin cans, bottle fragments—some manufactured by the American Bottle Company in Chicago, Illinois, (Sanders, Waitkus, et al. 1996), fragments of amethyst glass whiskey bottles, and a shoe buckle were collected. Most surprisingly, an early sewage disposal system was found, consisting of ceramic sewer tile pipe leading into slit trenches, believed to capture and contain human waste (Karsmizki 2000a). It was installed by 1910 in response to concerns by the Post Surgeon at Fort Yellowstone and the Park Superintendent on the questionable sanitary conditions at the camp.

Another major development in the park was the Pleasant Valley Hotel or Wayside Inn Hotel. John Yancey had been in the area since 1882, and operated mail stops between Mammoth and Cooke City for two years. He established the hotel in 1884 at the halfway point between those stops, now known Yancey’s Hole (Rydell and Culpin 2006). The business expanded to include a log saloon, barn and cattle feeding shed, and stage stop by 1893 (Dowd et al. 2005). The hotel operated after Yancey’s death in 1903 until it burned in 1906. Although all remaining outbuildings were razed in 1960, parts of the foundations and stage coach access road are still visible today. Limited test excavations at the site revealed a flagstone foundation, and a variety of glass and ceramic tablewares, bottle glass, a tobacco tin, and animal bones (Dowd et al. 2005). These materials provide a glimpse into the activities at smaller early hotels in the park, such as what was on the menu and how meals were served. Sites such as the Wylie Camp and the Pleasant Valley Hotel are important as they shed light on the park’s transition from an unregulated entity to a well-organized destination for tourists.
In 1882, major growth in tourist amenities at Mammoth began when the Yellowstone National Park Improvement Company, funded by the Northern Pacific Railroad, began operating in Mammoth. The National Hotel, which later became the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (Haines 1996a) was built in 1883, and the tourist boom was on. Portions of the hotel were removed over the course of the next fifty years, and the majority of the old National was torn down in 1936. The present Mammoth Hotel includes the north wing of the National Hotel; during renovations in 2016, portions of early water/sewer lines, including a manhole access with wood framing, were located and recorded. We will be working with project managers and construction teams as building rehabilitation continues, to ensure that any archeological deposits uncovered beneath the building during construction activities are carefully studied before they are covered over.

Refuse dumps are important sources of information, as they contain a variety of artifacts which provide insight into various peoples living and working in the park (Ayres 1989; Hunt 1993, 2010). These are associated with 1920s road camps where workers lived while constructing the roads (Johnson 1989, Cannon and Phillips 1993b), Civilian Conservation Corps camps or early campgrounds (Cannon 1992, Cannon and Phillips 1993c), and especially with the grand hotels (Cannon 1992, Daron 1992, Cannon and Phillips 1993c, McCullen 2002, Hunt 2010, Horton 2017). The majority of artifacts in these refuse dumps often date to the early 20th century and primarily represent material culture related to tablewares, beverages (soda/mineral water, soft drink, beer, whiskey, bitters and other alcohols), and foods, identified through analysis of tin cans, similar to those served at park concessionaire hotels. Other items include those having a personal function, reflecting the needs of park tourists, such as medicines, toiletries, and footwear (clothing). Often early to mid-20th century soda water, soft drink, and alcohol bottles comprise the majority of these assemblages (Horton 2017).

Not all historical archeological sites in the park are terrestrial, some are underwater. Located along the Firehole River, the Marshall Hotel, built 1880 -1881, later replaced by the larger rustic Firehole Hotel, in operation from 1884 to 1891, was the first to receive an official Department of the Interior concession permit (Corbin et al. 2010). The building served several functions over time until its removal in 1910, including as a mail stage in 1880, a family-owned hotel to a corporate hotel run by the Yellowstone Park Association, and transfer to the Army for use as a large summer encampment. The short 30-year occupation of this area is important in that it gives us a relatively well contained microcosm of the park. Though the location of the hotel has long been known, formal archeological fieldwork was only initiated between 1992 and 2001 (Hunt 2004, Corbin et al. 2010). The full boundaries of the site were mapped which gave a rough-grained view of not only the hotel’s blacksmith shop, saloon, two log residences, the log stable, the 1885 bathhouse, but also of the various use areas surrounding the former hotel. Water pipes, a hand-dug bathtub connected to a nearby hot spring, several building foundations, and historic artifact concentrations in the river were located (Corbin et al. 2010). Remains of this hotel not only present on the floodplain, but refuse had collected where it washed into the river over time (Corbin et al. 2010). The result of these investigations was a fuller picture of an early frontier hotel and of the cultural landscape which grew around it.

The site will continue to provide a glimpse of early life after the park was founded, without obfuscation by modern development activities associated with hotels and lodges currently in active use.
Beneath the waters of Yellowstone Lake are a number of archeological sites, such as dock remnants and shipwrecks. United States government-sponsored expeditions ran boats on the lake as early as 1870 (Bradford et al. 2003, Russell et al. 2010), with concessionaires beginning operations in 1875 (Russell et al. 2010). In 1996, the NPS undertook a marine (underwater) survey, which located the wrecks of several small pleasure craft in the lake, and docks at West Thumb and near the Lake Hotel. Excitingly, wreck of the 125 ft. long, wooden-hulled, single-screw passenger steamer E.C. Waters was identified, the largest to operate on the lake (Haines 1996, Russell et al. 2010). Launched in 1905, the Waters could carry up to 500 passengers, though it never had more than trial runs. Doomed to an idle existence, the Waters was secured in a cove on one of the islands, thought a safehaven from thick winter ice. After languishing unused for years, the Waters broke up in 1926, caught in heavy ice. Archeological remains of the Waters are still present (Bradford et al. 2003, Russell et al. 2010) and give us insight to the history of maritime tourism in the park.

Many early concession buildings were removed as a part of the NPS Mission 66 building campaign, initiated in 1956 as the NPS prepared to serve increasing numbers of visitors over the next fifty years. Buildings deemed outdated or extraneous were either relocated or demolished (Culpin 2003). Through this process, many places that were once part of the park’s built environment are now represented by the archeological record instead. The remains of these structures, associated outbuildings, and objects (now artifacts) dropped by their previous inhabitants are all important parts of Yellowstone’s history.

The Importance of Historical Archeology
So why is historical archeology in Yellowstone important? Examining these types of sites helps us tell the story of the creation of the park and of the burgeoning tourism industry which made majestic nature accessible to the people of the United States and the world. The park that we enjoy today was shaped by Native Americans, early European American explorers, U.S. Army personnel, entrepreneurs and concessioners, and National Park Service employees who came before us. These sites grant us a somewhat unique view of leisure and tourism development in a remote park environment over the past 140 years, a viewpoint that is unavailable in most other places in North America.

As the park moves forward over the next centuries, we will leave our own marks on the park, which in turn will be studied by a future generation of archeologists. It is our responsibility to learn about the past in a manner that preserves information. When we study archeological sites, we often leave the old bottles, tin cans, ceramic plates, saddlery remnants, building foundations, fenceposts, and nails in place for future generations of archeologists. They will be able to learn much more than we can today, with advancements in scientific methods that we only dream of today. So if you’re lucky enough to come across some of these important historical archeology sites, take a moment and experience the connection to those who came before us, but leave the items in place for future generations.

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Part of a series of articles titled Yellowstone Science - Volume 26 Issue 1: Archeology in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: April 10, 2019