Wyoming: Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

Bighorn sheep for which the canyon and river are named.
Bighorn sheep for which the canyon and river are named.

Courtesy of National Park Service

The history of Bighorn Canyon and the Crow Indians begins with the legend of Big Metal, which tells the story of a young boy who was saved by seven bighorn sheep after his stepfather pushed him over the edge of the canyon. Commanded by Chief Big Metal, the sheep rescued the young Indian, named him Big Iron, and gave him powers that each of the seven sheep possessed. Among the powers granted to Big Iron were wisdom, sharp eyes, keen hearing, great strength, a strong heart, and surefootedness. According to the legend, Big Metal also issued a warning to the young boy after he received his powers, telling him that if he ever changed the name of the Bighorn River, the Crow people would no longer exist. Today, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area preserves this land and tells the stories of how it shaped the lives and history of the Crow Nation and others who were in this place. 


When Big Iron returned to the village, he shared the warning with his people and taught them what he learned from the sheep and other animals at the Bighorn Canyon. Through his knowledge, the Crow Indians learned how to build a sweat lodge, which was a place for spiritual refuge where the Crow could seek wisdom and power. Acting like a sauna, the sweat lodge allowed the Crow to cleanse their spirits, since they believed that by sweating they were releasing evil from their bodies. For the Crow, the sweat lodge or sweat bath was not only a place for spiritual cleansing, but also the first medicine available to man because the sweating released toxins that helped heal their bodies. The tradition of sweat lodges continues today as a ritual practiced not only by the Crow but also by other American Indian tribes.

Eventually, Big Iron grew into a strong and wise man who managed to outlive four generations of Crow Indians. At the time of his death, he asked for burial next to the Bighorn River, so he could join his father Big Metal and the other sheep in the afterlife. For Big Iron, Bighorn Canyon was not only a sacred place but also his home. For generations, the people of the Crow Nation fought to preserve the Bighorn to protect their home, people, and culture. In the 19th century, motivated by the idea of Manifest Destiny, the United States expanded across American Indian lands and forced American Indian tribes to move and accept life on reservations. While some tribes accepted the changes to their way of life, the Crow fought to maintain their ancestral lands.

Among those fighting for the Crows was Robert Summers Yellowtail, who throughout his youth had seen his land partitioned under treaty after treaty. In 1910, after receiving his degree at the Los Angeles Extension Law School, Yellowtail began a legal battle against the United States government to help restore his people’s lands. After a seven-year long lawsuit, Yellowtail and the Crow defeated the opposition, and the settlement allowed the Crow to maintain tribal control over their reservation. In the years that followed the victorious lawsuit, Yellowtail helped write the 1920 “Crow Act,” which guaranteed that no land belonging to the Crow could be taken without tribal consent. Over time, Yellowtail’s efforts would lead to the granting of the right to vote for American Indians in 1924.

Until the end of World War II, Yellowtail and the Crow Nation maintained peaceful and respectful relations with the U.S. government. After the war, relations soured when the government decided to build a dam in Bighorn Canyon. Yellowtail and the Crow opposed the project, since for their people Bighorn Canyon was a sacred place central to the tribe’s existence. Although the United States government according to the terms of the Crow Act needed approval from the tribal council to purchase the land and build the dam, the Federal Government was relentless and began to take drastic measures after the council voted down the project.

When government agents began spreading rumors that Yellowtail had agreed to sell out the tribe, tensions rose among the members of the tribal council. Recognizing that the government would continue to pressure the tribe and increase tensions within the tribal council, Yellowtail proposed that the government pay $1 million a year for 50 years to lease the land where they would build the dam. Government agents rejected the proposal and continued to pressure the tribe, which in the end lost the battle over the proposed dam.

Tourists at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area can visit the Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center. The dam helps regulate the flow of water into the Bighorn, making it possible for tourists and local citizens to engage in recreational activities at the site. Visitors may fish and boat on Bighorn Lake, and enjoy bicycling, camping, hiking, and horseback riding nearby.

Bighorn Canyon was also important in other ways to the epic story of the development of America’s western frontier. The Bozeman Trail runs through Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area. To protect emigrants traveling on the Bozeman Trail from Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, who resented white encroachment into their lands, the government began establishing military posts along the Bozeman Trail.

Among the posts built on the trail was Fort C. F. Smith, which overlooked the Bighorn River.  The establishment of Fort C. F. Smith on the Bighorn angered the Sioux, who found that its construction violated the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty. As a result, Fort C. F. Smith was constantly under siege by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. All that remains of the fort are low mounds of adobe. Although the ruins of Fort C. F. Smith are on private property outside the boundaries of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area, visitors may see the fort by making prior arrangements at the Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center.

After Fort C. F. Smith’s abandonment, the town of Fort Smith, Montana developed on the site where the fort once stood. The town is within the Crow Nation reservation, which is outside of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area park boundary. Within the reservation are other historic sites, including the Hayfield Fight site, where a monument commemorating the battle presently stands, and the Fort Smith Medicine Wheel, which is a sacred and spiritual place where the Crow people and other American Indian groups go to meditate. Both the Medicine Wheel and Hayfield Fight Monument are on private property and are not open to the public.

Bad Pass Trail also runs through Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area. Over 10,000 years ago, American Indians camped along this trail, and for a long time, tribes such as the Shoshone used it to get to the buffalo plains. Trappers and traders also used the trail to avoid traveling across the Bighorn River, whose untamed waters made drowning possible. The historic trail runs parallel to the park road, allowing visitors to see this once highly trafficked transportation route. 
Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area protects four historic ranches that offer a glimpse into the history of ranching in the American West. Visitors can see the Mason and Lovell Ranch built in 1883, the 1896 Ewing-Snell Ranch site, the Hillsboro Ranch and Post Office built in the early 1900s, and the Lockhart Ranch established by Caroline Lockhart in the 1920s.

Visitors can also tour what little remains of the old town of Kane. Although the lake flooded what was once a growing community in the early 1900s, the town of Kane and its cemetery are full of stories about American ranchers and traders.

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park System, is located on Highway 20 exit 14A East in Lovell, WY. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. There are two Visitor Centers and two Contact Stations; the hours vary seasonally. For more information, visit the National Park Service Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area website or call 406-666-2412.

Many components of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including: Pentagon 1Hillsboro Ranch, and Pentagon 2.

Last updated: August 7, 2017