The single most influential factor in the history of the Bighorn Canyon area has been time. Whether measured in a geological or biological span, time has been and continues to be the true measure by which the area’s history is understood. The human history of Bighorn Canyon can be broken down into several different historic eras.

1) The Prehistoric Era dates backs up to 12,000 years. This is the time when Paleo-Indians first inhabited the area as the last ice age was ending. The prehistoric era spans across multiple millenniums. Human activity followed the Bad Pass Trail, as these peoples took part in seasonal migrations from the Bighorn Basin of northern Wyoming to extreme southern Montana where they found rich bison hunting grounds.

2) The next era commences with the coming of the Crow Indians. Dating as far back as the late 16th century, when the Crow made this land their home.. This period lasted up until the beginning of the 19th century, when first contact was made with white people. Even before this though, the Crow were already influenced by the Euro-American presence. The horse had already found its way into their culture. Assorted trade goods brought about radical changes in lifestyles, as well as the coming of disease, namely smallpox, which ravaged tribal communities.

3) In 1805, fur trader Francois Antoine Larocque made it all the way to the mouth of Bighorn Canyon. This inaugurated the era of first contact between whites and Crows. This period is best defined by the mountain men using the Bad Pass Trail to carry beaver fur packs back from rendezvous in 1824, 1825, & 1833. This era also saw the initial exploration of the canyon. In 1839 the Bad Pass Trail would appear on a map for the first time.

4) The era of exploration, expeditions, and surveys started with the fur traders and reached its peak from 1859-1879. These years saw a series of military expeditions that literally put the area in and around Bighorn Canyon on the map. This era would last through the 1890’s when surveys by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad intensively mapped the twists, turns, and dizzying heights of the canyon.

5) By the late nineteenth century ranchers had found their way to the Bighorn Basin beginning a new era of the canyon's history. The open range brought men such as Henry Lovell, who used the financial backing of Anthony Mason to run over 24,000 cattle across the area. They were followed by homesteaders who developed modest family ranchers. At the same time the ranching era was beginning, prospectors attempted to extract gold from the Bighorn Canyon region. Their efforts would fail, but men such as Erastus Ewing and Grosverner W. Barry would turn to ranching instead.

6) It was Barry who first recognized and exploited the recreation potential of Bighorn Canyon. He used his Cedarvale Dude Ranch as a base to launch excursions along the waters of the Bighorn. This era has been marked by usage of the river and canyon area for recreational purposes. Trips along the river took place as thrill seekers attempted to run the turbulent waters through the canyon during spring runoff. The last river trip was taken in 1965.

Construction of the Yellowtail Dam in the mid-1960s changed the river irreparably. Now thrill seekers spent their time plying the waters of 71 mile long Bighorn Lake. In 1968 Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was designated. Approximately 200,000 visitors annually enjoy a variety of recreational pursuits. History is still being made every day as the era of recreation continues and time marches on.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Headquarters Office
PO Box 7458

Fort Smith, MT 59035


(307) 548-5406

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