Grand Teton
Historic Resource Study
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The Prehistoric Peoples of Jackson Hole (continued)
By Stephanie Crockett

Protohistoric Period (A.D. 1700 to 1850)

The presence of European goods in the archeological record signals the beginning of the Protohistoric period. This period lasted from around A.D. 1700 to 1850, by which time North American Indian tribes were being relocated to reservations.

Probably the most significant item to be acquired by the tribes was the horse. The introduction of the horse broadened the territories of mounted Indian peoples. The horse increased the mobility of many tribes and brought together the Great Basin and Plains cultures. According to D. B. Shimkin, the introduction of the horse into the Wind River Shoshone culture upset the economic and social balance. Because horses were initially scarce, the men generally rode in order to be fresh for hunting. As a result, women had to walk, which upset the social equilibrium between the sexes. Individuals and families acquired more movable goods, and hunting, gathering and fishing territories changed. The tribes with horses also became more efficient at communal hunting, which allowed them to provide more food for a larger population. At the same time, however, these tribes lost their intimate knowledge of the smaller game species, such as squirrels and rabbits. [30] In and around Jackson Hole, however, early nineteenth-century trappers encountered mountain-dwelling peoples who appeared to be thriving without horses. Trapper and explorer Osborne Russell described an 1835 encounter with mountain-dwelling people in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park.

Here we found a few Snake Indians comprising 6 men 7 women and 8 or 10 children who were the only Inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy—Their personal property consisted of one old butcher Knife nearly worn to the back two old shattered fusees [31] which had long since become useless for want of ammunition a Small Stone pot and about 30 dogs on which they carried their skins, clothing, provisions etc on their hunting excursions. They were well armed with bows and arrows pointed with obsidian. The bows were beautifully wrought from Sheep, Buffaloe and Elk horns secured with Deer and Elk sinews and ornamented with porcupine quills and generally about 3 feet long. [32]

These people lived on berries, herbs, roots, small mammals, and larger game animals such as elk, deer and mountain sheep. Their diet also included native trout and whitefish from the mountain lakes. [33]

Other nineteenth-century encounters with American Indian peoples in the region describe them as traveling in small family groups. Large dogs, used as hunting and pack animals, accompanied these groups. Often, these dogs pulled a V-shaped travois, used to carry moderate-sized burdens. The travois was made of two long poles; the front tips were attached to a harness at the dog's shoulders, while the ends were left dragging on the ground. Midway up the poles was a frame used to carry burdens such as wood, food, small children, and the sick or elderly [Figure 13]. [34] Therefore, it appears that although the introduction of European trade goods brought about changes in the economic and cultural systems of the plains tribes, the mountain-adapted peoples of Jackson Hole maintained their highly adapted and efficient subsistence strategy.

travois being pulled by horse
Figure 13. A travois, shown here being pulled by a horse, was made of two long poles with an attached frame for carrying people and items. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

The Shoshone in Jackson Hole

The first mountain-dwelling peoples encountered by the trappers and early nineteenth-century explorers in Jackson Hole were generally known as the "Sheep-eaters" and were said to have spoken in the "Snake" tongue, which is a reference to the Shoshone. [35] The Shoshone language is part of a large language group known as Uto-Aztecan. Members of this group range from the Northern Plains to the Cascade Mountains and into the southwestern United States to Mexico. [36] It is not certain where the Shoshone got their name, but the earlier-used term "Snake" was likely a misinterpretation of the serpentine hand gesture used to describe the in-and-out motion by which they wove their grass-and-brush shelters. [37]

The term "Sheep-Eaters" described those members of the Eastern Shoshone who subsisted, at least in part, on mountain sheep. The "Tukudika," as they called themselves, remained high in the mountains and were still without horses when they were placed on the Wind River Reservation around 1868. [38] The "Sheep-Eaters" were just one of several specialized groups considered part of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. Other names, such as "Kucundicka" (meaning the "Buffalo Hunters" of the Plains), the "Pa'Iahiadika" or "Elk-Eaters," who hunted the western slopes of the Tetons, and the "Do'yia" or "Mountain Dwellers," who were scattered throughout the mountains of the Yellowstone region, describe members of a single cultural group. Although these groups utilized the mountains and northwest Plains in much different ways, they were all members of one tribe, the Eastern Shoshone. [39]

To the Shoshone, these names did not define a rigid political or cultural division of people. All were one tribe and spoke one language, and their names did not separate individual political or social groups. Instead, they defined ecological niches. For example, the Sheep-Eaters of the Northern Rocky Mountains specialized in hunting mountain sheep, while the Elk-Eaters hunted primarily elk. These individual group names demonstrate the way American Indian tribes, such as the Shoshone, conveyed important information concerning the ecosystem within which they lived. They also offer a clue to the vast and intimate knowledge that these people had of their home land and the species within it. [40]

D. B. Shimkin wrote a similar account of Wind River or Eastern Shoshone demographics. According to Shimkin, during the early 1800s the entire Wind River Shoshone tribe was comprised of 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. During the winter and spring, this tribe split into three to five smaller groups called bands. Each band was made up of 100 or 200 people and occupied a different portion of the Shoshone territory. During the summer, each band divided into individual extended family groups. These family groups might have consisted of 10 to 30 closely related individuals, like the group encountered by Osborne Russell in 1835.

With the coming of the autumn months, the individual family groups reunited with the larger tribe for the annual communal bison hunt in the inter-montane basins and open plains. This hunt was necessary for obtaining and processing dried meat supplies for the upcoming winter. For the winter, the tribe could again divide into smaller bands, each of which resided in a different part of the vast Shoshone territory. [41]

Archeological remains also offer insight into the spiritual bond that the Shoshone and prehistoric peoples had with Jackson Hole. High in the mountains of both the Teton and Gros Ventre Ranges are semicircular stone enclosures. These enclosures, and many like them in the mountains of northwest Wyoming, offer clues to the spiritual importance of these high mountain peaks.

For the modern Shoshone, who continue to maintain close cultural ties to this region, the majestic and snow-capped peaks of the Tetons hold special significance. In the Shoshone belief system, mountain peaks provide access into the spirit world, where they gain special powers for such things as hunting or healing. On these peaks, referred to as "puhadoya," which is translated as "Power Mountain," individuals enter the spirit world through visions or dreams. [42]

Prehistoric Access Routes

Prehistoric people from the Great Basin, Great Plains, and Northwest traveled to Jackson Hole, and archeologists have identified 11 (A-K) distinct travel routes into and out of the valley. Some of these routes were later used by trappers and survey expeditions.* The following map illustrates these routes.

(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Route A. The first route begins at the delta where Owl Creek flows into Jackson Lake from the west. Traveling up Owl Creek, a broad canyon with a low pass could be easily crossed into Berry Creek Canyon to the north. Berry Creek could then be followed to its headwaters, allowing access into the more temperate valleys of Idaho.

Route B. The second route into northern Jackson Hole leads from Yellowstone National Park, down the Lewis River to the north shore of Jackson Lake.

Route C. The third route into northern Jackson Hole connects the Yellowstone Plateau to Jackson Hole through the Pacific Creek drainage. This route begins at the point where the Yellowstone River enters the south end of Yellowstone Lake. It follows up the Yellowstone River through the Thorofare to Atlantic Creek. From Atlantic Creek, the route crosses Two Ocean Pass and follows Pacific Creek into Jackson Hole.

Route D. The final route into the north end of Jackson Hole begins to the east, and follows the Wind River to Togwotee Pass at an elevation of 9,658 feet. From Togwotee Pass, the route drops into Blackrock Creek and follows it to its confluence with the Buffalo Fork, which flows into Jackson Hole from the northeast. Due to the high elevation and often severe weather experienced on Togwotee Pass, this route was probably used only in late summer and early autumn.

Route E. To avoid the heavy snows of Togwotee Pass, prehistoric people may have utilized the Gros Ventre River drainage, which flows into Jackson Hole from the east. Early trappers and explorers are reported to have also used this route, entering Jackson Hole from the Wind River Basin via Union Pass. This route ascends Warm Springs Creek to Union Pass (8,500 feet). From here, it descends the south fork of Fish Creek to the Gros Ventre River.

Route F. Jackson Hole was also reached from the Wind River Basin by traveling from Union Pass down the north fork of Fish Creek, and then into the Gros Ventre River drainage.

Route G. Prehistoric people also entered Jackson Hole from the Green River Basin by traveling up the Green River and over Bacon Ridge and down the Gros Ventre River. This route is known for its plentiful deer and elk populations. Numerous prehistoric sites are located along this route.

Route H. Although arduous due to steep cliff faces, violent river crossings, and steep talus slopes, Jackson Hole could have been reached from the Green River Basin by traveling through the Hoback Canyon. Trappers and American Indians also used this route.

Route I. The Snake River Canyon route connects Jackson Hole to Star Valley, which allowed access to other points to the southwest. The Snake River Canyon is a steep, walled canyon with fast-moving water, making crossing difficult to impossible much of the year. Portions of this canyon could have been avoided by using the trail that connects the Little Greys River to Bailey Creek, which then enters Star Valley. The early trapper and explorer Osborne Russell used this route in 1837-1838.

The final two routes (J and K) allowed access, however arduous, to valleys south and west of Jackson Hole. Although trappers reported a well-marked trail over Teton Pass, this ascent to 8,429 feet was steep and heavily forested. Some historians credit John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, with being the first explorer to use the pass in 1807. In 1812, Edward Robinson and Jacob Reznor were familiar enough with this route to lead Wilson Price Hunt and his Overland Astorians westward over Teton Pass. Trappers used this pass extensively between 1820 and 1840. In 1860, Jim Bridger guided Capt. William Raynolds of the Topographical Engineers over Teton Pass and into Pierre's Hole. Teton Pass is also an important source of obsidian. Chemical-sourcing techniques have identified the pass as the source of obsidian for many artifacts recovered in Grand Teton National Park.

Route J. One of the Teton routes follows up Mosquito Creek to the divide at 8,300 feet. This drainage connects lower Jackson Hole to Swan, Star, and Teton Valleys to the south and west. Obsidian pebbles, which may be the result of prehistoric tool making, have been found in the gravel washing out of Mosquito Creek.

Route K. Phillips Pass, the final travel route, lies at an elevation of 8,900 feet, and leads west into Teton Valley, Idaho, through Phillips Canyon along the southern end of the Teton Range.

*These routes were identified by Gary Wright in "A Preliminary Report on the Archaeology of the Jackson Hole Country, Wyoming," and Charles M. Love in "An Archaeological Survey of the Jackson Hole Region, Wyoming." Also see Osborne Russell, Journal of a Trapper, ed., Aubrey L. Haines; and Melissa Connor and Raymond Kunselman, "Mobility, Settlement Patterns, and Obsidian Source Variation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming."

According to anthropologist Âke Hultkrantz, who has extensively documented the Shoshone culture, the attainment of power for the ordinary Shoshone individual requires special preparation. Alone and without a weapon, the individual sets out for places known through legend and tradition to be the home of the spirits.

Sometimes he turns his steps towards the hillocks or solitary rocks out on the prairie where the desert puha [powers] generally appear. At other times, he travels to the water where the fish puha may manifest them selves. But most often, he makes his way to the mountains. [43]

During the vision quest, a person remains on the mountain for at least two, and perhaps as many as five days without food or water. While on the mountain, the person dreams and acquires the full power of those dreams throughout the following year. The stone enclosure serves as a bed in which the vision seeker lies during this quest. [44]

The importance of such sites is difficult to impress on a culture that separates religion from the day-to-day activities of life. For the American Indian tribe that is culturally and spiritually linked to Jackson Hole, this separation does not exist. For the Shoshone, all of life—including religion, politics, daily subsistence, the natural environment and the spiritual world—are interrelated and connected by the life sustaining energy or "puha" that flows through all things. [45]

Summary and Conclusions

Although local residents have long been aware that extensive prehistoric sites and a wealth of artifacts can be found throughout Jackson Hole, it has only been during the last 25 years that archeologists have been able to piece together part of the prehistoric record of this area. This record has revealed that prehistoric people lived in Jackson Hole for much of the last 11,000 years. During the earliest Paleoindian period, human populations were generally small and probably occupied the area sporadically. There is little evidence to suggest that humans were in the valley for anything other than hunting and procuring obsidian for their tools until around 5,800 years ago.

During the Archaic periods, the number of archeological sites increases in Jackson Hole. Roasting pits also appear in the archeological record. These findings suggest an increase in the overall population, or an increasingly mobile population. However, it is difficult to use the size of an archeological site to indicate population size, since people probably used the same campsites time and time again.

Although spear point styles and travel patterns changed, hunting and food-processing techniques remained fairly constant throughout prehistory. Even as hunting technology shifted from the atlatl spear-thrower to the bow and arrow, and the horse was introduced to many tribes, Jackson Hole's people continued a hunter-gatherer form of subsistence and lived in relatively small groups. By the time the early trappers arrived, this area was part of the vast territory of the Shoshone tribe. In general, we know that throughout the time period extending from about 1,500 to 11,000 years ago, plants heavily influenced the travel and subsistence patterns of Jackson Hole's prehistoric people. Sites found at high elevation that date throughout the prehistoric continuum, and which are associated with edible plant species, support this model. [46]

D. B. Shimkin's demographic description of the Wind River Shoshone also supports the original archeological model proposed by Gary Wright. The large base camps found along the shores of Jackson Lake could well represent the locations where a band of individuals camped during the spring and early summer. Smaller sites found in the canyons and higher alpine meadows could represent the individual family camps. Consequently. the overall population residing in Jackson Hole at any given time would have been relatively small and on the band—rather than tribal—level. During the summer months, this group would disperse into family groups throughout the mountains surrounding Jackson Hole. However, recent findings have revealed that obsidian, other raw material sources, topography, and spiritual pursuits also guided the travel patterns of American Indians. These cultural necessities were not addressed in the original predictive archeological model proposed by Gary Wright and his colleagues.

Clearly, there are many unanswered questions about the prehistory of Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole. It is still unknown what types of living structures were used within the park through much of early prehistory. There also remain questions about the different adaptive strategies for the northern and southern parts of the valley. Future archeological investigations within the park and surrounding areas will continue to evaluate and reconstruct models of adaptation and, perhaps, lead to new theories and a better understanding of the cultural and spiritual lives of the earliest people of Jackson Hole.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004