Daniel Trotter Potts: The First Written Eye-Witness Account of Yellowstone

June 02, 2016 Posted by: Shae Rafferty, 2015 Archives Intern
Who wrote the first traveler account of Yellowstone?  Credit is often given to Daniel Trotter Potts.  Potts was born in Pennsylvania, where his father served as a State Senator.  In the early 1820s, he traveled west with explorers and trappers and remained in the West for close to a decade.  He wrote a number of letters to his brother, Robert Potts, and other friends during his travels.  Three of his original letters, containing a number of his adventures, have a home here at the Heritage and Research Center.  These riveting letters date back to 1824, 1827, and 1828!  The letter written on July 8, 1827, contains a description of Yellowstone Lake and a nearby geyser that erupted daily during his stay there.  His letters include not only accounts of Yellowstone and many of the rivers and lakes in the surrounding area, but the fights and friends he made with different tribes of Native Americans, injuries he suffered, and the struggles of living so far from civilization. The letters were purchased from Potts's descendants by the Yellowstone Museum & Library Association (today's Yellowstone Association) and donated to the Park in 1939, with much fanfare. They have been frequently quoted in published histories.

Potts letter, 1827 p. 1

Potts letter, 1827, p. 2

 Potts letter, 1827, p. 3Potts letter, 1827, p. 4

Source: Daniel Trotter Potts letters (MSC122), Yellowstone National Park Archives 

1 Comments Comments icon

  1. Stefan
    January 17, 2018 at 11:20

    I am very humbled as a Philadelphia resident to learn that one of our own was the sole keeper of some inkling of a record of his travels as a fur trapper in what became Yellowstone NP. Actually there's a couple towns throughout PA named after the surname Potts, but that must have been his preceding relatives. Ironically, I stumbled upon this and a few other pages after watching "Great Yellowstone Thaw" a PBS triple doc on Netflix, when I thought to myself, did Native Americans ever live there? Next thing I know, your very informative site tells me peak habitance was 1400-1700, but with the debut of horses, things began to change. I cant imagine that people could easily withstand the waist high snow, for 70 days. I spent about 20 minutes deciphering the first page of this ancient cursive that Daniel Potts managed to somehow scrape down when his hand finally thawed and had a free bit of time between trapping fur and evading tribal attacks. The writing seemed very rushed. Lots of run on sentences, no capitalization and little punctuation. Crosses on the T's were very swiftly made. Then I realized someone else has probably transcribed this record since 1828, which they did, so I read the rest of the letter in arial font instead of Potts. Surely enough, he was attacked by the Blackfoot tribe, who scalped 15 trappers (white men, obviously). I don't blame the Natives at all for defending their land from people whose purest intention was exploiting the spoils of an immaculate land for capital gains. Also, I now can guess where the Blackfoot perhaps got their name from... frostbite! Anyway, it's amazing to know that there was snow from September 3rd to about the end of May. Winter there was just about half the year. Now it's getting closer to a third of a year. I haven't visited yellowstone yet. I've seen footage, and it's fantastic, but damn, I can only imagine how it looked pre-global warming with 2 additional months of snow, a greater thaw, heartier vegetation etc. Must have been quite the treat for all the senses after making it through a 6 month winter. Kudos to Daniel Trotter Potts for his efforts.

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Last updated: July 28, 2016

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