European Americans Arrive

European American rifle and powder horn resting on fur.
50c Hawkin percussion cap rifle resting on fur with a powder horn with map etching of trapping country.

NPS/Andrew Langford

 

In the late 1700s, fur traders traveled the great tributary of the Missouri River, the Yellowstone, in search of Native Americans with whom to trade. They called the river by its French name, “Roche Jaune.” As far as we know, pre-1800 travelers did not observe the hydrothermal activity in this area but they probably learned of these features from Native American acquaintances.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase, bypassed Yellowstone. They had heard descriptions of the region, but did not explore the Yellowstone River beyond what is now Livingston, Montana.

A member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter, left that group during its return journey to join trappers in the Yellowstone area. During his travels, Colter probably skirted the northwest shore of Yellowstone Lake and crossed the Yellowstone River near Tower Fall, where he noted the presence of “Hot Spring Brimstone.”

Not long after Colter’s explorations, the United States became embroiled in the War of 1812, which drew men and money away from exploration of the Yellowstone region. The demand for furs resumed after the war and trappers returned to the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s. Among them was Daniel Potts, who also published the first account of Yellowstone’s wonders as a letter in a Philadelphia newspaper.

Jim Bridger also explored Yellowstone during this time. Like many trappers, Bridger spun tall tales as a form of entertainment around the evening fire. His stories inspired future explorers to travel to see the real thing.

Osborne Russell wrote a book about fur trapping in and around Yellowstone during the 1830s and early 1840s.

As quickly as it started, the trapper era ended. By the mid-1840s, beaver became scarce and fashions changed. Trappers turned to guiding or other pursuits.

Looking for Gold

During 1863–1871, prospectors crisscrossed the Yellowstone Plateau every year and searched every crevice for gold and other precious minerals. Although gold was found nearby, no big strikes were made inside what is now Yellowstone National Park.

 
Rocks covered in lichen arranged in the shape of a tall fire ring on a mountain top

Park History

Learn about Yellowstone's story from the earliest humans to today.

Brown and gray columns of rock make up a cliff that towers up to a deep blue sky.

The Earliest Humans in Yellowstone

Human occupation of this area seems to follow environmental changes of the last 15,000 years.

Dead branches leaned up against a tree in a conical shape form a wickiup.

Historic Tribes

Many tribes have a traditional connection to this region and its resources.

A group of people in a field

Timeline of Human History in Yellowstone

The human history of the Yellowstone region goes back more than 11,000 years.

Man sits on a box in front of a canvas tent while another man stands next to him.

Expeditions Explore Yellowstone

Formal expeditions mapped and explored the area, leading to the nation's understanding of the region.

Historic Moran water color of hot springs with group standing in distance

Birth of a National Park

Learn about Yellowstone's early days as a national park.

Modern Management

Managing the national park has evolved over time and dealt with some complex issues.

Visitors standing on a boardwalk and taking pictures of the orange thermophiles of Grand Prismatic.

Today's National Park Service

The National Park Service has grown to manage ~83 million acres in all 50 states, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa.

Last updated: June 4, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

PO Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168

Phone:

307-344-7381

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