View up Yellowstone River from First Canyon

 View up the Yellowstone River at the First Canyon in July, 1871 (William Henry Jackson, US Geological Survey JWH-000055) and in 2010 (CW Collection 2010-10-01-021). The print of the 1871 photograph’s negative has a double exposure of additional mountains that accentuate the height of the Absoraka Range in the left background.

Northern Gateway to the Yellowstone Plateau

The gateway to the upper Yellowstone River valley near Livingstone Montana is a geological and ecological landmark. Here the great river narrows and emerges through the “First Canyon” between the walls of the Gallatin Range on the west, and the massive Absoraka Range, and makes a great bend eastwards, fanning out into broad valley gently ramping into the onto the prairies. On Tuesday July 15, 1806 Captain Clark reached Yellowstone’s big bend on his return trip back eastwards from the Pacific Ocean. He described that:

The Roche (Yellowstone River) passed out of a high rugid mountain covered with Snow… the bottoms are narrow within the mountains but widen from ½ a m. to 2 ms. in the Vally below, those bottoms are Subject to over flow, they contain Some tall Cotton wood, and willow rose bushes & rushes Honey suckle &c.   1

The sharp transition from the foothills to the mountain ecosystem was important for both hunters and the hunted. Here, bison, elk and other species could be easily killed as they moved through the valley’s narrows, tracking greening up vegetation up-valley in the spring, and retreating down-valley from deepening snows in the winter. In mid-ground of the photograph archaeologists found stone cairns along “drive-lines” that humans used to herd bison over a bluff near the village of Emigrant 2 Also nearby is the Myers-Hindman archaeological site providing a record of over 8000 years of human occupation. Averaged over time, faunal remains are dominated by bison (24%), mountain sheep (23%), deer (21%), and elk (10%), proportions generally similar to other low elevation sites in mountainous areas used by bison. 3 The efficiency of all this human hunting in the narrows of the valley probably limited the abundance of  favored prey species further up the valley. Indeed, at higher elevations within Yellowstone National Park, the relative abundance of bison in both archaeological sites and historical travellers journals is much less.4

In the early 1800s, the gateway at the big bend of the Yellowstone on the big bend lay in a broad intertribal buffer zone between Crow’s to the east, Piegan to the north, and Shoshone to the south.  Due to the threats from Piegan raiding parties at this time, native travellers from the west making trips to hunt bison across the mountains may have avoided the area, and favored the Bannock Trail, a route further south in today’s Yellowstone National Park. 5 Possibly due to the danger of Piegan attack, American fur trappers also did not routinely pass through the gateway. 6

By July 1871, when the Hayden Yellowstone Geological Survey Expedition ascended the valley, a wagon road ran from Fort Ellis (near Bozeman) to Boteler’s Ranch, about twenty-seven miles downriver from Gardiner. Jackson later recorded: “When we first came on to the Yellowstone, I lingered for some time to make a view of the valley with the river meandering  through it, from where the trail passed over a high rocky ledge.” 7 From Jackson’s work, today we have a series of his photographs from this bench above the west side of the canyon that is crossed by trails likely long used by bison and Native Americans. The view up the valley (above) show the gallery forests of cottonwood and willows that Captain Clark described in 1806 still line this section of the river. Today some of the canyon wall has been removed to build the modern highway visible in the recent photograph.

The valley that once had such great value to native peoples and wildlife is now greatly treasured by the real estate industry, and only judicious land planning will keep this national landmark from turning into subdivisions and ranchettes that border the gateways to many other national parks.

Map and Footnotes

Center map
  1. Clark, Tuesday 15 July 1806
  2. Arthur, G.W., Archaeological Survey of the Upper Yellowstone River Drainage, Montana. Agricultural Economics Research Report No. 26. MT: Bozeman, 1966.
  3. Lahren, L. Homeland: An Archaeologists View of Yellowstone Country’s Past. Livingstone, Mt: Cayuse Press, 2006
  4. See Kay, C. E. Yellowstone’s Northern Elk Herd: A Critical Evaluation of the ‘Natural Regulation’ Paradigm. Ph.D. diss., Utah State University, 1990: p. 251-289 for historical journal analysis.
  5. Haines, Aubrey L. The Yellowstone Story: A History of our First National Park. Volume 1. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. 1996. Pp: 27-29
  6. Haines, Yellowstone Story p. 35-59 does not describe a single passage by the American trappers through the canyon near Livingston which today is the main access route to upper Yellowstone River from the north.
  7. Jackson, W. H., The Pioneer Photographer. Edited by Bob Blair. Santa Fe: Museum New Mexico Press, 2005: 73