The Yellowstone area has been used by humans for centuries, in fact, for at least 8000 - 10,000 years. This evidence does not all come directly from study of archaeological sites within the boundaries of the park, but includes results from the study of many archaeological sites surrounding the park in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
In more recent times, particularly since the horse was introduced by the Spanish, who were centered at Santa Fe, the Blackfeet, Crow and Shoshone-Bannock were the most regular users of the Yellowstone area. Many other tribes, such as the Nez Perce and Flathead, traveled through the area on their way to hunt bison on the Great Plains. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition until the 1870's, the only full time inhabitants of the Yellowstone region and the surrounding mountains were the Sheepeaters1, a band who lived in small groups and spoke a Shoshonean language. The Wind River Shoshone would often spend summers in Yellowstone where they would quarry obsidian, fish and hunt and trade with the Sheepeaters.
It is unclear when the Sheepeaters arrived in the Yellowstone area. The earliest reports from hunters and trappers in the area occur about 1810. These reports are framed in the typical ethnocentrism of the era with a report from 1825 stating, "They are miserably poor, own no horses, and are destitute of every convenience to be derived from an intercourse with the whites."
Their tools were made from the obsidian found locally, including those used to cut wood for constructing their housing. They made no permanent houses, but used caves, skin covered lodges supported by flexible branches and brush covered wickiups. They were skilled in making bows from the horns of the mountain sheep they hunted by heating and shaping the material. These bows, armed with arrows tipped with obsidian points, allowed them to provide meat for their small living group. Other foods were provided by the women who dug roots and gathered greens and berries found abundantly in summer. They would move almost continuously during the summer, following the food supply as it ripened. In the winter they would occupy semi-permanent camps in a location where game would be abundant. They used snowshoes to give them a mobility and speed advantage over the large game animals which would break through the deep snow and be trapped. They also constructed traps from fallen wood into which they would drive small groups of animals.
The Sheepeaters were noted for the high quality of their tanned hides which had a high trade value, as did the bows they made from the horns of the mountain sheep. These bows took two months to construct and were powerful enough to drive an arrow completely through a buffalo. The few bowls used by the Sheepeaters were made from a soft rock available locally, steatite. While by 1800 the Sheepeaters did have access to some trade goods obtained from the Europeans, their lack of mobility and isolation made these items very rare luxuries.
When Yellowstone became a National Park in 1872, the presence of Indians in the park was viewed as a deterent to the development of the park as a tourist destination. After the Nez Perce War of 1877, in which the fleeing Nez Perce crossed Yellowstone, and the Sheepeater War of 1879 (in Idaho), the Park Superintendent, Colonel P. W. Norris was determined to remove all Indians from the park. Norris succeeded in having the Sheepeaters moved to either the Wind River Shoshone Reservation or to the Fort Hall Shoshone Bannock Reservation in Idaho, ending any Indian presence in Yellowstone.
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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom