Jackson Hole History
Jackson Hole History As Rich As Its Real Estate
Jackson Hole History: Pre-Settlement Jackson Hole
When most people think of the history of Jackson Hole, names like John Colter, Nick Wilson, William Sublette and David E. Jackson come to mind. Although these men and many others played an instrumental role in the settlement of this valley, they were by no means the first to explore, or perhaps even to live in, this rugged region.
Before the settlers and fur trappers came to the Rocky Mountains, Native American tribes made an annual migration through the surrounding mountains to hunt this wildlife-rich area. The Crow, Gros Ventre, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Bannock, Eastern Shoshone and Sheep Eater tribes all made recorded journeys into Jackson Hole. Indications of their presence may still be found in places like Mosquito Creek, Blacktail Butte and on the shores of Jackson Lake.
It appears the Sheep Eaters were the only year-round inhabitants of the wider Jackson Hole area before the fur trappers arrived around 1810, and the only tribe to actually spend winters at these higher elevations. As their name suggests, the Sheep Eaters lived off the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that spent their winters grazing south-facing slopes in rocky areas. The Sheep Eaters greatly impressed early fur trappers, like Osborne Russell, with their graciousness and dignity.
Russell later wrote of his travels through the Jackson Hole area in the 1830s, noting “...the Native Americans were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly content and happy. We obtained a large number of elk, deer, and sheep skins from them of the finest quality... They would throw the skins at our feet and say, “give us whatever you please for them and we are satisfied.” We can get plenty of skins but we do not often see the Tibuboes (or People of the Sun) ... I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor surrounded by majestic battlements which seemed to support the heavens and shut out all hostile intruders.” Later on, anthropologists speculated that the Sheep Eaters lived in these harsh, resource-poor areas because stronger, more numerous and powerful Indian tribes drove them away, back into the mountains, away from better habitats.
The era of the mountain men opened in 1807 when John Colter left Lewis and Clark’s expedition to join Illinois hunters Forrest Hannock and Joseph Dickson on a trapping expedition through the unexplored west. After spending the winter trapping and hunting in the area surrounding Jackson Hole, Colter headed to the East where he met fellow trapper Manuel Lisa. Lisa persuaded Colter to join him in founding a fur trading business in the Rocky Mountains. Colter’s responsibility was to establish fur trading relations with the surrounding Native American tribes; but what he encountered when he entered the valley at the base of the Tetons, now known as Jackson Hole, was empty wilderness. All the tribes had moved to their winter homes at lower elevations where less snow and more game provided more favorable living conditions.
Colter then explored the other side of Teton Pass, now known as Idaho’s Teton Basin. For the next three years Colter trapped and explored the Rocky Mountain Northwest until 1810 when he finally returned to St.Louis, the nearest western outpost hundreds of miles away.
In 1822, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, William Sublette and David E. Jackson joined William H. Ashley and Major Andrew Henry on an expedition to follow the Missouri River to its source in southwestern Montana on the northern edge of what is now Yellowstone National Park. At the end of this expedition Smith took six trappers into Teton Valley to spend the winter trapping.
During the next year Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick led an additional 30 trappers into Teton Valley where the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was now in full swing. Jackson remained in the mountains for the next few years. He and partners William Sublette and Jedediah Smith purchased the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1826.
Jackson continued trapping in and around Jackson Hole until the partners sold their company in 1830. Jackson then left the mountains for Santa Fe, New Mexico, finally returning to St. Louis in 1832. His visits to this area are commemorated by the town and valley’s name.
Jackson Hole History: The Settlers
For the next 45 years the Jackson Hole area was virtually deserted by the white man until in 1872 the Hayden Survey of the Yellowstone country came through, naming many of the region’s geographic features. Nine years later in 1881 the first permanent settlers, John Holland and Millie and Johnny Carnes, moved into the Jackson Hole valley, building cabins along Flat Creek inside the boundaries of what is now the National Elk Refuge.
Throughout the next thirty years, more and more settlers came to the area to ranch and raise cattle. By 1909 the town of Jackson had a population of 200 while the entire Jackson Hole valley held as many as 1,500 hearty settlers. Cattle ranching and guiding wealthy Eastern and European hunters sustained the economy of Jackson Hole for its first 20 to 30 years of settlement. The cattle ranches, however, were not the huge 10,000-head outfits made famous by Hollywood. Most were small family-run operations. Several historians conclude that at the turn of the century there were probably no more than 1,000 head of cattle in the entire valley. Ranching life in Jackson Hole was a tough existence. Ranchers worked long hours, made their own tools and grew hay to feed their cattle through the long, harsh winters.
It didn’t take long for some of them to discover that vacationing Easterners were more profitable and less troublesome tenants than cows. But it wasn’t until the formation of the JY Ranch on Phelps Lake in 1907, the valley’s first dude ranch, that the hospitality industry officially came to Jackson Hole. Following the JY Ranch’s lead, other ranchers who had previously raised cattle made the switch, and in quick order Jackson Hole became one of the largest dude ranching communities in the country. The same families returned year after year. Some guests eventually bought ranches or second homes in the Jackson Hole valley.
Jackson Hole History: National Elk Refuge
Another part of local Jackson Hole history involves the creation of the largest elk refuge in the United States. The almost 25,000 acre National Elk Refuge provides supplemental feeding to more than 7,000 elk during the snowy winter months. Visitors today are astounded to find such a large number of these often elusive animals just a mile or two from the Town Square. Yet in the late 1800s as many as 60,000 elk wintered in or near Jackson Hole.
The herd was so large that poaching an extra bull or cow was hardly considered a crime. The extra meat could help feed a settler’s family for an entire winter and supply ample hide to make gloves, coats, shirts and pants. It wasn’t until the Jackson Hole area become more crowded with outsiders looking to kill elk for their ivory canine teeth, that the local population considered the illegal killing of an elk a bit more serious.
The tuskers, as these ruthless poachers become known, killed thousands upon thousands of elk leaving the carcasses entirely untouched except for their teeth. Finally in 1906 a group of Jackson Hole locals decided to rid the area of these poachers before they drove the Jackson Hole elk herd to extinction. A group gathered together in the center of Jackson and declared that any tusker found in the valley of Jackson Hole would be shot. The poachers left the area but not before making one last kill taking a wagon load of trophy elk heads with them. In 1907 the Wyoming State Legislature made tusking a felony.
Because a large portion of the elk’s winter range was harvested to feed cattle, starvation was also a threat. In 1909 the Wyoming State Legislature again came to the aid of the elk by appropriating $5,000 for the purchase of hay. In 1911 Congress added another $20,000, and during the following year established the National Elk Refuge by purchasing 2,000 acres of hay meadows on the edge of town. Land was then added periodically through the years until finally in 1935, the refuge reached its current size of 23,754 acres.
Jackson Hole History: First All-Female Elected Officials
In 1920 Jackson Hole once again made its mark on the history books by electing the United States’ first all-female slate of town officials. This period of prohibition was accompanied by a copious amount of outlawed gambling and drinking. In lieu of abolishing a way of life that many consider the most colorful in the history of the Jackson Hole valley, the new town officials focused on popular issues like purchasing land for a cemetery at the foot of Snow King Mountain. The women’s re-election suggests that local citizens favored their politics.
Life in Jackson Hole was relatively uneventful for the next several decades. The economy thrived on summer tourism. However, after Labor Day the town of Jackson looked more like a ghost town than a resort area.
Jackson Hole's Skiing History
In the early days, skis or snowshoes were the most common means of winter travel. It was not until the 1930s that people started hiking to the top of Ruth Hannah Simms Ski Hill, now known as Snow King. They would get to the top and aim their 10-foot-long boards straight down the hill. Many skiers would hike just far enough to gain speed to go off a ski jump built somewhere on the hill. Old timers say ski jumping was very popular in the 30s.
In 1935 and 1936 the National Forest Service had a hiking and horse trail cut to the top of Snow King, which became the first ski run on the hill. In 1937 the Jackson Ski Club was formed and the first ski event was held in the area that same year with a jumping and downhill combination.
In 1939 Neil Rafferty introduced the first lift serviced skiing to Jackson Hole by erecting a rope tow on the lower reaches of the hill. With the help of an architect, Rafferty designed the lift based on one he had seen near Salt Lake City. Rafferty wound a 4,000 foot cable up the hill and powered it with an old Ford tractor engine. In order to ride to the top, skiers held onto a stick at the end of a rope which was clamped onto the cable with a wrench. An attendant waited on top until the end of the day when he would pack all of the sticks back down.
In his first day of operation in the winter of 1939-1940, Rafferty made $2.85. By the end of the month, Rafferty was making $18 on a good weekend day. In February of that winter he had his biggest month of the season with net revenues of $136. Considering the cable cost him only $500, he was well on his way.
Located on the edge of town, Snow King was an immediate hit with Jackson Hole locals trying to entertain themselves during the long winter months. But more than just locals took advantage of an easy trip up the mountain. In the very first winter ski jumpers came from Utah, Idaho and all over Wyoming to compete in the state’s first ever, lift-serviced ski competition.
Seventeen years after Snow King opened, a Californian named Paul McCollister purchased 166 acres at the base of Rendezvous Mountain and the Jackson Hole Ski Corporation was formed. With a world-class ski area in mind, McCollister constructed a 63-passenger aerial tram that rose over 4,000 feet, the foundation of his development. To help fund the resort’s development, McCollister secured low-interest federal loans that were set aside for economically-depressed communities. He convinced the government that through the creation of a major winter resort he could pump life into an economy otherwise dead eight months of the year. //