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History and the Yellowstone

Elk River

by DOUG PEACOCK

Should you visit the Yellowstone River country  with 13,000 years of human history in your head, the first thing you might notice is how little the landscape has changed. True, a few towns and ranches are now strewn about the topography. Yet, this thin cloak of agriculture falls lightly over the Yellowstone country; modern settlement can do little to flatter this lovely land. And it hasn’t; the power and beauty of the raw habitat shines on through.        

The native people who lived here before the white man showed up called this drainage the “Elk River.” These hills and valleys were the best hunting country anywhere. The mountain man Osborne Russell passed along the valley numerous times in the 1830s.  Russell wrote: “This is a beautiful country the large plains extending on either side of the river (Yellowstone or Elk River) intersected with streams and occasional low spurs of mountains whilst thousands of Buffaloe may be seen in almost every direction and Deer Elk and Grizzly bear are abundant. The latter are more numerous than in any other part of the mountains. Owing to the vast quantities of cherries and plums and other wild fruits which this section of the country affords.”

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the last of the great tribes contested for the lush game habitat of the Elk River. Even later, after the turn of the century, the ethnographer and photographer Edward Curtis found the Elk River watershed “a veritable Eden of the Northwest, with beautiful broad valleys and abundant wooded streams, no part of the country was more favorable for buffalo, while its wild forested mountains made it unequaled for elk and other highland game.”

And it was always that way. Our recorded European history, dating from 1805, when Lewis and Clark wandered through here, accounts for less than two per cent of the time humans roamed the Yellowstone. That record, hinted at by archeological finds, places the first people here by 13,050 years ago, in encampments just north of the great bend of the Elk River at present day Livingston, Montana. It was the last of the Pleistocene, and one can now only imagine the richness of the country: blue ice of glaciers, still capping the mountains and receding into the passes, revealing the topography we see today. The steppe land would have teemed with now-extinct species of camel, long-horned bison, tapir, deer, giant sloth and horses. Here and there, saber tooth tigers, dire wolves and short-faced bears prowled the land, stalking the grazers. The valley would have been wet; the high benches pocked with pothole lakes, springs and ponds created by giant beaver. Mastodon browsed spruce trees at the edges of a boreal forest and, in the far distance, a line of mammoth might have paralleled a braided watercourse.

The first Montanans entered an uninhabited land with no human tracks, no smoke on the horizon. Think about it: coming into an increasingly hospitable land, open country in the last days of the Pleistocene, the wildest landscape on earth. It was truly the Great American Adventure.

These voyagers were called Clovis, and they were big game hunters specializing in chasing mammoth. They were the first widely recognized archeological presence in North America. The near-synchronous appearance of the Clovis signature artifact – a large, fluted, exquisitely flaked projectile point, often crafted from the finest cryptocrystalline rock sources – across the country from Montana to Arizona to Florida and Panama within a few hundred years  is considered one of the most amazing events in the history of archeology.

It is quite possible that Clovis people emerged from the ice-free corridor out of Alaska and first appeared in the lower United States  by way of Montana. It is also possible that their magnificent lithic technology was an American invention, resulting from the necessity of big game hunters coming up with a weapon capable of bringing down shaggy elephants. The birth place of the Clovis complex could well have been in Montana, as the first quality lithic quarries you encounter coming south from the passageway between the great ice sheets are south of the Missouri River and in the Yellowstone River watershed. These claims, however, are contentious; conclusive evidence has yet to be unearthed.

Nonetheless, the fact is that the first appearance of Clovis was synchronous with two other occurrences: the opening of the ice-free corridor between the continental glaciers and the last fossil record of the gigantic short-faced bear, a swift predator and scavenger that stood seven feet at the shoulder. Were humans in the lower states and South America prior to the Clovis event? Probably a few existed here and there but, in any case, not many; the archeological record is very thin or invisible prior to 13,500 years ago. Surely not enough to slow down the Clovis hunters, who blitzkrieged across the continent in 300 years, and there were probably no people in the interior West or Montana. At least there is no scientific evidence, no archeological finds. Paleontologists think the giant short-faced bear preferred higher, well-drained grasslands mainly west of the Mississippi River. In open country, these carnivores could have run down humans with ease. The most likely, pre-Clovis sites in the contiguous states are in the East. Short-faced bears might have been a problem in the open western grasslands. It might have been easier to survive in the Eastern woodlands.

At any rate, the Yellowstone country looms large in the evolving story of the peopling of the New World. Arguably, the most important archeological discovery in American prehistory was unearthed on the Shields branch of the Elk River just south of Wilsall, Montana. Here, at the base of a small but imposing cliff on Flathead Creek, a one and a half year-old child was buried, interred with nearly 120 of the most spectacular Clovis artifacts ever seen, all packed in consecrated red ochre and with great ceremony, evidenced by ritually broken spear shafts. These antler tools dated back 13,040 years. Unlike other Clovis “caches,” none of these artifacts were made of obsidian. Does it mean that the child was buried before other Clovis folk found the Obsidian Cliffs quarry, 75 raven-miles upstream on the Elk River in present day Yellowstone Park? The lead archeologist has called this sacred site “America’s first church.”

The Clovis people spread out across most of lower North America in just two or three hundred years. Then, beginning about 13,000 years ago, a series of extinctions swept over North America. The great Pleistocene megafauna disappeared. This paleoextinction is variously blamed on climate change, overhunting by Clovis, introduced disease, or a combination of the above. Scientists like to point out that nearly every animal over 220 pounds died off and only smaller animals survived this wipeout of big mammals. A notable exception was the grizzly (along with bison and chunky humans). The force driving everything was climate. Recent dates on fossil bones suggest most of the megafauna started to drop dead about 13,400 years ago. In another 600 years, as indicated by the fossil record, the extinction was almost complete. The abrupt disappearance of Clovis in the archeological record is marked by a black, carbon-rich layer that dates to 12,900 years ago, a time of sudden chilling, also known as the Younger Dryas. What might have generated the onset of this cold spell? Could it have been related to a reversal of world ocean currents? Perhaps, a comet exploded in the air somewhere in Canada north of the Great Lakes, bringing on the 1,300-year winter. There is evidence of both events.

At the end of this period, around 11,000 years ago, the flora and fauna of the Yellowstone Valley began to resemble what we still see today. Cottonwoods and thickets of edible fruit shrubs occupied the flood plain and, beyond the grassy slopes, a succession of conifers climbed up the mountains toward timberline. Grizzly bears and native people shared the top of the food pyramid. These nomadic bands hunted big game, especially bison; there is evidence for systematic, communal hunting and the first jump sites, where bison were driven over a cliff, show up at this time. This pattern of big game hunting (known as the Paleo-Indian Period) lasted 3,000 years, or until people began to settle down to a lifestyle of generalized hunting and gathering.

Unlike other parts of the country, the first availability of agricultural plants from Mesoamerica did not transform the human cultures of the Elk River Valley into sedentary people. The land was so rich and game so abundant that the tribes never abandoned the hunting way of life. The Neolithic revolution of the Old World failed in the Yellowstone country , although the prehistoric Shoshone made pottery and stone bowls.

What did change the cultures of the Plains and inter-mountain West was the introduction of the Spanish horse after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Horses first arrived on the Elk River around 1720, reaching the Crow tribes by 1730. Some 30 different tribes adopted an equestrian society and became the fierce, warfare people we see in popular movies. This caused massive cultural change among five different language families whose common tongue was sign language.

The Crow Nation, though a relatively recent tribe of the Elk River, perhaps arriving about 1600, controlled all the Yellowstone country before 1825. Through the familiar process of a litany of threats and deceptions, the white government took most of the land away; the Crow ceded the final piece of Yellowstone bottomland in 1899.

By this time, the buffalo had been slaughtered to near extinction, the 60 million at the time of Lewis and Clark reduced to 23 wild bison the government couldn’t catch on the upper Yellowstone in 1902. Grizzlies and wolves, too, were shot on sight until only mountain populations remained. Today, the wild bison and grizzlies mostly live in Yellowstone Park. The Elk River Valley still contains habitat suitable for these animals, but our residual European intolerance has precluded recolonization by bison and carnivores.

It is against this backdrop and history that John Holt* offers us his unique hit on the contemporary Elk River. Many people today know this river intimately. Some have spent a lifetime living and observing segments of this great river valley. But its entirety of 70,000 square miles escapes the individual eye; what we need is the collective phonologies of all the people, fishermen, ranchers, and Indians who live in this intact and rich country.

In the absence of this endeavor, John Holt is the man for the job, having devoted slightly less (we hope) than half of his adult life to this project. Of the many fine writers who contribute to the literature of American trout fishing, I have always found John among the least predictable and, for me, among the most interesting. With Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real Time, he has written something more than a fishing book, bringing his flair for research and novelist’s eye to produce the definitive study of the longest un-dammed river in the lower 48 states. The book, like the Yellowstone itself, is a big, sprawling work that blows its banks and meanders throughout the human and natural history of the region. Hovering over the 671-mile journey is Holt’s own thunderstorm of a life; the man is not hesitant taking a stand, whether it’s a rage against the livestock-centric insanity of killing free-ranging bison that wander beyond Yellowstone Park’s boundary or quietly summoning the 500-year flood that would wipe out all the garish trophy homes littering the river’s flood plain. Holt’s specialty is "nowhere" country, and his accounts of the headwaters of the lower tributaries, the Tongue and Powder rivers, constitute my favorite sections of the book. Here is Kerouac-style old-time adventure and exploration into a lonely, stark landscape, rich in history and rendered luminous by Ginny Diers’ fine photography. At sunset, there’s trout and catfish and grouse cooked over a cottonwood fire, washed down by many bottles of wine, with romance drifting on the evening air.  This is a classic run down Montana’s finest country, and we are lucky to have such a guide. 

* John Holt’s Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real Time is newly published  by CounterPunch Books/AK Press, with the above  introduction by DOUG PEACOCK, one of America’s finest environmental writers, Peacock’s books include Walking It Off:A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and WildernessGrizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness Walking It Off: a Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness and co-author, with Andrea Peacock, of The Essential Grizzly: the Mingled Fates of Men and Bears.