The History of Native Americans in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Whether the first humans to settle North America arrived from Asia via land bridge or boat, from Polynesia via raft to South America, or from Europe across the Atlantic, is a subject of hot debate. While archaeological evidence suggests that some parts of North America were settled over 12,000 years ago, earliest evidence of human occupation in Jackson Hole dates to 11,000 years ago. At this time, a massive ice sheet was retreating from the Jackson Hole Valley making the area inhabitable for the first time. Over the next 11,000 years, despite fluctuating temperatures and climates, the Tetons and Jackson Hole area were continuously occupied. This region represents an important cultural landscape for indigenous peoples. (Photo to left taken by Samantha Ford)

0500 BC-11-01 00:00:00

"The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same"

While the last 11,000 years saw significant environmental and climatic changes, on the whole, there was little cultural change from the Paleoindian Period to the Late Prehistoric period. Local residents moved seasonally throughout the landscape, spending the warm months exploiting alpine resources and the colder months on the valley floor or further afield. In addition to deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bison and antelope, marmot, ground squirrel, and fish would have been important food sources. Gathering and processing edible plants during the summer would have supplemented this meat diet. Unlike other parts of the world, local peoples did not practice agriculture or create permanent settlements until after contact with Euro-Americans forced them out of the mountainous regions of the Greater Yellowstone and onto reservations.

10000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Chemical "Fingerprints" of Obsidian Artifacts

Scientists can identify the exact chemical elements in a particular obsidian artifact, by using a technique called X-ray Flourescence or “XRF”. XRF helps archaeologists determine where the obsidian that ancient tools originally came from. Natural outcrops of obsidian have been identified all across the Greater Yellowstone region. Known sources include Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park, Bear Gulch in the Targhee National Forest, Fish Creek in southern Jackson Hole, and Grassy Lake and Conant Pass in the northern end of the Tetons. By sourcing obsidian artifacts, trade, movement, or changes in cultural preferences over time can be reconstructed.

10000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Obsidian - An Important Local Resource

The Yellowstone area is characterized by volcanic activity. This unique geological area is rich in obsidian, an igneous rock, known also as volcanic glass. Because obsidian can be chipped to an extremely thin, sharp, edge, it became a very popular material for prehistoric toolmakers. Fortunately, every ‘lava flow’ that obsidian is formed from has unique chemical elements, enabling archaeologists to track the origin of tools found in any specific area. Because obsidian can be ‘locally sourced’, obsidian points and other tools can provide insight into trade, movement, or changes in cultural preferences over time.

10000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Dating The Changes in Stone Artifacts

The shape of projectile points has changed stylistically over time. Based on their shapes, archaeologists were able to assign general age ranges to these styles, greatly improving their ability to date archaeological sites. Common styles of points from the Paleoindian Period found in this area include: Agate Basin, Hell Gap, and Cody Complex. Agate Basin points date between 10,500 and 10,000 years ago, followed by Hell Gap tools from 10,000 and 9,500 years ago. The youngest of these styles are Cody Complex points and knives from between 9,000 and 8,400 B.P. (Before Present). These variations were all used with the atlatl, and represent changing preferences in style and appearance rather than changing technologies. Given the large age range of each style, archaeologists also use radiocarbon dating when possible to better estimate the ages of sites. (See Radiocarbon Dating slide for more information about how this technique is used by archaeologists)

12000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Earliest Artifacts Found in Jackson Hole

Many archaeological sites have been discovered around the Rockies and in Wyoming associated with Clovis and Folsom peoples. Some of the Clovis sites include the Teton Valley Clovis site (located 10 miles east of the Teton Range), the Yellowstone Lake Clovis site, and the Colby Mammoth Kill site in Colby, Wyoming. There are currently no known Folsom sites in Jackson Hole, however a number of Folsom points have been found in Jackson Hole proving that these people were at one time in the area. The earliest artifacts found in Jackson Hole are Folsom era projectile points which date to the Paleoindian Period (11,000 years ago).

12000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

The Atlatl - A Clovis And Folsom Tool

The earliest North American people are called the Clovis and Folsom cultures, named after towns in New Mexico where their tools were first discovered. Dating to the Early Paleoindian Period, between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago, Clovis and Folsom points are chipped-stone tools which would have been hafted to a large spear for hunting. These spears were either thrown by hand or propelled by an atlatl. The atlatl was a spear thrower that allowed humans to hunt larger animals at a further distance. This important technology has been discovered all around the world and would have significantly improved hunting success against large animals like mammoths and mastodons that roamed the earth at this time. The Clovis and Folsom people used atlatls to hunt North American camel, horse, bison, and mammoth.

1500 BC-11-01 00:00:00

Soapstone Industry

Soapstone, or steatite, is a soft metamorphic rock, a kind of talc, that is found in a number of naturally occurring ‘quarries’ in the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone area. Because this rock is soft enough it can be easily scratched with a fingernail and yet retains high and low temperatures for long periods of time, soapstone became an important resource for carving cooking and serving vessels. Oral histories with the Shoshone tell us that soapstone carving was a matrilineal activity—some bowls were passed down from grandmother to daughter, granddaughter or great granddaughter. Archaeological research and oral traditions both suggest that these bowls were used to cook soups or stews that might combine meat, fish, and various wild edible plants.

1500 BC-11-01 00:00:00

The Myth of The Bird Points

It was originally thought that the small projectile points (some less than ½ inch tall) were used to hunt birds or other small prey. Experimental archaeology has, however, proven that this was not the case. Small projectile points were made for the bow-and-arrow, and could have successfully taken down any of the larger mammals in the area, even bison.

1700-11-01 00:00:00

Protohistoric Period

The Protohistoric Period is brief, and dates between 1700 and 1850 AD. This period marks the start of contact between Europeans and Native Americans and ends with relocation of many tribes onto reservations. The first Euro-Americans to arrive in Jackson Hole were mountain men hunting beaver and other fur-bearing animals, later trappers and explorers. In Jackson Hole, the Rocky Mountain fur trade is generally conceived of as starting around 1804 and ending around 1845. Through trade with these new visitors, an abundance of new European goods, like metal, cloth, and glass became valuable materials for making tools or objects of personal adornment. Horses were also introduced to the area, probably around 1750, were highly valued for warfare, trade and transportation.

1700-11-01 00:00:00

Moving With The Seasons

The seasons throughout Wyoming are diverse and severe with short, hot summers, and long, cold winters. In order to take advantage of plant and animal resources, hunter-gatherer groups moved constantly following animal herds and seasonal plants. When anthropologist Dimitri Shimkin studied the Shoshone in the early 1900s, he observed that the larger Wind River Shoshone, comprising 2,000 to 3,000 members, would often split up throughout the year. During the fall and winter, the tribe separated into three to five smaller groups called ‘bands’ during the winter and spring months. These bands could consist of up 100 to 200 people. In the summer, each band might split again into smaller extended family groups consisting of 10 to 30 closely related individuals. These smaller groups, often consisting of extended families, would spread across Wyoming into the mountain and plains to hunt, gather, and acquire resources. When the autumn season returned, they would reunite with their kinsmen.

1700-11-01 00:00:00

Native Peoples of The Greater Yellowstone

When the earliest trappers and mountain men came to Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone area, they encountered bands of Native Americans living in and visiting the area seasonally – taking advantage of the rich natural resources of the valley. The Shoshone (or Snake Indians as they were sometimes called by Whites) were one of these groups that called this region home. In 1835, trapper and explorer Osborne Russell described his encounter with local Natives: "Here we found a few Snake Indians comprising 6 men 7 women and 8 or 10 children who were the only Inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy" - Ibid., p. 26. The Mountain Shoshone, who spent much of their time high in the mountains were, generally speaking, considered the only permanent residents of what is now Yellowstone National Park. These loosely affiliated bands called themselves “Tukudika” or “Sheep-Eaters”, after their main food source, wild Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. The Plains Shoshone included the “Kucundika” or “buffalo hunters.” The “Agaidika” or “Salmon Eaters,” residing largely on the western side of the mountains along the Salmon River, names themselves after their primary food source. Commerce and relationships between these bands was fluid; one could spend time with the Tukudika during one season, then join relatives living on the Salmon River for another. Other tribes who claim the Yellowstone area as part of their ancestral homelands include the Crow and Kiowa, but also the Blackfoot and Salish/Kootenai.

2000-11-01 00:00:00


Bibliography: 1) Daugherty, John. Stephanie Crockett, William H. Goetzmann, and Reynold G Jackson. "A Place Called Jackson Hole: A Historic Resource Study of Grand Teton National Park". 1999. Moose, Wyoming: Grand Teton Natural History Association. 2) Kahin, Sharon. Interview with JHHSM. November, 2016. 3) Stirn, Matt, and Rececca Sgouros. Interview with JHHSM. November, 2016. --------------------------- "A Place Called Jackson Hole" by John Daugherty can be purchased from both of our museum stores and on our online store. The book gives a history of the topography & demographics of the local area, Jackson Hole, WY.

3000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Late Prehistoric Period

The Late Prehistoric Period began approximately 1500 years ago. This period is characterized by a significant change in hunting technology—the invention of the bow and arrow. The bow and arrow completely replaces the atlatl as weapon of choice. In addition to the bow and arrow, pottery and soapstone bowls begin to appear. Archaeological evidence of large village sites in the neighboring Wind River and Absaroka Mountains suggests that large family bands would spend their summer and falls collecting and processing white bark pine nuts.

5000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Middle Archaic Period

The Middle Archaic period lasted from 5,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago. This era represents a shift from lanceolate and shaped points to stemmed points. One common type of Middle Archaic point from the area is the McKean style. An increase in roasting pits and plant processing tools (e.g. the mano and metate) found in the area may suggest that people during this era invested more time and energy in processing plant foods than their ancestors did, or that there was a significant increase in population at this time. Tipi rings, large stone circles, also appear during this period when the climate cooled significantly and approximated modern temperatures.

5000 BC-01-02 00:00:00

Late Archaic Period

The Late Archaic lasted from 3,000- 1,500 years ago and sites from this era are commonly found in the Jackson Hole area. At this time spear points shift from stemmed to corner-notched styles. Evidence from archaeological sites suggest that just like the previous 9,000 years, Late Archaic life was centered around hunting, gathering, and seasonal movement. The improved climate most likely encouraged greater population numbers which is reflected in a spike in site density at this time.

5850 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Plant Roasting Pits Reveal Diet of Early Humans

In the 1920’s JHHSM founder and amateur archaeologist Slim Lawrence noticed rock pile structures all around Jackson Lake. The land that Slim was exploring is now submerged under water due to the construction of the Jackson Lake Dam, completed in 1916. The water level of the lake was periodically lowered into the 1930’s for maintenance. Excavation of these structures revealed pits lined with quartzite cobbles that contained significant amounts of charcoal, burnt plant remains, and charred fire-cracked rocks. These structures have been interpreted as large roasting pits or subterranean ovens that would have been used to roast a combination of tubers such as yampa and camas, and possibly meat. Charred plant remains included a variety of berries, grasses, tubers, and roots, and carbon dating reveal that these pits first appeared in the Early Archaic period.

5850 BC-01-01 00:00:00

Radio Carbon Dating Accurately Dates Human Activity

Radiocarbon dating is a scientific technique that helps archaeologists narrow down the age of an archaeological site or deposit. All organic material contains carbon; put simply, this means that any material you want to date with carbon dating had, at some point, to have been alive. Scientists calculate the amount of C14-C13 ratios left in the material in order to estimate its age. For more info on how radiocarbon dating works see: . The oldest archaeological deposits from the Jackson Hole region, dated using C-14, came from a roasting pit on Jackson Lake and date to 5,850 years ago. While Paleoindian points, which are significantly older, have been discovered in the area, a lack of testing and/or preserved organic material has, to date, prevented archaeologists from refining the earliest dates of human occupation for the valley.

8000 BC-01-01 00:00:00

The Archaic Period

The Archaic Period lasted from 8,000 to 1,500 years ago. This time period is characterized by a warmer climate with an increase of pine forests covering the valley floor and moving up into the mountains. Using stylistic changes in spear point styles, archaeologists have subdivided the Archaic Period into three separate periods; the Early, Middle, and Late Archaic.

8000 BC-01-02 00:00:00

The Early Archaic Period

The Early archaic period lasted from 8,000- 5,000 years ago. Finds from this era include stone tools and roasting pits. The appearance of roasting pits, used to roast roots and vegetables such as yampa and camas, and sites with grinding stones, used for grinding wild seeds and berries such as whitebark pine and service berries, suggests an increased reliance on plant foods (as opposed to predominantly meat), by Early Archaic peoples. The increased importance of plant foods in the daily diet is generally unsurprising considering that the Early Archaic period was a time of warmer climate (warmer even than it is today) and an ecological shift from a sparse tundra landscape to greater vegetation.

The History of Native Americans in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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