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The History of Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park is known for its majestic mountain range, pristine lakes, and abundant wildlife. The park covers an area of approximately 310,000 acres and attracts millions of visitors each year. This article will take you through the history of the park, from its earliest inhabitants to today.

Early history of Grand Teton National Park

Wooden barn and homestead in front of the Grand Teton mountain range

The history of Grand Teton National Park dates back thousands of years. The area was originally inhabited by Native American tribes, who lived off the land and had a deep connection with the natural environment. In the early 19th century, European explorers began to venture into the region, mapping the area and documenting its natural beauty. This led to increased interest in the area and eventually led to the establishment of the national park.

The early inhabitants of Grand Teton National Park

Paleo-indians spent time in what is now Grand Teton more than 11,000 years ago, using the land to sustain their hunter-gatherer living. Evidence of their time in the area comes in the form of fire pits, tools, and even fishing weights. Some of this evidence points to these prehistoric inhabitants belonging to the Clovis culture, because of the characteristic stone points found in the area.

Before the arrival of European settlers, the area that is now Grand Teton National Park was home to several Native American tribes, including the Shoshone, Bannock, and Blackfoot tribes. These tribes had a deep respect for the land and relied on its resources for their survival; the shoshone, in particular, made bighorn sheep a large part of their diet, and therefore, their movements. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, following the migration patterns of the wildlife and utilizing the plants and animals for food, clothing, and shelter.

The Native American tribes had a spiritual connection with the land and believed in the importance of living in harmony with nature. They had a deep understanding of the ecosystem and practiced sustainable hunting and gathering techniques. This would, as most things are, be interrupted, at first briefly when fur trappers moved into the area.

The exploration and mapping of the Grand Teton Range

Image of Jackson lake taken by William Henry Jackson
One of William Henry Jackson’s photos, showing Jackson Lake in 1892. From the Library of Congress.

In the early 19th century, European explorers began to venture into the Grand Teton region. One of the most notable explorers was John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He left the expedition’s main group to seek out beaver pelts with a couple of fur trappers; this detour eventually led him to become the first caucasian to see the Teton Range. His accounts of the towering mountains and pristine lakes sparked interest in the region and led to further exploration and mapping.

Other explorers, such as William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran, also played a significant role in documenting the Grand Teton range. Their paintings and photographs captured the beauty of the area and helped to raise awareness about its unique features. Their contributions to our understanding of the park’s history cannot be overstated, as they provided a visual record of the landscape before it was altered by human activity.

Colter’s exploration of the land led to what could be called a “fur rush” in the area – it was full of beavers and other animals that were highly sought after in the 1810s, and many more fur trappers showed up looking for their fortune in the area. This would become the first significant activity in the Grand Teton area from europeans/their decendents. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was formed as one of the largest trapping enterprises in the nation in the 1820s. However, trapping in the region declined as the “fur rush” did, after prices and demand decreased and beaver populations were significantly reduced. 

American and French settlers eventually left the area, and it wasn’t until the 1870s that a government expedition to explore the area renewed interest in it. Quickly, people began to see the land for what it was: a treasure that needed to be protected.

The establishment of Grand Teton National Park

Bison grazing in Grand Teton National Park

Yellowstone, the first national park, was established in 1872 just to the north of the Teton Range. The boom of conservationism and awareness of the need to preserve land quickly turned people’s eyes to the Teton Range, which had recently been photographed during expeditions by people like William Henry Jackson.

The establishment of Grand Teton National Park was a long and complex process that involved the efforts of conservationists, politicians, and local communities. The idea of creating a national park in the Grand Teton region was first proposed in the late 19th century, but it took several decades for it to become a reality.

While the original idea had been to add the Teton Range to the existing park in Yellowstone, a series of construction projects designed to support agriculture disrupted that plan. Jackson Lake Dam and Minidoka project were built in the early 1900s, and further construction of this type would have severely threatened the natural beauty and ecology of the area.

Under pressure to do something to protect the area quickly, President Calvin Coolidge (otherwise a real bad dude) signed an executive order that established Grand Teton National Park in 1929.

Ultra wealthy semi-philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller Jr. played a crucial role in the establishment of the park. 

John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the park’s growth

John D. Rockefeller Jr. is often credited with saving the land around Grand Teton National Park from development and preserving its natural beauty. In the 1920s, Rockefeller began purchasing land in the Jackson Hole valley, with the goal of protecting it from commercial development and eventually transferring it to the National Park Service. He eventually acquired over 35,000 acres of land, which were eventually donated to the federal government to be included in the national park as part of a 200,000+ acre expansion that FDR signed into law in the 1940s.

Fast forward

Today, Grand Teton is one of the most popular national parks in America, routinely among the top 10 most-visited. People come from all over the world to hike, camp, climb, and fish in the area. Jackson, the nearest town, has grown in popularity as a winter sports destination, with all sorts of fancy stuff for rich people to do. Although prices are skyrocketing as more and more people learn about the area, it hasn’t grown too much and nature will always be first priority. 

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