Early Fur Trappers
Most historians point to John Colter as the first of the mountain men to traverse in what is now known as the Bridger-Teton National Forest. After traveling to the Pacific Northwest with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Colter left the expedition before returning to St. Louis. It is believed that he headed back west during the winter of 1807-1808, and crossed the Continental Divide at either Union Pass or Togwotee Pass before descending into Jackson Hole. From there he may have crossed Teton Pass into Pierre’s Hole; then re-crossed the Teton Mountain Range at Conant Pass before heading into Yellowstone.
Others were soon to follow. In 1811, John Jacob Astor, owner of the American Fur Company, traveled through the region on his way to the Oregon coast to establish a trading post in the Pacific Northwest. Wilson Price Hunt led this expedition with more than 60 men and 82 horses laden with trade goods. Instead of taking the well-known Indian Trial over Togwotee Pass into Jackson Hole, the expedition went southwest to Union Pass and crossed the Wind River Range. The expedition then descended to the headwaters of the Green River and followed the Indian Trail through Hoback Canyon to Jackson Hole and Teton Pass. In 1812, the Astor party traveled through the Gros Ventre mountain range on their way back east. Other trappers were soon to follow including Jedediah Smith, Donald McKenzie, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Osborne Russel. The streams and rivers in northwest Wyoming became well known as prime beaver trapping country, and over the next 20 years, fur trapping became an intense and lucrative business. By 1840, demand for beaver pelts declined, and coupled with the decimation of the beaver population, the trapping industry of the early mountain men came to an end. Many of the place names in the region came from the early trappers and mountain men who frequented the area. The Bridger-Teton National Forest is named for the famous trapper and guide Jim Bridger. Jackson Hole is named after another early trapper, Davey Jackson. The Hoback River, Fontenelle and LaBarge Creeks, Smiths Fork, Hams Fork, and Greys River were all named after early trappers.
For the next 30 years, the mountains and valleys of northwest Wyoming became the center of attention for a number of government explorations, but it wasn't until the 1870s that the hunter-trapper made his reappearance in the Jackson Hole area. This new trapper was of a different breed than the earlier types. He operated on an individual basis without ties to well established trapping companies. This new trapper was seen as a man who rebelled against society and the steady advance of civilization, and moved into the more remote mountain sections of northwest Wyoming. These trappers played a significant role in the settlement of the Jackson Hole area. Many of the individuals who came to Jackson Hole in the late 1800s would eventually take up permanent residence and file homestead claims. In many cases, these trappers represented the earliest settlers in the valley and would later become prominent individuals in the socioeconomic development of the valley.
Beaver Dick Leigh was perhaps the last of the original mountain men who trapped and hunted in the Jackson Hole area. He began his career trapping with the Hudson Bay Company, but later became a free trapper and guide for the hunting parties who came to the Rocky Mountains. Beaver Dick Leigh continued to work the Jackson Hole area through the 1860s and 1870s. Another of the new breed of trappers was a man by the name of Tim Hubbard who is said to have wintered on the Snake River during 1865-66.
The Doane expedition of 1876 encountered a trapper by the name of John Pierce who was spending the winter in a cabin at the southern end of Jackson Hole, south of the present town of Wilson.
Hunters and trappers continued to come into the valley and some of them built cabins returning from year to year. John Holland trapped in Jackson Hole in the early 1870s and eventually settled a few miles northeast of the present site of Jackson along Flat Creek. Holland was one of the first settlers in Jackson Hole.
In the early 1880s Albert G. Richards, at the age of 13, came to Jackson Hole to trap with another boy named Will White from Cokeville. They planned to meet John Holland in Jackson Hole, but failed to find him. The two boys camped and trapped on the Buffalo Fork River at the northern end of Jackson Hole until February when they loaded their furs for the return trip home. At Munger Mountain they found two trappers who were holed up for the winter, Jack Davis and a man named Leland. Davis and Leland agreed to guide the boys through the Snake River Canyon to the mouth of the Greys River in exchange for the remainder of the their supplies.
In 1880, Dick Turpin came to the Jackson area and built trapping cabins on almost every good stream in the Hole at one time or another. Robert Miller, who would eventually become the Forest Supervisor of the Teton National Forest, came to Jackson Hole in 1885 and joined the "trapping fraternity of bachelors already spending winters in the valley." Stephen Leek and Pierce Cummingham also came into the valley during the 1880's to trap. Stephen Leek was elected Uinta County Representative in 1907 (at that time Jackson Hole was part of Uinta County) and helped draft legislation for the protection of Wyoming's game animals. He was instrumental in drawing attention to the fact that the elk herds in Jackson were starving during the long winter months, and helped in getting the State Legislature to appropriate money to buy hay for the elk in Jackson Hole. This would ultimately lead to the development of the National Elk Refuge. Pierce Cummingham would later homestead in Jackson Hole and his homestead has since been restored as a historical monument in Grand Teton National Park.
After the creation of the Teton National Forest in 1908, one of the jobs of the early Forest Service Rangers was to check on trappers and poachers who were so common in the backcountry. One of the more notorious poachers of the early 1900's was Charlie "Beaver Tooth" Neal who homesteaded on the banks of the Buffalo River in the northern portion of Jackson Hole. "Beaver Tooth" Neal roamed throughout the Pacific Creek and Thorofare country south of Yellowstone National Park, and was well known for his ability to give the slip to Rangers who were trying to capture him for illegal poaching and trapping.
It was common practice for trappers to have a rather extensive trapping line that usually took several days to check. In these cases, the trapper would have a number of way stations along the line for overnight stays. These were generally in the form of a crude line cabin or lean-to. An interview conducted with local trapper, Jack Hodges, describes how these trappers worked the back country.
"I believe the first year that I trapped in the wilderness area was about 1947, and most of my time in the fall of the year was spent constructing cabins so that I'd have a place to pull into when I was back on these trap lines. I had a little cabin in the head of Colter Creek, one down near the mouth of Colter Creek, which was a deluxe cabin, … big enough for one person to get into and have your food: we'd dig a cellar in the corner of the cabin, down about 3, 3 1/2 feet and put vegetables and canned stuff in a sack down into and then cover it up and it was the best refrigerator and a way to keep food that I ever had... I had about, somewhere around 75 to 100 miles of trapping line out up on my area. And you have to secure those trapping permits through the Game Department and the Forest Service in order to get your permit and area and I acquired my permits to go in there and trap, and we would go from cabin to cabin, and it took just about 7 to 8 days to make my circuit around my trap line and back to where I started."
During the early 1900s, a new type of poaching activity became common in the Jackson Hole area. Members of the B.P.O. Elks Lodge considered having an elk tooth dangle from a watch chain a status symbol. This led to a market in elk teeth, and with an abundance of elk in the Jackson Hole and Yellowstone Park area, poaching elk for their teeth became a thriving industry. As a result of the poaching activity, a number of cabins were built throughout the backcountry used by the trappers and poachers.
An early Forest Ranger described these cabins:
"There was a small log cabin located on Glade Creek at the extreme north end of Jackson
Hole. Here tuskers smoked elk meat, better known as jerky, and took it by pack horse to
Idaho where there was a ready market for it. This cabin, like others found around the valley
later, was a cleverly arranged smoke-house built in the heavy timber to conceal it. The W.C.
Lawrence’s found this cabin. Tuskers cabins were often hidden under overhanging ledges and
weren't easy to spot."
Although there had been game laws in Wyoming since 1869, it wasn't until 1899 that the State provided money for a State Game Warden, and for some years he and his deputies were inadequate for the task of preventing poaching. The tusk hunters who operated in the Jackson area enraged the Jackson Hole citizens in 1905-1906 so much that they organized vigilantes. In 1907, the state legislature assisted by making the killing of big game for tusks, antlers or heads a felony. Shortly thereafter, the threat of tusk hunters diminished. After that, trapping in the backcountry continued into the first half of the 1900's.