Yellowstone Up Close and Personal Logo © Copyright Page Makers, LLC
Yellowstone Up Close and Personal Grizzly Logo © Copyright Page Makers, LLC

Yellowstone ~ the Name

Historian Hiram M. Chittenden considered it a translation of the Minnetaree Indian expression, Mi tse a-da-zi, which was first rendered in French as Roche Jaune and Pierre Jaune by traders from Canada. The English equivalent of "Yellow Stone" is attributed to David Thompson of the North West Company in 1798. However, his reference may not be the earliest. John Evans, a Welshman employed by the Spaniards to explore the Missouri River, had produced a manuscript map the previous year showing a "River Yellow Rock" as a tributary of the Missouri. This fact was probably unknown to Thompson.1

Chittenden was uncertain as to why those semi sedentary river Indians, who lived several hundred miles below the mouth of the Missouri River's great southern tributary, would know it as "the river of yellow rocks." He appears to have been familiar with a earlier statement of the editor of Livingston's first newspaper (the Livingston Enterprise) that the river "was so called from the yellow bluffs which mark its lower course" (this on the authority of "those who have lived long among the aboriginal tribes" — presumably frontiersmen with whom the editor was acquainted).2 While admitting that the Yellowstone is predominantly a river flanked by bluffs of yellow rock, Chittenden was not content that its name originated from tawny sandstones of its lower course. He looked several hundred miles farther upstream to the colorful Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as the place of origin.

This attractive idea has been accepted by many people — yet it is probably incorrect. The basis of Chittenden's idea lay in his assumption that the area encompassed by the present Park was known to the Indians who named the river; but that is quite unlikely. The Minnetaree Indians — Siouan Hidatsas — lived in the vicinity of Devils Lake, North Dakota, prior to being forced by pressure from other Indian peoples to the Missouri River in the vicinity of present Bismarck. Thus they had no basis for a traditional knowledge of a region more than six hundred miles upstream from the Mandan towns where they settled. Nor would they have ventured such a distance afoot — they were as yet without horses — into the domain of a different and undoubtedly hostile linguistic group (the Salishans).

Even after the river Indians obtained horses about 1750, the lower reaches of the Yellowstone River — two hundred miles distant — were surely on the periphery of their hunting forays. By then all the country beyond was dominated by the warlike Shoshonis. During later treaty negotiations with the U.S. government, the broadest territorial claims advanced by these river Indians extended only to the mouth of the Powder River, which suggests that the upper reaches of the Yellowstone were beyond their geographical knowledge.

The Crow Indians who displaced the Shoshonis along the middle Yellowstone knew that river by an entirely different name. To them it was E-chee-dick-karsh-ah-shay, or as rendered in another attempt to put the Crow expression into print, Encheda-cahchi-ichi. Both names translate as "Elk River", 3a name deriving from the fact that the migration route of elk from their summer range on the Yellowstone highlands to wintering grounds in the lower valleys paralleled the stream. This is confirmed by the French Canadian trader François A. Larocque, who added to his 1805 Journal some observations on the Crow Indians. He wrote that they inhabited the country at the head of the River aux Roches Jaunes, which they knew "by the name of River a la Biche, from the great number of Elks, with which the country along it abounds."4 Aboriginal use of the name Elk River was also recorded by the English anthropologist William Blackmore, but his entirely different spelling of the Indian expression — Ca-tan-wa-hove — is confusing.5

In his 1883 discussion of the name Yellowstone, the editor of the Livingston Enterprise reminded his readers that mere chance had bestowed that name upon the noble stream flowing past their doors. In his opinion, "had Lewis and Clark reached the head of our valley instead of its furthest extremity, doubtless they would have entered the name in their journal as Elk River and that might have been the name till present." Even so, it is unlikely that the editor understood just how much a product of chance was the ultimate supremacy of the Yellowstone form of the name.

The U.S. purchase of French Louisiana from a hard-pressed Napoleon Bonaparte was a chancy venture that might well have been contested by Spain or England. Instead, the fortunate acquisition enabled our young nation to field an exploration of trans-Mississippi West that ultimately popularized the Anglicized Yellowstone name over its French antecedents. Even after the Lewis and Clark Expedition, however, the outcome was a long time in doubt because Roche Jaune was so well established with mapmakers that it remained in use into the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The present form of the name — Yellowstone, rather that Yellow Stone of David Thompson and William Clark — made its first appearance on the manuscript map of J. S. Daugherty in 1810, 6 but it was not universally used until the end of the fur trade, after 1840.

It does not appear that any use other than naming the river was made of the word Yellowstone until late in the fur trade era. On July 9, 1835, at the crossing of Snake River in Jackson Hole, trappers Osborne Russell noted in his journal: "There was not a man in the party who had ever been at this place or at the Yellow Stone Lake where we intended to go but our leader had received information respecting the route from some person at the Fort and had written the direction on a piece of paper which he carried with him".7 From that statement it is evident that American trappers had knowledge of Yellowstone Lake and were using that name instead of the original "Eustis Lake" of William Clark's maps. Later it would also be briefly known as "Sublette's Lake." Yellowstone, however was the name that endured and was officially applied on Washington Hood's 1839 map. Hood, who obtained his information from fur trade sources, also noted "Yellowstone Pass" — present Two Ocean Pass.

Further extension of the use Yellowstone in designating places in the region came with the mining era. First came "Yellowstone Range" (1863), for the mountains now known as the Absarokas. The name "Yellowstone City" (1864) was given to a brief settlement at the mouth of Emigrant Gulch, downriver from the present park. Neither of these names persisted.

The name "Falls of the Yellowstone" was noted on Captain William F. Raynold's 1860 map, which remained unpublished until after the Civil War. By the time it was published in 1868, the variant form "Yellowstone Falls" appeared in a newspaper article by an ex-prospector writing as LEGH.8 The same article described the region as the "Yellowstone Hell," an expression sometimes considered to be a frontier put-down of John Colter (though it has not been found in the literature of the fur trade until near the end of that period.)

The period of definitive exploration of the Yellowstone region (1869 through 1871) brought no new use of the Yellowstone name, unless Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden's shifting of "Yellowstone Mountains" from the range east of the Park to the smaller area of present Two Ocean Plateau can be considered a "new" usage. This alteration soon disappeared.

Establishment of Yellowstone National Park by an act of Congress on March 1, 1872, provided a memorable use of the name Yellowstone, though not immediately. The new Park was born nameless, referred to in the organic act only as "a certain Tract of Land lying near the Headwaters of the Yellowstone River." 9 It remained so until May 10, when Nathaniel P. Langford received a letter from Assistant Secretary of Interior G. B. Cowan advising him of his appointment to the position of superintendent of Yellowstone Park. It should be noted here that there was some interest in a proper name for the park-to-be outside the Congress, if not within, even before the proposed legislation passed the House or Senate. Writing in the Deer Lodge, Montana New North-West on January 13, C. C. Clawson noted that Congress was about to

set aside 100 square miles here as A WORLD'S PARK, which it no doubt will. And in the scramble for names for this new territory it is to be hoped a suitable one will be found, with no "big Injun" chief figuring in it. Let it be something appropriate, for instance — Hiawatha (High Waters), or Lenawatha (Leaping Waters). Or is that too high?"

No, it wasn't too high; just too implausible in its translation to be taken seriously. Another name that was not taken seriously was photographer Henry Bird Calfee's "Yellowstone Rapids," applied in 1878 to the river immediately above Upper Falls. This use appears to have been limited to the stereoscopic photographs he sold.

Presidential executive orders later extended the area covered by the Yellowstone name to an even larger span of country than the 3,312.5 square miles of the organic act. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison established the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve," which was subsequently reorganized as the "Yellowstone Park Forest Reserve" and "Yellowstone Forest Reserve." 10

One more application of the name Yellowstone completes its background. In 1908 a town site came into existence at the terminus of the Union Pacific's "Oregon Short-line" branch to the Park. The new town at the boundary was first called "Riverside, Montana," taking that name from a stage-station site on the Madison River six miles to the east. But the town was not on the river, and there was some confusion in differentiating it from the old site where there still was a station occupied by soldiers guarding the Park. So, the following year Riverside became "Yellowstone, Montana" — creating an even greater problem. Mail intended for Park headquarters tended to end up at the wrong place, and the town's mail often made a detour through Park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. A fully satisfactory solution was not found until 1920, when the troublesome name was amended to read "West Yellowstone." 11

This information is from, "Yellowstone Place Names: Mirrors of History, by Aubrey L. Haines (University Press of Colorado, 1996), pp 2-7.


1 Hiram M. Chittenden, The Yellowstone National Park (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke Co., 1895), pp. 1-2 & 5-7. The stream made its debut, cartographically speaking, as "Rock or Crow River" on Collot's map (1776), but Evans's map (1797) was the first to approximate the modern usage. See Coe No. 303-iii, Beineck Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

2 "The Name Yellowstone", Livingston (MT) Enterprise, October 23, 1883, p. 1. The editor's statement is confirmed in Nathaniel P. Langford's description of the Yellowstone River, as given in his manuscript lecture notes prepared in 1871. There he wrote: "for part of the distance it is bordered on either side by parallel mountain ranges, and another portion is traversed by a precipitous ridge of yellow sandstone (from which the river receives its name) varying in height from eighty to three hundred feet." Pp. 30-31. Original in Yellowstone Park Reference Library.

3 Don Moyle, "Crow Agency Man Relates Custer Scout's Story of Battle of Little Big Horn," The Billings (MT) Gazette, June 21, 1953, Sec 2, pp. 1 & 13. See also, Note 2.

4 François A. Larocque, A Few Observations on the Rocky Mountains Indians with Whom I Passed the Summer," The Oregon Country Under The Union Jack, B.C. Payette, ed. (Montreal, Canada: Payette Radio Limited, 1962) p 545. It seems probable that Larocque would have written the name "Riviere a la Biche," but I have used the published form.

5 William Blackmore, "Diary — 1872 — Fourth Visit to the United States," Transcription by Brayer, Western Range Cattle Industry Study, State Museum, Denver, Col., 1945. No. 6, p. 113.

6 J. S. Daugherty, untitled sketch map of the Missouri River headwaters from below the mouth of Cheyenne River, 1810, National Archives, RG 92.

7 Osborne Russell, Journal of a Trapper, ed. by Aubrey L. Haines (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1955), p. 20.

8 Legh R. Freeman, "California," The Frontier Index, Laramie City, D.T., May 5, 1868, p. 1.

9United States Statutes at Large, Vol. 17, Chap. 24, pp. 32-33.

10 Benjamin Harrison, Executive Orders of March 30 and September 10, 1891; and Theodore Roosevelt, May 22, 1902.

11 Victor Gondos, Letter of Jack E. Haynes, March 7, 1955, transmitting information from the records of the Post Office Department stored in National Archives, Washington, D.C. See also Chapter 11, Riverside/Yellowstone.

Other Yellowstone Place Names
Electric Peak Sepulcher Mountain
Soda Butte  

The Gray Ghost
Yellowstone National Park by Page Makers, LLC © Copyright All Rights Reserved
I n d e x
Accessibility Earthquakes Maps Trip Reports
Address Email Newspaper Video Page
Adult Programs Entrances Night of the Bear Visitor Centers
Amphibians Entrance Fees Old Faithful Live WebCam Visitor Stats
Animals Facts & Figures Pets Volcano Observatory
Backcountry Fall Closure Phone Numbers Waterfalls
Bear Management Fish Picnic Areas Weather
Bear Sightings Fishing Fees Pikas WebCams
Biking Fishing Regulations Ranger Led Activities Wildflowers
Birds Getting Here Reptiles Winter Closing
Boating Hiking Reunions Winter Opening
Books History Rivers, Creeks & Streams Winter Weather Reports
Butterflies Junior Ranger Program Roads Wolf Project
Camping Lakes Schedule Wolf Sightings
Campground Maps Location Search Page Wolverine Help
Challenges Lodging Spring Opening Yellowstone ~ the Name
Chat Page  or  Facebook Group Lynx Help Star Talks Young Scientist
Clinics / Medical Mammal List Trip Planner pdf Youth Conservation Corps

Yellowstone National Park WebCams
Old Faithful Live All Old Faithful Old Faithful Static Old Faithful VC North Entrance Mt Washburn Mammoth YVO WebCam

Entrance Cities and Gateway Towns
Gardiner, Montana Silver Gate, Montana West Yellowstone, Montana Cooke City, Montana
Livingston, Montana Cody, Wyoming Jackson Hole, Wyoming Yellowstone National Park

Not all who wander are lost by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien © Page Makers, LLC

Contact Us Home