Back When, A Hundred Centuries of Humans

Before the Mormon pioneers, before the mountain men, came the earliest inhabitants

Much has been written about the early trappers and explorers who came into Teton Valley during the early 1800s. Many of the place names throughout the valley and surrounding mountains reflect this colorful period—Jedediah Smith Wilderness, Leigh Creek, and others. The mountain-man era helped define the valley, setting the stage for those who would settle here during the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, long before the early trappers and settlers made their mark on Teton Valley, prehistoric Indians called the valley home on a seasonal basis. Native Americans left evidence of their presence, and their story—though far less documented—is every bit as exciting as that of those who came later. Theirs is a story of being a part of the environment and not trying to tame their natural surroundings.

Archeological and ethnographic evidence gathered from the valley and surrounding areas is starting to provide a clearer picture of these early inhabitants and help tell the tale of what was a complex interaction between indigenous populations and the environments of Teton Valley.

Archeological evidence from the valley and surrounding areas suggests that humans first entered the Snake River Plains shortly after glaciers receded around 15,000 years ago. The vegetation at that time was significantly different than what we see today. The valley floor may have supported more of a coniferous forest, while alpine-tundra conditions persisted in the mountains. Moderating climatic conditions over time caused a shift in vegetation cover, with sagebrush and grasses becoming more dominant on the valley floor and the coniferous forest retreating to the mountain slopes and higher elevations.

The Snake River Plains, and perhaps Teton Valley itself, supported a wide diversity of now-extinct fauna. Try to picture not only bison moving through the valley, but also mammoths, native horses, large camels, and ground sloths. The earliest of prehistoric people hunted these species, and most archeologists believe the human populations of between 14,000 and 10,000 years before the present subsisted primarily through these hunting activities. Subsequently, changing climatic and vegetative conditions, coupled with hunting pressure by these early big-game hunters, led to the extinction of the Pleistocene mega fauna by around 10,000 years ago. This forced the prehistoric people to adopt a more balanced hunter-and-gathering subsistence strategy, one that would prove successful for the next one hundred centuries.

Jumping ahead several millennia, we know from the journals and documents left behind by the early trappers and explorers that the main Indian groups to utilize Teton Valley were members of the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock tribes. The territory covered by these people—who belonged to a larger linguistic stock known as Uto-Aztecan speakers—was quite extensive and encompassed parts of Nevada, Utah, Montana, Idaho, and western Wyoming. The similar dialects spoken by tribes in the area allowed for a great deal of interaction, and affiliation with one group or another was rather fluid. For example, it’s been written that there’s roughly the same degree of difference between the Bannock and Northern Paiute dialects as there is between English as spoken in New England and in the southeastern United States. This lack of language barrier permitted a great deal of cultural and genetic exchange between people of the Great Basin to the southwest, the Colombia Plateau to the northwest, and the Great Plains to the east. Other tribes, such as the Blackfeet, Crow, and Gros Ventre from present-day Montana, and also passed through the area, although they utilized the valley’s resources far less than the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock tribes did.

These tribes were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They did not practice agriculture, nor did they live in permanent villages. Their intimate knowledge of the landscape and environment allowed them to travel through the territory on a seasonal migration pattern timed to take advantage of various flora and fauna resources, of which the varied topography and climate of southeast Idaho ensured an abundance.

In order to understand how the early hunters and gatherers carried out their activities in the valley and surrounding mountains, it’s important to know a little about the environmental setting in which these prehistoric populations operated.

Long south to north and narrow east to west, Teton Valley sits at an elevation of approximately 6,000 feet. The Teton, Big Hole, and Snake River mountains surround the valley, and one needn’t travel far to attain elevations of 9,000 to 11,000 feet. The dramatic elevation differential also means significant changes in vegetation and environmental conditions. Sagebrush and grass communities dominate the valley floor. Riparian communities found along the Teton River and its tributaries offer far different vegetation types, including cottonwoods, extensive willow bottoms, and wet meadow communities. These plant communities give way on the mountain slopes to conifers, aspen, and other herbaceous plants such as serviceberry, chokecherry, and the mountain mahogany. At higher elevations in the Teton Range, high alpine meadows support an abundance of short growing shrubs and forbs.

The Teton River, flowing through the center of Teton Valley, provided a corridor for these people to travel into the Snake River Plain to the west, while relatively low gaps in the Tetons, such as Conant Pass, offered a way to reach the Yellowstone area, Jackson Hole, the Wind River country east of the Continental Divide, and the Green River Basin of southwest Wyoming.

The physical landscape greatly affected the human population and determined, to a large extent, population density and seasonal movements. Most important to these mobile populations were the floral communities, which were stationary and seasonably predictable. Hunting was less important in the overall subsistence strategy, so the annual migration for foods was directed more towards plant gathering.

Prehistoric groups would move into the valley floor during the middle to late spring, when the plants began greening up after the long winter. Edible species available at this time included biscuit root, arrow-leaf balsam root, wild onion, spring beauties, yellow water lily, and camas. Grinding stones used to process these plant foods have been found on archeological sites within the valley, providing evidence of the important role the food items played. Springtime was also the beginning of the spawning season for cutthroat trout. Although these spawning runs paled compared to the salmon runs on the lower Snake River below Shoshone Falls, they provided yet another predictable and reliable food source in the valley.

As spring became summer, the mountain snows began to melt. The prehistoric people would move their base camps to progressively higher elevations, following the sprouting of the plant species. Many of the same species available at lower elevations during the spring would begin to mature later in the summer at higher elevations. And such species as huckleberry, serviceberry, and chokeberry, found in abundance in the foothills, offered a much-welcome addition to the diet. Moving into higher elevations also put the nomadic people in proximity to the summer grazing meadows of big game species like deer, bighorn sheep, and elk.

By late summer, the high mountain meadows above 9,000 feet, now snow-free, continued providing an abundance of edible plant species, including whitebark pine nuts, an important protein source. The higher elevation areas of the Tetons proffered other, non-food resources, as well; outcrops of obsidian, for instance, used to fashion projectile points and other stone tools, could be found in a number of locations—as could steatite, or soapstone, used for carving into bowls, vessels, and decorative items.

When fall arrived, these groups would return to the lower elevations and reunite at the tribal level to begin preparing for another long winter. Of great importance was the fall bison hunt, which provided a large quantity of meat that could be dried and stored for the cold months ahead. Bison were present and hunted in Teton Valley in prehistoric times, as evidenced by a bison kill site found in the northern portion of the valley. The site may have been a buffalo jump, where the Indians stampeded a buffalo herd over a low cliff and butchered the animals where they fell. This was a common practice in prehistoric times prior to the arrive of the horse.

The shapes and sizes of projectile points found in the valley, as elsewhere, help date archeological sites and provide clues about the longevity and duration of prehistoric cultures’ occupation in the valley. One of the most significant changes in Native American culture was the development of the bow and arrow, which appeared approximately 2,000 years ago. It replaced the atlatl, the main weapon used for hunting in earlier times. The atlatl was basically a spear-throwing device that propelled a dart-like shaft, much as a lacrosse stick provides greater leverage and acceleration for throwing a ball. A more efficient hunting device, the bow and arrow offered greater accuracy over longer distances. The projectile points used with arrows were smaller than the projectiles used with spears and atlatls.

The most significant change in the culture of the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock tribes came with the introduction of the horse. Arriving probably by the late 1600s or early 1700s, the horse profoundly affected the settlement and subsistence patterns of the tribes. With the horse, more territory could be covered and larger amounts of procured food items could be transported to center locations for winter storage. The horse also provided the means for longer excursions to the buffalo country of the Great Plains to the east, which further enhanced the mixing of cultural groups, either through peaceful exchange of goods and customs or through warfare.

Population estimates for the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock tribes in the early 1800s range from between 2,000 and 3,000 people for the Eastern Shoshone and 1,200 and 2,000 for the Shoshone-Bannock. These tribes would split into small bands during the winter and spring, with the main winter villages located near present-day Fort Hall, in the valleys just north of the Great Salt Lake, and in the Wind River Valley east of the Continental Divide in Wyoming. Each band, composed of a couple of hundred individuals, had a loose association with a particular region of the overall territory, and membership in each band was somewhat fluid. Extended family groups could join one band and then another, or even unite with a different but closely related tribe on occasion. During winter, the individual bands subsisted primarily on food items gathered and stored from the previous season or from the occasional hunting of bison, deer, or bighorn sheep. If food supplies were meager, the winter and early spring could be extremely rough, with starvation an ever-present possibility.

As winter turned to spring and the storms abated and snows melted, the individual bands would gather at the tribal level for the annual spring bison hunt. Fish and greens were welcome additions to the diet, and the horses were able to graze on emerging vegetation. This period generally lasted from late February/early March until mid-June, when the tribe would split into individual extended family groups, with each group heading to a different part of the territory. The family groups might be composed of between ten and thirty closely related individuals.

Plants and animals were abundant during the summer months, and the smaller, more mobile family group was probably the most effective unit for exploiting these resources. Some groups would travel west to harvest camas or salmon from the Snake River country in western Idaho, or north and east to the mountains and headwaters of the Snake River drainage. Mid-summer was also time for larger intertribal gatherings, or rendezvous, providing the tribes an opportunity to trade goods and intermix with other closely related bands. The intertribal gatherings would soon disband, with smaller family groups again scattering across the territory to continue their hunting and gathering activities.

As summer gave way to fall, and the first snows dusted the high country, the family groups would reunite at the tribal level for the annual fall bison hunt. Bison had disappeared from eastern Idaho by the 1840s, so groups of horse-mounted hunters would sometimes travel to the plains of eastern Wyoming and Montana to conduct this annual tradition. The fall hunt was extremely important for procuring the food items needed to help sustain the individual bands through the long winter months. And so the yearly cycle ended and began again.

One Indian group that did not adopt the horse was the Sheepeaters, a sub-group of the Shoshone tribe residing primarily in the mountains of northwest Wyoming, southwest Montana, and eastern Idaho. Also known as the Tukudka, the Sheepeaters continued to practice the subsistence and settlement patterns of the pre-horse era even after the introduction of the horse.

As their name implies, these people hunted primarily bighorn sheep, although they undoubtedly also hunted mule deer and other game species. Among the neighboring tribes, the Sheepeaters were regarded as skilled hunters and outstanding furriers and leather workers. Their isolation in the mountainous terrain was a major factor in determining their social and political organization. The Sheepeaters traveled in small groups consisting of one or two nuclear families that would follow big game species from the high alpine meadows in the summer to lower elevations near bighorn sheep winter habitat in sheltered canyons or isolated mountain valleys.

While traveling through the Lamar Valley of future Yellowstone National Park in 1835, trapper Osborne Russell described a group of Sheepeaters he encountered.

“Here we found a few Snake Indians comprising 6 men and 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 perfectly contented and happy. They were rather surprised at our approach and retreated to the heights where they might have a view of us without apprehending any danger, but having persuaded them of our pacific intentions we succeeded in getting them to encamp with us. Their personal property consisted of one old butcher Knife nearly worn to the back two old shattered fusees which had long since become useless for want of ammunition a Small Stone pot and about 30 dogs on which they carried their skin, clothing, provisions, etc. on their hunting excursions. They were well armed with bows and arrows pointed with obsidian. The bows were beautifully wrought from Sheep, Buffalo and Elk horns secured with Deer and Elk sinews and ornamented with porcupine quills and generally about 3 feet long…” (Journal of a Trapper, Osborne Russell, Edited by Aubrey L. Haines, 1986).

Russell’s account provides us not only with a detailed picture of a small Sheepeater group, but may also serve as a general description of earlier Indian groups who utilized our regions’ resources prior to the arrival of the horse.

Most of what we know about the prehistory of Teton Valley comes from surrounding areas rather than from the valley itself. This is due largely to the amount of land we have in private ownership, where state and federal regulations that would require archeological investigations prior to development do not apply. As more and more development takes place in the valley, we are likely to see a growing number of archeological sites destroyed before their information potential can be realized. Slowly but surely we are losing this valuable record of earlier times; the story contained in the artifacts and sites left behind by the earliest inhabitants of the valley is fading into oblivion.

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