Bits of Montana Wisdom (Part 4 of 5)

The Yellowstone River winds near Big Timber. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

The Yellowstone River winds near Big Timber. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

Call it 670 miles – or perhaps more precisely 674 miles – but either way, the Yellowstone River remains the nation’s longest undammed waterway. It’s a great river that meanders through some of the finest mountain and prairie topography on the planet – peaks reaching past 12,000 feet in elevation, the largest high-mountain lake on the continent, dense evergreen forests, buttes, colorful badlands, deep canyons, and sweet-smelling sage and juniper covered hills. A good portion of this wondrous river flows in Wyoming, but Montana claims most of it and gives it a home.

When did the name Yellowstone first appear? Actually the answer is a bit fuzzy, with several possibilities. Overall, though, it’s agreed that the earliest designation for this major tributary of the Missouri River originated with the Indian tribes who lived and hunted within its bounds. An early map, produced sometime in the 1790s, showed the name Crow or Rock River labeled on the stream. In 1797, another map showed “R. des Roches Janues” as its moniker. Translated from French into English, that meant “Yellow Stone.”

Our own research shows that this French name came about because the early French explorers noted a yellowish color to the silt-covered rocks along the banks of the lower Yellowstone River and hence the name. When the Corps of Discovery passed through the upper Missouri in 1805 and again in 1806, they already knew this French name for the river and used various forms of it. William Clark’s journal entry of July 15, 1806, when he reached the “Big Bend” of today’s Yellowstone at Livingston, referred to the river as “Rochejhone.”

Another suggestion is that the French name was a literal translation of a Minnetaree Indian expression that possibly referred to the yellowish sandstone bluffs that are prominent along many parts of the river.

The Crow Nation called the Yellowstone “Elk River” because it was a migration route for the elk moving from summer range high up in present-day Yellowstone National Park to winter habitat along the river’s reaches out on the Montana prairie.

When President Ulysses Grant designated Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, the act referred to “a track of land in the territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.” It was only later that discussions between the secretary of the interior and the superintendent of the park finally lead to the place being named Yellowstone National Park.

To uncover more interesting history behind place names, let’s look at Hellgate Canyon. Today, many people passing through this Missoula gap take the name for granted. At one time, it was quite a different place. French-Canadian trappers and missionaries (take your choice, depending on which legends you read) have it that the indigenous people (especially the Flathead, which is what Lewis and Clark called them, although they were actually the Salish) traveled through the canyon in pursuit of bison out on the prairies beyond the mountain front. The Blackfeet, who lived on the prairie side, were jealous of those trying to hunt on their lands and attacked them. Many times, the Blackfeet ventured into the mountains and ambushed the western tribes as they came through the canyon. The gruesome evidence of these raids was the “Gates of Hell.”

Hell Gate was also the original name for Missoula. In 1860, two entrepreneurs named Higgins and Warden established a trading post at the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers. Later, the town site was moved closer to Hellgate Canyon at the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and the Clark Fork River and renamed Missoula.

Today, cold Hellgate winds whip through the canyon in winter. Brought about when deep, cold arctic highs flood the eastern prairies, the winds seep into the Clark Fork River canyon, where the constricting canyon walls force them to pick up speed before exploding into the unsuspecting and usually gentle Missoula Valley. Many a University of Montana student walking to classes will attest to the fact that, with their very low wind-chill temperatures, the Hellgate winds are extremely uncomfortable and well deserving of their name.

Rick and Susie Graetz | Department of Geography | University of Montana