The Bloody History of Our National Parks

Controversial Mountain MenOur nation­al parks are a cru­cial resource for a vibrant $646 bil­lion dol­lar indus­try. They sup­port back­pack­ers, campers, sports­men, back­coun­try skiers, and oth­ers who lust for adven­ture. How­ev­er, our beloved parks weren’t always so popular.

Our Nation­al Parks have a his­to­ry that is fraught with civ­il unrest and vio­lence. Park reg­u­la­tions seri­ous­ly cramped the sub­sis­tence lifestyles of “Wild West” fron­tier fam­i­lies. Dur­ing the late 1800s, when the parks began to emerge, get­ting away with a crime in the for­est wasn’t as easy as it might be today, giv­en the fact that the US army was respon­si­ble for enforc­ing park laws. What result­ed was a bloody and con­tro­ver­sial peri­od for moun­tain-folk in the west.

Poach­ers Out­smart Patrollers
George Perkins Marsh, often referred to as America’s first con­ser­va­tion­ist, was instru­men­tal in the push to use trained gov­ern­ment offi­cials to patrol the parks. “Man is every­where a dis­turb­ing agent,” said Marsh. “Wher­ev­er he plants his foot, the har­monies of nature are turned to dis­cords.” Marsh’s work in the late 1800s helped Roo­sevelt cre­ate the Nation­al Parks that would for­ev­er alter the ways in which humans expe­ri­enced nature. Because the parks were meant most­ly for pro­tec­tion of nat­ur­al areas, hunt­ing and log­ging restric­tions turned many rur­al dwellers into “pirates of the for­est.” They were seen as dumb, easy-liv­ing crim­i­nals, unwill­ing to change for con­ser­va­tion stan­dards. Locals, how­ev­er, sim­ply believed that con­ser­va­tion was inter­fer­ing with their pre­ex­ist­ing rights in the nat­ur­al world.

2The bulk of the con­flict occurred after 1886 when Army units were dis­patched to Yel­low­stone, Yosemite, Gen­er­al Grant, and Sequoia Nation­al Parks. The Mil­i­tary forces in Yel­low­stone expe­ri­enced the most resis­tance. Despite their best efforts to rid the parks of poach­ers by con­fis­cat­ing firearms and direct­ing move­ments of patrons, a “shad­ow land­scape” emerged with­in the park where poach­ers would fol­low slight trails and sneak rifles into the forests.

The poach­ers of the 1890s were tough sur­vival­ists who trekked deep into the woods and built cam­ou­flaged huts and dugouts where they cleaned their game unde­tect­ed. Poach­ers had expe­ri­ence on their side, an advan­tage over the mil­i­tary patrollers who were trans­ferred out of the park before they could become knowl­edge­able woods­men. The late 19th cen­tu­ry was a glo­ry-day for expe­ri­enced moun­tain-men-gone-poach­ers as the mil­i­tary was only able to cap­ture about 2% of them every year.

Patrollers Start to Gain an Advantage
Poach­ers were most active in the win­ter, so sol­diers even­tu­al­ly decid­ed to take after the crim­i­nals and patrol on skis. In order to sur­vive the harsh weath­er that sweeps through the moun­tains of Yel­low­stone dur­ing the win­ter, sol­diers were trained by natives. And final­ly, by sleuthing through the park’s sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties, the army was able to dis­cov­er the names of the poach­ers who had been elud­ing them for so long.

To see if the sol­diers were still in the area, poach­ers ini­tial­ly would fire shots at their game or into the air while spy­ing on scout camps. Even­tu­al­ly, as the mil­i­tary began to close in on the “moun­tain pirates,” poach­ers start­ed to blast away at the scouts them­selves. While poach­ers may have been bet­ter out­doors­men, they were no match when it came to com­bat. An account from the ear­ly 1900’s direct­ly out of the jour­nal of scout Jim McBride makes this clear: “Two of us found a fel­low near Snake Riv­er, whom we’d expect­ed of pos­sess­ing furs. I start­ed up to him and he shot at me. I dropped on the ground and lay behind a rock while he fired sev­en times. When he had emp­tied his rifle I knocked him off his horse with the butt of my gun.”

1One of the most famous cap­ture sto­ries is that of Edgar How­ell. Noto­ri­ous at the time for hav­ing elud­ed army sol­diers in the moun­tains of Yel­low­stone, How­ell had been sur­viv­ing the win­ter by hunt­ing buf­fa­lo on a pair of cross-coun­try skis. With his per­cep­tive dog on look­out, his teepee hid­den deep in the woods, and his sharp eye behind the sight of his repeater, How­ell quick­ly became the most sought-after poach­er in the coun­try. How­ell was even­tu­al­ly cap­tured while gut­ting a buf­fa­lo in a wind­storm. The com­bined dis­trac­tion of being pre­oc­cu­pied and the noise of the wind allowed sol­diers to sneak up on How­ell before he could escape or draw his weapon. It took six army patrollers to bring him in. Upon his cap­ture, How­ell attempt­ed to kill his own dog because it didn’t warn him of the sol­diers’ presence.

Poach­ers Organize
Once Howell’s cap­ture was report­ed around the coun­try, most poach­ers began to work in orga­nized groups rather than indi­vid­u­al­ly. The most noto­ri­ous poach­ing gang was called “The Mer­ci­less and Per­sis­tent Lot of Head and Skin Hunters,” or for the pur­pos­es of brevi­ty, the Henry’s Lake Gang. They sta­tioned them­selves in Henry’s Lake, Ida­ho, and were known not only as poach­ers, but as raw, intim­i­dat­ing, and vio­lent men who ter­ror­ized the small town. A mem­ber of the gang known as the Pana­ma Kid was rumored to be shot dead by one of his own for a pet­ty squab­ble while in the woods. They were described by one Yel­low­stone scout as “the worst and most dar­ing and des­per­ate gang of poach­ers who ever defied the park laws and the vig­i­lance of the author­i­ties.” Since the com­mu­ni­ty was so afraid of them, the Henry’s Lake Gang thrived for years before anony­mous tips start­ed com­ing in from town. Final­ly, the mil­i­tary dis­cov­ered the gang’s method of trans­porta­tion; through the creeks to pre­vent from mak­ing tracks in the snow. This led to the gang’s even­tu­al cap­ture. The park per­sist­ed and iden­ti­fied all of the black-mar­ket taxi­der­mists in the area as well as the poach­er hot-spots. By dis­sect­ing and break­ing up the poach­ers’ dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work, the Park was final­ly able have a last­ing pre­ven­ta­tive effect on poaching.

The ten­sions that arose in Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park over poach­ing also touched on many oth­er issues at the heart of rur­al life dur­ing the late 1800’s. The eco­log­i­cal par­a­digm was shift­ing and morals stood strong on both sides. The right to be self-suf­fi­cient, prove one’s dar­ing, and avoid depen­den­cy on the work­place bat­tled notions of envi­ron­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty and stew­ard­ship to a point of mil­i­tary intervention.