The first recorded humans in this area arrived as the great continental ice sheets were receding to the north. To survive, they constantly hunted and gathered whatever food was available. They stamped out trails along the rivers and streams as they followed the great herds of bison and pronghorn that migrated within this area. Using their ingenuity they constructed elaborate traps that funneled bison over cliffs and pronghorn into corrals where they could be slaughtered. Scattered campsites remain as testimony of these peoples' lives.
The Shoshone Indians spread into this area around 700 years ago. Before acquiring horses, they hunted bison and pronghorn much the same way as the first people upon this land. They were a nomadic tribe that traveled widely and, in the process, opened up trails over the mountains. From their arrival until the appearance of the white man, they were the lords of the Green River basin. In addition to bison, they hunted deer, elk, pronghorn, mountain sheep, and the abundant "prairie chicken", or sage grouse. It was the Shoshone that gave the river its first name, "sisk-a-dee-agie" or "river of the prairie chicken". Fur trappers later corrupted the Indian name to "seedskadee".
Quest for Beaver
In 1811, a party of fur traders representing John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company were the first documented euroamerican visitors to the Green River basin. Donald Mackenzie, a member of this party, later joined the British Northwest Company and organized trapping brigades that penetrated this area in search of beaver. By 1820, Mackenzie's men had explored the crossings of the Green River that would later be used by emigrants.
In 1824, a party of American trappers representing William Ashley and led by Jedediah Smith crossed South Pass and descended the Big Sandy to the Green River. Smith followed the same trails the Shoshone had traveled for centuries.
Wheels Across the Rockies
Faced with having to resupply his trappers each summer, Ashley devised a plan to briFebruary 23, 2010, rather than bringing the party back to St. Louis. In 1825, Ashley and his men crossed the Green River near the Big Sandy, descended the Green to Henry's Fork, and held the first such "rendezvous". This began a series of summer rendezvous renowned for their wild sprees of drinking, shooting, gambling, lying, and general celebration. Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette bought out Ashley's interests in 1826, and, in the summer of 1827, came rolling over South Pass pulling a two-wheeled cannon on their way to resupply the trappers. Five years later, independent fur trader Captain Bonneville pulled the first wagon train over South Pass and down to the Green River, forging a trail for wagons over the Rockies and across the Green River.
When the beaver trade fell off sharply in the late 1830's, mountain man Jim Bridger soon realized that there might be a need for a trading post to serve trappers and the settlers he was sure would come over the trail from South Pass to the Green River. In 1839, a few miles south of the confluence of the Green and Big Sandy Rivers, Bridger and Henry Fraeb built a trading post. Unfortunately, Fraeb was killed by Indians in 1841, which led Bridger to abandon the post for a site on Black's Fork of the Green River.
The circuit to Oregon was finally completed in 1841, when mountain man Tom "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick led the Bidwell-Bartleson party over the Blue Mountains of Oregon. In 1843, enterprising mountain men constructed a commercial ferry at the primary Green River crossing on the Oregon Trail. Many emigrants followed, including Brigham Young and the great exodus of Mormons on their way to settle Salt Lake City in 1847. Settler traffic on the Oregon Trail increased to total about 12,000 people by 1848.
When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the trickle of travelers suddenly turned to a tide. That year, tens of thousands of people used the trail and the crossings on the Green River. By 1850, the Oregon Trail had become part of the Mormon and California Trails as well. Alternate trail routes, or cutoffs, began to be developed, shortcutting the standard route. One such cutoff was known as the Kinney Cutoff and ran near the confluence of the Green and Big Sandy Rivers upstream along the east bank of the Green and crossed at a ford or ferry near Fontenelle, Wyoming. This cutoff, a variation of the Sublette Cutoff, saved considerable mileage for the traveler not wishing to go to Fort Bridger on Black's Fork. The old wagon ruts are still visible in places along the east bank of the Green.
The fabled, but short-lived, Pony Express sprang up in 1860, and the route used by its riders followed much of the Oregon Trail. A Pony Express station was located on the west bank of Green River Crossing, just upstream from the Big Sandy-Green confluence. At this time, this little stretch of river was western Wyoming's largest community. A year later wire was strung for the transcontinental telegraph through this same spot, putting the Express out of business.
Settlers on the Green
Although this portion of the Green River was popular with Indians, fur trappers, and emigrants, the area originally offered very little attraction for settlers. The remote location, poor soil, and cold, arid climate made settlement unattractive. Indian uprisings along the Oregon Trail in the 1860's began to turn even more settlers away. However, gold was discovered on South Pass in 1867, and, once again, the Oregon Trail became a popular route. With the advent of gold and the last spike driven for the Union Pacific railroad, the route from the railhead at Bryan (near Green River) to South Pass City was improved and utilized as a stage road. The road improvement, gold strike, and railroad access, finally led settlers to homestead this area. A few remains of these homesteads can still be seen on the Refuge.
A Demand for Beef
With the end of the Civil War, many people returned anxious to pick up the pieces and start a new life. Due to a great demand for beef back East, cattle ranching sprang up in Wyoming and throughout the West. It soon became common practice to winter cattle from as far away as Utah and Nevada along the Green River. By the 1870's, the cattle industry was the biggest business in the Wyoming Territory. Sheep also moved into the area. Notorious range wars erupted between ranchers over precious forage. By 1886, the situation turned grim - the range was overstocked and in poor condition, a drought was on, beef prices were down, and, as a result, ranchers were leaving more stock on the range. A devastating blow struck that winter when savage blizzards ravaged the big herds, reducing them to half by spring. This disaster signaled the end of open range grazing and led to the fencing of the open range.
Last updated: November 29, 2012