Teton County, Wyoming

Teton County is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming. The federal government owns 97 percent of the land, including two national parks--Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The region is mountainous and geologically active; there are numerous small earthquakes, most of which are not felt by residents.

The best-known natural wonders in the county are the thermal, scenic and wildlife features of Yellowstone Park, established in 1872, and the mountains of the Teton Range, the county’s namesake. Those striking peaks were created fewer than 10 million years ago—recently, in geological terms—by great pressure of blocks of rock on opposite sides of the Teton fault line pushing against each other.

Teton County’s human history can be geographically divided, similarly, into two sections: Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, which includes Grand Teton National Park. (Around 40 percent of Yellowstone National Park lies in Teton County; the rest is in Park County.) The history of Yellowstone is the stuff of western legend, as it was used and sometimes occupied by all sorts of people from paleo-Indians to trappers and explorers.

The history of the Jackson Hole area, on the other hand, does not include the exploits of many other places in Wyoming, which had mining, railroads, the Pony Express and infamous outlaws in their storied past. In Jackson Hole, the main population center of Teton County, homestead settlement did not begin until the 1880s when the first few claims were filed.

Prior to that, American Indians were the only regular inhabitants of the valley. Even fur trappers and explorers did not frequent the area in great numbers because of the difficult terrain. The Indians, though, had used the land for thousands of years. Their familiarity with the trails and seasonal changes made entrance and exit easier for them.

Early Inhabitants

Archeological evidence shows that the human history of the area dates back as far as 11,000 years ago. A number of projecting points, pots and roasting pits have been found, but a great deal is still unknown about the people who used them. Probably they moved through Jackson Hole when seasons and food sources allowed. Recently discovered evidence suggests that paleo-Indians sometimes wintered in the valley—a likelihood doubted for many years because of Jackson Hole’s harsh climate.

Descendants of the early peoples still occupied the valley when the first European and American explorers and fur trappers arrived in the early 1800s.

Early exploration and settlement

Differing names and descriptions of places make it hard to say which trapping or survey parties might actually have entered Jackson Hole. For a long time it was thought that John Colter was the first Euro-American to visit the valley after he left the returning Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806, but careful review of his routes casts doubt on this attribution.

During the peak years of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, 1825-1840, none of the annual rendezvous trade fairs were held in Jackson Hole, though many were held along the upper Green River a short way to the south, and mountain men trapped in Jackson Hole or passed through it. Regardless of whether they came into the valley, the Teton Range was a primary landmark by which travelers oriented themselves. David E. Jackson, for whom Jackson Hole is named, frequented the valley in the 1820s as the owner of a fur trade company.

Little Euro-American activity occurred in the valley between 1840 and 1860.

A military expedition led by Captain V.F. Raynolds came through Jackson Hole in 1860 on the way to survey the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. Raynolds declared the area unfit for a railroad but this first documentation of the valley would set the basis for future government surveys.

The most famous of the expeditions to explore the area was led by Ferdinand Hayden of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. Hayden, a geologist, physician and veteran of the Raynolds, was accompanied this time by painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. Their pictures, plus Hayden’s reports, helped make the case for establishing Yellowstone Park in 1872.

Prospectors like Walter DeLacy investigated Jackson Hole in the 1870s but none were successful with mining.

Army expeditions led by William Jones and Gustavus Doane in 1873 and 1876, respectively, made few lasting contributions. The Doane party, which traveled up the Yellowstone River from Montana, was lucky to survive. Poor preparation led to disaster after disaster in Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, until finally the troops made their way to Fort Hall, in eastern Idaho in early 1877.

By the mid-1880s Jackson Hole’s spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife were drawing sport hunters. Owen Wister first came in 1885, and returned for many hunting trips thereafter. Jackson Hole provides one of the many Wyoming settings in The Virginian, his million-selling novel published in 1902.

The 1880s were also the era of the first homestead claims, much later than most places in Wyoming. Single men were among the first settlers but single women and couples also homesteaded. These early settlers offered meals, lodging and outfitting services to early tourists. Families arrived slightly later, including Mormons seeking the freedom to practice their religion and customs that mountain isolation offered them. People from a variety of backgrounds soon populated the valley.

Outlaws and vigilantes

Still, the place was extremely isolated, and also was gaining a reputation as a haven for outlaws and vigilantes. One outlaw was a horse thief known as Teton Jackson, said to have used the valley as a hideout for running stolen horses between Idaho and central Wyoming. Characters like these were generally accepted as long as there was peace.

This peace was interrupted at Deadman’s Bar on the Snake River in 1886, however, with the murder of three prospectors by their partner. The trial, in the county seat at Evanston, 200 miles to the south, ended with an acquittal, leading valley residents to distrust a distant legal system.

An 1893 incident at the Cunningham Cabin on Spread Creek in Jackson Hole was perhaps evidence that locals had decided to mete out justice instead of waiting for legal action. A shootout at the cabin led to the deaths of two men, later thought to be innocent. Locals had been riled up by men from Montana claiming that the two were horse thieves. The Montanans had claimed to be marshals but it was later recalled that no one had seen any credentials, and the incident became a shameful community secret.

The Race Horse Case

Distrust of outsiders might help to explain the tensions between white settlers and Indians tribes that led first to an armed skirmish over hunting rights in 1895, and eventually to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.

When the Eastern Shoshone and Bannock tribes agreed in 1868 to move onto new reservations, they retained the right to hunt off the reservations on unoccupied lands. The Shoshone were located on Wind River in Wyoming Territory, and the Bannock on a reservation at Fort Hall, on the Snake River in eastern Idaho Territory.

The two tribes are closely related. Over the next generation, a tradition grew up of regular visits and hunting trips between the two. Jackson Hole and its populous elk herds were about halfway between.

By the 1880s, the few white settlers who had trickled into Jackson Hole made their living by subsistence hunting and trapping, stock raising and perhaps rustling, and as hunting guides for customers—dudes, they were already beginning to be called—like Wister. None of these groups seem to have welcomed the Indian families that passed through to hunt and visit each year.

Soon after Wyoming became a state in 1890, the Legislature passed game laws limiting hunting to the fall months and limiting the number of animals that could be killed. Jackson Hole was still part of Uinta County, with its county seat at Evanston, and local law enforcement was scarce. In early summer 1895, valley settlers began seeking help enforcing the game laws from federal, state and eventually county officials, but got little response.

A local constable formed a posse, and matters came to a head in a confrontation with a Bannock band. Shots were fired, one Bannock died, another was wounded and a child disappeared in the skirmish. The rest of the Indians fled. Newspapers quickly sensationalized the story. Word that all whites in Jackson Hole had been killed by Indians screamed from headlines as far away as New York.

The Bannock leader Race Horse was charged with seven counts of killing elk out of season as a test case so that a precedent regarding hunting rights could be set. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1896 that the state game laws had superseded the Indians’ treaty rights, and that the land in question was in any case no longer unoccupied. It was a landmark decision in questions of Indian sovereignty that remain in dispute today.

Creation of Teton County

Because of the isolation, only a few settlements and ranches were located in Jackson Hole before 1900.

The communities of Moran at the north end of the valley, Kelly and Jackson near the middle, and Wilson on the western edge at the base of Teton Pass became social centers with post offices and stores, though Wilson never offered much more than basic necessities. From Wilson, however, a road led over the pass to Idaho, where there was a rail connection. Most goods were shipped into the valley by that route.

Alta, in Wyoming but on the west side of the Tetons, was more accessible through Idaho. Other communities like Bondurant and Alpine developed to the south, primary entry points into Jackson Hole, though neither is in Teton County today.

All of these communities were initially part of Uinta County. The county seat in Evanston was 200 miles south, and the distance made it difficult for Jackson Hole residents to conduct business with the county and take care of legal matters.

Lincoln County was formed in 1911 out of the northern stretches of Uinta County and parts of Sublette and Sweetwater counties but Kemmerer, the county seat, was still quite far from Jackson Hole. Finally, in 1921, the northern section of Lincoln County became Teton County, even though the population and land valuation didn’t meet the minimum requirements under state law. A new law was passed to allow for the unique “geographical conditions” since it would otherwise have been a long time before the County would be able to meet the state requirements.

Kelly and Jackson, incorporated in 1914, vied for county seat, and Jackson eventually won in a hotly contested county-wide vote. Jackson also had recently attracted national attention when, in the great tradition of Wyoming equality, it had elected Mayor Grace Miller and an entirely female town council, in 1920. The new town government also appointed several women to key positions, even a town marshal.

Teton County
quick facts

Land Area

4,008 square miles, 12th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Teton County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
National Park Service 1,151,808 42.63
Forest Service 1,370,496 50.72
Fish and Wildlife 5,568 .21
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 2,496 .09
Bureau of Reclamation 22,528 .83
State Lands Comm. 5,353 .20
Game & Fish 1,766 .07
Local Government/Other    
Total Public Lands 2,624,990 97.15
Private Lands 76,962 2.85
Surface Water 136,986 5.07
Total Area 2,701,952 100

Teton County Population

21,294 (2010 U.S. Census)
21,548 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Jackson (county seat) 9,577

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 177
Forestry, Fishing & Related 135
Mining 323
Construction 2,706
Utilities (D)
Manufacturing 205
Wholesale Trade (D)
Retail Trade 2,105
Transportation & Warehousing 472
Information 348
Educational 318
Health Care & Social Assistance 987
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 1,194
Accommodations & Food Service 6,143
Management of Companies 77
Finance & Insurance 1,932
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 3,151
Professional, Scientific & Technical 1,833
Administration & Waste Services 1,144
Other Services except Public Admin. 1,231
Fed, state, local gov't 2,356
Total 27,168

D=not disclosed to avoid disclosure of confidential information, but estimates included in totals.
L=less than 10 jobs, but estimates included in totals.

Sources: Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis Equality State Almanac, County Profiles, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/almanac/Page135_183.pdf ; Wyoming DEA summary of decennial U. S. Census data, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/demog_data/cntycity_hist.htm; Wyoming DEA Employment, Income, and Gross Domestic Product Report, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/i&e/Inc_Emp_Report09.pdf; 2010 Census Summary Report for Wyoming, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/
; 2011 county population estimates, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/pop/CO-11est.pdf.

About the Author

Clayton Caden works at the Jackson Hole Historical Society in Jackson, Wyo. Clayton is the Director of Research and Archives, a transplant from Mississippi, who loves finding out more about his adopted state through his work at the Museum.

Shannon Sullivan works at the Jackson Hole Historical Society in Jackson, Wyo. Shannon is the Curator of Collections and a Wyoming native with a passion for local history.

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