Electric Peak

Their Right to Roam

from Forest and Stream, 18 April 1889


In our last issue we presented a mass of evidence providing that great injury is done to the fame and forests of the Yellowstone Park by bands of Indians, which come up to, if they do not encroach on, its borders. We pointed out that these Indians ought not to be permitted to leave their reservation except in charge of a responsible white man, who can be held accountable for their actions while absent from their homes, and that under no circumstances should they be permitted to approach the borders of the National Park.

The question may fairly enough be asked, Why should the rights of these Indians be abridged? Their treaties with the Government provide that they shall be permitted to hunt near the Park; why have they not the same right to kill fame there that the white hunter has?

We answer that they have precisely the same rights as the white hunters and no others. White men and Indians alike have the right to take game legally. The Indians have the right to every head of game which they can kill and use or carry away with them at the proper season outside the limits of the Park, but they have no right to kill game out of season, not to fire the forests.

Forest fires almost invariably attend the advent of an Indian hunting party in any region.

The theory on which the U.S. Government has treated the Indians—whether it is a wise on or not we need not here discuss—is that they are wards. They are treated like children, given no special voice, even in matters which most nearly concern them, controlled and ordered about. Generally they are directed to remain on their reservations. White men who intrude on these reservations may be summarily expelled, ardent spirits are forbidden, and in a hundred ways it is shown that the Government does not consider the Indians capable of self-command.

Now, the Revised Statutes of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana provide for the enforcement of severe penalties against all persons who may fire the forests. If a party of white men go to the southern border of the Park and set fire to the forest, whether to help them in their hunting or for any other purpose, they stand in danger of being captured by the officers of the law, and held to a strict account in the courts. When Indians fire the forest for whatever purpose, they should theoretically be held to the same accountability as the white men.

There is, however, this difference, that the white man’s education and presumed knowledge of the statutes have taught him that by firing this timber he commits a crime, while the education and traditions of the Indian lead him to believe that he is performing a natural and praise-worthy act when he starts a fire to dive or hold the game which he pursues. While, legally, there is, perhaps, no distinction between the criminality of the two acts, it is quite evident that in morals there is a wide difference. Though committed in ignorance, the Indian’s offense is still a criminal one; and yet, considering his past, no one with any proper feeling would advocate his persecution under the statute, if that can be avoided. It is a wider public policy to restrain the Indian and keep him where there is no temptation to offend against the law. To do this we must abridge his freedom by confining him on the reservation, and so must deprive him of the pleasure of a summer hunt, and o the resulting mean and hides. So far we injure him. On the other hand, we protect him from danger of criminal prosecution, which might result in years of imprisonment, and at the same time we guard against the danger of having our only forest preserve swept away.

We hold that the inherent rights of an Indian are precisely those of a white man. When his action is against the general good his liberty must be curtailed just as in the case of a white man. A city park is open to the public. All persons have an equal right to enter and enjoy it; but if an individual who enters it breaks down the shrubbery, he may be punished, and after repeated offenses may even be prevented by the officers in charge from again entering it. The public must be protected from injury done by one individual to that which is the property of all.

If the Indians were not prone to start forest fires, there would be no excuse for ordering them away from the neighborhood of the Park. The mere killing of game, so long as it is done within the law, is something that on one has the right to interfere with. But the forests of the Yellowstone Park must be protected from danger. It is to be remembered that on either side of the Rocky Mountains there is an immense territory which depends for its water on streams which head in the National Park. Should these streams be dried up, or their volume materially lessened - as might readily result from extensive forest fires in the Park - the interests which would suffer are enormous. This danger to a large and growing agricultural population in the West will be ever present so long as the Indians are permitted to start fires in the neighborhood of the Park.

If there were, in the territory adjacent to that in which these Indians hunt and in which they start their fires, some hundreds of settlers, whose cabins and crops might be destroyed by fires carried to them from the Indians’ hunting grounds - if the horrors and the deaths which have accompanied forest fires in Michigan were likely to be repeated in these forests of the National Park - no one would question the necessity of restraining these hunting parties. Yet any extensive destruction of the Park forests may work to thousands of settles on the plans a ruin just as certain and just as real as if their houses and their grain had been devoured by actual flames.

When the Indian has been taught to comply with the law, he will have as much right to hunt on the borders of the Park as any one has. Until he has learned this lesson he should be restrained. —Editor, Forest and Stream


I am very glad to see the stand you have taken with regard to the National Park and its surrounding territory, and the interests it excites with all sportsmen, and I beg to add my testimony to that you have already printed.

In September, 1887, while hunting on Pacific Creek, I was daily in contact with Indian hunting parties, whose lodges were within a few miles of my camp, and the amount of elk they killed must have been large, as their rifles could be heard in every direction, and I often counted six and seven shots in succession. Indeed such a nuisance did this shooting become that my companion Col. James H. Jones and myself pulled out in disgust. About twenty-five miles further up, we came across another large and permanent camp of Indians, and so completely had all game been killed or driven out that we did not start a single elk. In camp at Two-Ocean Pass, and near Bridge Lake, I met Indians with their traps coming from the direction of the Park, the southern line of which was not over a mile or two distant.

In 1888 I passed down the west side of the Park and along its southern border, coming into the Teton Range. On the western slope for twenty miles we could see a vast fire raging to the northward of Mount Moran, and it showed no diminution during the several days I hunted in this range. It undoubtedly worked immense destruction, as no rain had fallen for weeks, nor did any come while I was in this vicinity. Crossing from here I struck the west bank of Snake River, about fifteen miles north of Jackson’s Lake, and here met a large Indian camp, and heard such shooting that I decided to pull out at once. On the morning when we broke camp a fire, which, judging from the smoke, must have been large, was making strong headway in the mountains two or three miles distant. On pushing up Pacific Creek, over last year’s tracks, we found a little game, but evidence of there having recently been a considerable body of Indians camped here. We made a break from here to try to strike the head of Great Bull Creek by a due east course over the Shoshone Mountains, but meeting impassable canons we were forced off to the southward, and I hunted all along the southern parts of the Shoshone and Owl Creek Mountains. All through this section of the country I met large Indian camps, all of which had been very successful. In one case, the morning after a six-inch fall of snow, three of the bucks of one camp killed five elk, and two more of them secured three. As these Indians were not going to return to the agency till driven in by the weather, they undoubtedly killed a large number more. Coming through Prior’s Gap in November, I think there must have been from twenty-five to thirty lodges of Crows in the two camps I visited. They told me their success with blacktail was very great.

I am not one of those who think the Indians should be deprived of their hunting privileges. On the contrary, these should be liberal; but these roving bands should be held in check as to the grounds they should hunt over, as to the number of heads of the various fur-bearing animals they should kill, and, above, all, the greatest watchfulness should be exercised as to the state in which they leave their fires. This is one of the prolific causes of the forest destruction in this timbered country. If these fires are left without being extinguished by water or dug round and covered with sod to prevent their eating their way into the surrounding dead leaves and brush, great question, not only the Indians, but every person, hunter, tourist, prospector or other should be urged to use the greatest care. I think a severe fine should be visited on any one caught neglecting this precaution.

I have no suggestion to make as to the means by which the Indian shall be governed and directed in his annual hunt. The person who enforces such regulation as may be made in the future should be one who has the honesty and also the nerve to carry them out in the strictest manner. I have been favorably impressed by the Indians I have so far met. They were a civil, obliging and happy-go-lucky set, and as in one instance I was some three weeks with the Shoshones, I had good opportunities to be observe them. One or two spoke very good English; they were fair in their dealings. We purchased several horses of them, and I am free to say I parted with my interpreter and daily visitor Indian Jim and his associates with regret. They urged me to come again this fall, and said would post me on the bear ranges they might come across. —E. PENDLETON ROGERS, HYDE PARK-ON-HUDSTON, New York


© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press


click a pic to learn more
Articles & Stories

Origins of Yellowstone


New Spirits
The Making of Yellowstone
Perceptions and Realities: The Victorian Age Inventions of the era Tramps and Millionaires Yellowstone Park Journals of the era White City/1893 Worlds Fair The Civil War President McKinley