The First Settlers of Uinta County, Wyoming

Who were the first settlers in Uinta County? Where did they come from and when did they get here, the real old timers? It is not easy to answer these questions. Many a late arrival indulges the pardonable illusion that he is one of the original pioneers because this region was never inhabited in any practical, efficient way until he rose above our horizon. But the early history of Uinta County goes much farther back than that. Fortunately that early history has been written in the rocks, principally in those of the Bridger formation. Beside this story has a human interest.

In 1846 and 1847 some employees of the American Fur Company brought specimens and curiosities to St. Louis1. These rocks they had picked up in their wide wanderings, things that had appealed to their curiosity and imagination. American science had not been born. Everybody whose opinion was worth consideration believed that the world had been created in six days, “from sun up to sun up,” and just six thousand years ago. All this had been figured out in the family record of folks who had lived before the flood, and had lived so long that life insurance companies back there, if any there were, enjoyed the rare opportunity of accumulating a magnificent surplus. Into this strangely unscientific world of the first half of the 19th century, these humble men drifted down the Missouri in their flat bottomed boats. They were dressed in deer skin leggings, they wore beaver and coon skin caps, they were tanned by wind and weather and had a consuming thirst They never got mentioned on a page of history. But the names of many seekers after truth, shine on that page because they bought these things for a song or a drink and studied them. Among these odd specimens and pick ups were big fossil bones, fragments of enormous jaws, and many kinds of strange teeth that had been turned to stone.

Three-quarters of a century ago the only people who knew anything about anatomy were the doctors. They had to study it so that they could set broken bones, and one of these specimens, the fragment of an enormous petrified jaw, fell into the hands of Dr. Hiram Prout, of St. Louis. He wrote an article describing it. In 1849 Dr. David Owen and Dr. John wens brought back a collection of fossils from the “bad lands.” They attracted considerable attention. The interest grew and spread like a prairie fire until it lead to the extensive explorations in 1869 and 1870 that were conducted by Dr. F. V. Hayden in the interior of the Rocky Mountain Region.

The writer of this book saw Dr. Hayden in 1870 when he stopped a few days outfitting in Laramie, where her father was pastor of the Presbyterian Church. They had been fellow students in Oberlin College, Ohio. Dr. Hayden was in the prime of life and did not carry an ounce of superfluous flesh. He was as straight as an Indian and there was a far away look in his eyes as if he saw the things that lay away off somewhere. One of her brothers was eleven years old and Dr. Hayden captured his imagination. He would wash dishes, feed horses, oil boots-do anything if they would just let him go. The great scientist listened to the elevenyear-old boy with the patience of a god. He almost made up his mind to take my brother along. But that brother had not yet completed his education. His parents did not think it a wise thing for him to leave school, and the day Dr. Hayden left the little boy sobbed himself to sleep2.

Dr. Hayden did take a boy along who was several years older. The boy was John F. Coulter. He became a great botanist and is now at the head of that department in the University of Chicago. It was this Hayden Survey that discovered the world famous “Bridger Deposits,” in Uinta County.

That was the Homeric age for the American geologist, and this country produced great men who proved equal to the great opportunity. Before them lay the unexplored. Each was a discoverer, who followed knowledge like a sinking star. The contribution that Wyoming made to the sum of human knowledge of the past of our planet has never been equaled by any other section of the globe. The Science of Paleontology, the story of the life of the past, was built up and revealed by a company of men whose names, to the thoughtful mind, shine brighter than the artificial lights of the successful soldier and the politician. They were Hayden, Powell, Dutton, Marsh, Cope, Mack, and many others. These men roughed it They were not all amiable all the time. “The laurels of Miltiades would not suffer then to sleep.” They quarreled among themselves, like Agamemnon and Achiles. But they fought not over Breisis but over Science. They took the Troy of Superstition, leveled the walls of Ignorance and enlarged the empire of knowledge. They laid those foundations upon which American Science is building the structure that we see today.

The Fort Bridger Basin is bisected by the Union Pacific Railroad. Its drainage through many creeks, the largest of which is Black’s Fork, is toward Green River. The Uinta Mountains bound it on the south, an east and west range that meets the Wasatch range, running north and south at right angles. These ranges rise to an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level and some 5,000 feet above the basin. Away from the streams the surface is broken, intersected by washouts and topped by buttes that show the characteristic and complicated erosion of “bad lands.” Without other covering than a scanty growth of desert vegetation this landscape is forbidding.

The vast tableland of barren clay varies in the changing light from soft buff to deep gray. Along its base Cottonwood Creek, all that is left of a once mighty river, winds its discouraged way. Into it, from the west, Sage Creek, also known as Dry Creek, empties a scant supply of water as yellow as the clay through which it flows. The bench is studded with strangeshaped mounds that gruesomely suggest the massive forms of animals buried below here a herd of reclining elephants, and a little farther along a group of alligators, exposing their withered skins to the strong mountain sunlight.

The history of the basin has been carefully worked out. During the closing eras of that immeasurable period in geological history that preceded the Tertiary Age, known as the Cretaceous, and often spoken of as the Age of Reptiles, an intrusion of the sea extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

It was a period of the sinking of the continent and a great series of sedimentary rocks was laid down by the rivers of that time having their sources in the mountains of the west These formations include the Dakota sandstones, the Benton shales, and a long altering series of later deposit Both shales and sandstones have made Wyoming rich in coal and oil. On the delta of the streams of this ancient and sunken land forests grew, with tangled underbrush of ferns, rushes and stocky plants. These forests were afterward converted into the coal of Rock Springs and Almy. Along this coast roamed the reptilian life of a score of a million years ago, those extinct forms of life called Dinosaurs, and reptilian swimmers, also extinct, that preyed upon the teeming life of the semi-tropical sea.

Then came the extended age of the uplift. The whole series of rock laid down in this sea and on its shores was lifted to the level of the ocean and still higher. As they were lifted they were also tilted. The edges were worn off by wind and water and on the eroded surface some 2,000 feet or more of other deposits were laid. These were the Bridger deposits.

The first theory was that this 2,000 feet and more of hard and soft rock had been swept by the currents of mighty rivers into a great lake, there to make this great accumulation in thickness as the land kept on rising and the lake kept filling up. But how could there have been so deep a lake and where did the stuff come from that filled it up? So it was that even as early as 1875 Clarence King, the first head of the Geological Survey, recognized in these rocks volcanic ash material, and it was afterward discovered that these Eocene deposits of some four to six million years ago consisted largely, and in some places exclusively of material that had been emptied over the surface by explosive volcanoes. In a word, the fossil fish of Ham’s Fork of Green River, and the petrified bones of an extinct fauna found in the Bridger badlands are the remains of an ancient life preserved in the ashes and cinders blown from the subterranean depths by volcanic explosions, just as the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum, in historic times, were entombed by the outpouring of Vesuvius.

Grabau, Schuchert and Osborne, our out-standing scientists, have explained this. They draw a landscape picture very different from what it is today-that landscape of from four to six million years ago. The Rocky Mountains did not exist. It was a flat country covered with marshes that eventually formed coal beds. These conditions reached far up into Alaska, where plants grew that cannot now exist an the open north of Old Mexico. This nearly level land was probably covered with vegetation and well forested.3 There can be little doubt that most of the animals lived near the places where they were buried. They were such as would be found in a well-wooded region. The stream channels of the Bridger have been found to contain the remains of sharks, garpikes, crocodiles, and catfish. Three species of snakes have been described. The Bridger rivers swarmed with turtles and there were extensive stretches of dry land, as is shown by fossil land tortoises, some of them nearly three feet in length.4 This low-lying land was rimmed with a circle of active volcanoes, the throats of many being now south of the railroad track. The Rocky Mountains as we know them were rising. It was a period of crustal elevation and during the long ages of their activity these volcanoes emptied out over the Bridger Basin thousands of feet of ejected material, burying from time to time the prehistoric mammals of the basin. There we find the skeletons of creodonts, with sharp teeth and sluggish gait, the ancestors of flesh-eating tribes. Near Grizzly Buttes are the petrified bones of monkeys, anteaters, and rodents. Here are found the bones of the primitive rhinoceros. Here was the evolutionary home of the camels5 There were giant pigs and hoofed animals, part way between an elephant and a rhinoceros ; tapers, dogs and, last but not least, the classic Eohippus, no bigger than a rabbit, to which ancestral form the modern horse traces its verified lineage.6 Nowhere else in all the world has such a find been made.

It is not the purpose of this historian to belittle the discoveries made in other sections of the Rockies and particularly in Wyoming. On Como Bluff, Albany County, Professor Marsh unearthed the bones of gigantic quadrupeds known as Dinosaurs, but they were reptiles and have vanished from the earth. In Big Horn County a reptile bird, with a wing spread of fifteen feet, had left his fossil in the rock, but no bird like that ever flew out of the Mezozoic age. Dr. Samuel Knight, then professor of geology in the University of Wyoming, found the articulated paddle of an immense swimmer, swift and voracious, protruding from the walls of a washout in Niobrara County. But the giant Ichthyosaur never swam out of the Jurassic sea. In Converse County there have been discovered the teeth of tiny mammals still older, brought to the surface by industrious ants, but these little creatures were no larger than a mouse and scurried around in the shadows of the giant reptiles to perish, leaving no descendants now living. On the other hand, it is the verified claim of Uinta County that within her borders, and there alone, there has been unearthed the fossil proof of a varied and progressive type of life back to which along the lines of evolution every species of animal inhabiting the earth today traces its distant pedigree. It is the proud boast of Uinta County that she added this shining page to science.

Who, then, were the first settlers, the earliest immigrants? Barring bivalves and reptiles that can be safely ignored, the forms of life first to come here were those strange, archaic forms that drifted in from that now frozen but then semi-tropical land that hugs the Arctic Circle. Buried in the ash of volcanoes that was poured out from exploding craters rimming the Bridger Basin they left behind them the story of the rise and fall of mammalian life. Then came the American Indian by way of Behring Strait7 He passed from the stage followed by the fur trader, the trapper and the river boatmen who once poled their clumsy craft up the Missouri.

Then came the American scientist. With him came the people who live in Uinta County today.


  1. Osborne’s Age of Mammals, pp. 9 and 10.
  2. O. P. Arnold, attorney of Laramie. Mr. Arnold’s interest in geology and palenotology has led him to a deeper study of the subject than is common to the lay student. The author is indebted to him for the description of “Our First Settlers” and their importance in the scientific world.
  3. Osborne’s “Age of Mammals,” P. 158, 159, 160.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Lull. “Organic Evolution,” P. 633.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Huntington. “The Red Man’s Continent”

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