Detail of Bridger/De Smet map “Chart of the Head of Yellow Stone”
History | Sacred Wonderland

The Earliest Map of Yellowstone

Detail of Bridger/De Smet map “Chart of the Head of Yellow Stone”
Detail of Bridger/De Smet map “Chart of the Head of Yellow Stone” (De Smetiana Maps collection in the Jesuit Archives, Central United States, St. Louis, Missouri)

What may be the earliest detailed map of the area now encompassed by Yellowstone National Park came from the Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet (see my earlier post on Fr. De Smet as a religious tourist to Wyoming). Although De Smet never saw Yellowstone for himself, he knew of the place from his friend Jim Bridger, the renowned explorer, fur trapper, and notorious storyteller. Apparently, Bridger had drawn a map for Fr. De Smet detailing the area of the present-day national park, perhaps the earliest cartographic representation of Yellowstone.

Jim Bridger
Jim Bridger (image from South Dakota State Historical Society–State Archives [probably from a magazine or another publication])
Fr. Pierre-Jean de Smet
Fr. Pierre-Jean de Smet (image from Indian and White in the Northwest, or, A History of Catholicity in Montana, by L.B. Palladino (Baltimore: J. Murphy, 1894); image in the Mallet Collection of the Emmanuel d’Alzon Library at Assumption College)

The map, now in the De Smetiana Maps collection in the Jesuit Archives, St. Louis, Missouri (a high-resolution reproduction can be viewed online at http://jesuitarchives.org/de-smetiana-maps/), carries the title “Chart of the Head of Yellow Stone,” but it has no indication of who made it. The description on the Jesuit Archives site claims that Jim Bridger drew the map, but this is highly unlikely as Bridger never learned to write, so the beautifully scripted map labels are certainly not from his hand. Historian Aubrey Haines attributes the map to Fr. De Smet (The Yellowstone Story: A History of Our First National Park, Volume One. Rev. ed., p. 85); Haines surmises the missionary drew it based on information from Bridger when they met at an Indian Council gathering near Fort Laramie in 1851. Likely the map was a collaboration between the mountain man and his Black Robe friend.

Yellowstone shows up only vaguely in earlier maps. Haines mentions, for instance, an earlier “Map of the Rocky Mountains” by Washington Hood of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers that shows Yellowstone Lake near a “Burnt Hole”; that same map also indicates “Boiling Spring White Sulphur Banks” in the vicinity of Mammoth Hot Springs. Haines did not include his source for this map; but a recently sold 1838 map by Washington Hood titled “Map of the United States Territory of Oregon West of the Rocky Mountains” shows the Yellowstone River originating in “L. Eustis,” with “Hot Spr./Brimstone” nearby. An image of the map is available on the Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc. website at http://www.raremaps.com/gallery/detail/39320/Map_of_the_United_States_Territory_of_Oregon_West_of_the_Rocky_Mountains/Hood.html. ♨

Washington Hood, “Map of the United States Territory of Oregon West of the Rocky Mountains”
Washington Hood, “Map of the United States Territory of Oregon West of the Rocky Mountains” (image from Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.)

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