The Yellowstone Tragedy

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

By Charles M. Skinner, 1896

Although the Indians feared the geyser basins of the upper Yellowstone country, believing the hissing and thundering to be voices of evil spirits, they regarded the mountains at the head of the river as the crest of the world, and who so gained their summits could see the happy hunting-grounds below, brightened with the homes of the blessed. They loved this land in which their fathers had hunted, and when they were driven back from the settlements the Crows took refuge in what is now Yellowstone Park.

Even here the soldiers pursued them, intent on avenging acts that the red men had committed while suffering under the sting of tyranny and wrong. A mere remnant of the fugitive band gathered at the head of that mighty rift in the earth known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — a remnant that had succeeded in escaping the bullets of the soldiery, — and with Spartan courage, they resolved to die rather than be taken and carried away to pine in a distant prison.

They built a raft and laced it on the river at the foot of the upper fall, and for a few days, they enjoyed the plenty and peace that were their privilege in former times. A short-lived peace, however, for one morning they are aroused by the crack of rifles — the troops are upon them.

Boarding their raft they thrust it toward the middle of the stream, perhaps with the idea of gaining the opposite shore, but, if such is their intent, it is thwarted by the rapidity of the current. A few among them have guns, that they discharge with slight effect at the troops, who stand wondering on the shore. The soldiers forbear to fire, and watch, with something like dread, the descent of the raft as it passes into the current, and, with many a turn and pitch, whirls on faster and faster. The death-song rises triumphantly above the lash of the waves and that distant but awful booming that is to be heard in the canon. Every red man has his face turned toward the foe with a look of defiance, and the tones of the death-chant have in them something of mockery no less than hate and vaunting.

Yellowstone Falls, Wyoming

Yellowstone Falls, Wyoming

The raft is now between the jaws of rock that yawn so hungrily. Beyond and below are vast walls, shelving toward the floor of the gulf a thousand feet beneath — their brilliant colors shining in the sun of the morning that sheds as peaceful light on wood and hill as if there were no such thing as brother hunting brother in this free land of ours. The raft is galloping through the foam like a racehorse, and, hardened as the soldiers are, they cannot repress a shudder as they see the fate that the savages have chosen for themselves. Now the brink is reached. The raft tips toward the gulf, and with a cry of triumph the red men are launched over the cataract, into the bellowing chasm, where the mists weep forever on the rocks and mosses.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2019.

Also See: 

Historical Accounts of American History

Native American Mythology & Legends

Wyoming – The Cowboy State

Wyoming Photo Galleries

About the Author:  Charles M. Skinner (1852-1907) authored the complete nine-volume set of Myths and Legends of Our Own Land in 1896.  This tale is excerpted from these excellent works, which are now in the public domain.