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What's In A Yellowstone Place Name? A Man Of Infamy, It Turns Out

Jesse Logan Argues In Favor Of Renaming The Gibbon River In America's Oldest National Park

Yellowstone's tranquil Gibbon River, named after an Army officer who carried out a massacre of Nez Perce.  Does Col. John Gibbson deserve to be honored with a landscape feature in America's first national park?
Yellowstone's tranquil Gibbon River, named after an Army officer who carried out a massacre of Nez Perce. Does Col. John Gibbson deserve to be honored with a landscape feature in America's first national park?
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Daniel Duane comments on renaming the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. He wrote, “I could be outraged: They’re messing with my heritage!” 

But, then he goes on to say, “Instead, I’m thrilled. The whole dumb episode is an opportunity for the National Park Service to dump dozens of place names that are the linguistic equivalents of Confederate statues.”

Such place names have long been a thorn in the side of Yellowstone National Park’s original occupants. Some tribes want places like Doane Peak and Hayden Valley renamed.

I read somewhere that many prominent features in Yellowstone were named after white guys that no one remembers. Take, for example, Abiathar Peak, how do you even pronounce it? Unfortunately, some landmarks—mountains, streams, valleys and other features were named after white guys we remember all too well. Such is the case with the Gibbon River and Gibbon Meadow, named after the perpetrator of one of the darkest chapters in the history of interaction between Indigenous people and colonizers in the West. The story of former Civil War soldier turned U.S. Army officer, Col. John Gibbon, is told well in George Black’s book Empire of Shadows

I’m no historian, but from what I understand, the epic flight of the Nez Perce from nearly wholesale slaughter started with the typical treaty violation motivated by European lust for Nez Perce lands. While I don’t morally agree with this, at least I understand gold fever and its resulting greed. What is harder for me to understand is the obsession for punishing the Nez Perce after they left their homeland. Wouldn’t it have been enough for the government to say, “good riddance, now it’s Canada’s problem?”

Unfortunately that was not to happen, and thus began a strategic running battle of epic proportions.

In escaping confinement to a remnant reservation in Oregon, the Nez Perce, with a full complement of women, children, old people, and an amazing number of livestock, out fought and out smarted the best the US Army could throw at them, until eventually arriving in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana.

Army Col. John Gibbon
Army Col. John Gibbon
The Nez Perce were unique in many ways, but two things that set them apart were: (1) an understanding and mastery of animal husbandry. They were renowned breeders of outstanding horses, the famed Appaloosa. (2) As a consequence of the high demand for their horses by European settlers, the Nez Perce developed into savvy tradesmen; bartering, their horses for currency that could be exchanged for essential goods. In other words, they understood capitalism.

What the Nez Perce didn’t understand was the reach of the U.S. Army and the depth to which the Nez Perce had humiliated them in battle. The Army’s thrust for revenge, for saving face, seemed unquenchable.

Traveling up the Bitterroot Valley, the Nez Pierce engaged in the cash economy of selling livestock and buying essential supplies in a more or less amicable fashion, at least no one got killed. Apparently they believed their troubles were behind them. After all, their quarrel was in Oregon, not Montana Territory. And they let their guard down. Ultimately, with devastating consequences.

In the early morning of August 9, 1877 at The Big Hole in Montana, Colonel Gibbon’s command had occupied positions above the sleeping Nez Perce camp. At first light, the massacre began, with Gibbons men shooting indiscriminately into the Indian’s sleeping camp. According to one eyewitness account, “We had orders to fire low into the tepees.” The ensuing slaughter resulted in the death of between 70 and 90 Nez Perce, most of which were noncombatants; women, children, and old people. And in spite this despicable act, the sweetest of streams, the main branch of the Madison River (one of three founding streams of the mighty Missouri) is named the Gibbon River.

Although naming the Gibbon River predates summer 1877, the subsequent actions by Colonel Gibbon were reprehensible enough to forever tarnish the name. In addition to its general repulsiveness, it can legitimately be argued that Gibbon’s action directly precipitated the only loss of life from hostile action ever to have occurred in a national park.

The Nez Perce had demonstrated lack of hostile intent in their peaceful ascent of the Bitterroot Valley, however once in Yellowstone country, the calmer voices of tribal elders were unable to dissuade youthful warriors, who had lost family members at The Big Hole, from venting their frustration on several hapless tourists. Naming a prominent Yellowstone feature after a man whose action directly resulted in loss of life within Yellowstone itself? Reprehensible!

A grizzly bear lounges along the flanks of the Gibbon River.
A grizzly bear lounges along the flanks of the Gibbon River.
Some names are at once disrespectful, offensive, and in this case, downright immoral. You be the judge for Gibbon River but many other less objectionable names in Yellowstone already have been changed to accommodate evolving sensibilities. These include local names like China Gardens from Chinaman’s Garden, to official map names like Squaw Lake to Indian Pond, or even the neutral Buffalo Ford to Nez Perce Ford. Yet, the Gibbon River and Gibbon Meadow remain.

In my opinion, the name needs to be changed not only because it disrespects the Nez Perce people, but because of what is says about us.  What kind of society would continue to honor such a man as Gibbon in such a place as Yellowstone? As renaming the Ahwahnee illustrates, it is not a big deal to change a name in a national park, and for a lot better reason than that which resulted in the “vapid choice” of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.


Jesse Logan
About Jesse Logan

Jesse Logan is literally a man of the woods. Much of his former career as a civil servant was spent studying why forests of the American West live and die. He amassed an impressive body of work publishing papers as a researcher. He is also revered, even among millennial-aged telemark skiers, for his ability to hold his own off-piste with wayfarers a third his age.
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