Unlike Yellowstone, Grand Teton can’t boast of being the nation’s first park and a model for parks the world over. This smaller, southern neighbor was created as the result of a much more convoluted process that spanned 50 years.
The first sign of human habitation in the Grand Teton region dates back 12,000 years. Among the tribes who hunted here in the warmer seasons were the Blackfeet, Crow, Gros Ventre, and Shoshone, who came over the mountains from the Great Basin to the west. They spent summers here hunting and raising crops, before heading to warmer climes for the winter.
Trappers and explorers, who first arrived in the valley in the early 1800s, were equally distressed by the harsh winters and short growing seasons, which made Jackson Hole a marginal place for farming and ranching. Among these early visitors were artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson, whose images awoke the country to the Tetons’ grandeur. Early homesteaders quickly realized that their best hope was to market the unspoiled beauty of the area, which they began doing in earnest as early as a century ago.
The danger of haphazard development soon became apparent. There was a dance hall at Jenny Lake, hot dog stands along the roads, and buildings going up on prime habitat. In the 1920s, after some discussion about how the Grand Teton area might be protected, Yellowstone park officials and conservationists went to Congress. Led by local dude ranchers and Yellowstone superintendent Horace Albright, the group was able to protect only the mountains and foothills, leaving out Jackson Lake and the valley; Wyoming’s congressional delegation—and many locals—were vehemently opposed to enclosing the valley within park boundaries.
Then, in 1927, something called the Snake River Land Company started buying ranches and homesteads at the base of the Tetons. The company turned out to be a front for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., one of the richest men in the world, working in cahoots with the conservationists. He planned to give the land to the federal government and keep a few choice parcels for himself. But Congress wouldn’t have it, and Rockefeller made noises about selling the land, about 35,000 acres, to the highest bidder. In the 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Jackson Hole National Monument out of Forest Service lands east of the Snake River. That paved the way for Rockefeller’s donation, and in 1950, Grand Teton National Park was expanded to its present form.
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