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Henry’s Fork History
No historical account of Henry’s Fork is complete without an acknowledgement of the proud Native American tribes that called this Greater Yellowstone region home for centuries. While much of this history remains obscured by time, we know that the Shoshone, Crow and Blackfeet at various times raised families, hunted, fished, and seasonally trekked through the Henry’s Fork watershed. Of all of these tribes, the Shoshone appear to have had the closest ties to the region in the time period immediately preceding the first white explorers.
The Henry’s Fork derives its name from Andrew Henry (1775-1833). Henry was an early fur trader and partner in the Missouri Fur Company. Together with Pierre Menard, beginning in St Louis Missouri, they led an exploration of the West in 1809—five years after Lewis and Clark. Henry’s group was guided on their journey into present day Montana by John Colter the famed Lewis and Clark expedition member and trapper.
In July of 1810, Andrew Henry left the area of Three Forks, Montana and followed the Madison River upstream to cross the Continental Divide and the area we know today as Reynold’s Pass. Before crossing the pass, Crow Indians stole 30 of the horses from Henry’s group, a reminder of the untamed nature of the country and danger that accompanied the new explorers and trespassers on Indian lands. From the pass, Henry’s group crossed a body of water and sagebrush flat we know today as Henry’s Lake Flat before following the Henry Fork to a landing point about five miles south of where St. Anthony stands today.
At this river site, the group constructed an encampment they named Fort Henry. A monument marking the site exists today. After overwintering at Fort Henry, Andrew Henry returned to his home in Missouri and immediately engaged in the war of 1812. Ten years later, together with William Ashley he led another fur trade mission up the Missouri River to the Montana region and returned to St Louis for good in the spring of 1824.
In August of 1877, a portion of the Nez Perce tribe, under the leadership of Chief Joseph and other tribal leaders, crossed the Island Park caldera. Their epic flight to fend off General Howard and his U.S. government troops remains one of the legendary military battlefield maneuvers of all time. Where the convergence of Camas and Spring Creek come together you will find Camas meadow. The Nez Perce camped in this meadow on the evening of August 18. The following evening they camped on Sheridan Creek, which flows into the north end of Island Park Reservoir. At this point, Howard and the U.S. troops were only 20 miles behind the fleeing Nez Perce.
In one of many daring moves, Nez Perce warriors in the early morning hours of August 19 were able to sneak into General Howard’s camp and take three horses and approximately 200 mules. An Indian ambush was set up halfway between the two encampments. The result being four dead soldiers and enough disarray that Howard was forced to go to Montana to get fresh animals before they could continue their pursuit. This skilled maneuver gave the Nez Perce a renewed two day time cushion as they continued their near perfect escape to Canada.
The first known permanent settler in the Henry’s Fork watershed was Richard Leigh who settled in 1860 in one of the noted rendezvous sites known as Pierre’s Hole (Teton Valley). He was an Englishman who went by the name “Beaver Dick” Leigh. He guided the famed Hayden party, following their survey trip of what would become Yellowstone National Park, throughout the Island Park and Henry’s Lake area. Leigh married one of the daughters of Chief Washakie, a Wind River Shoshone. Jenny and their four children all died of smallpox. Leigh Lake and Jenny Lake in Teton National Park are named after Beaver Dick and his wife.
Leigh later married a Bannock Shoshone, Susan Tadpole, and settled at the confluence of the Teton and Henry’s Fork. He passed away in 1899.
The now famous river section known as Railroad Ranch was in fact a prolific cattle ranch in the early twentieth century. Its origin began in 1890 when the Island Park Land and Cattle Company was formed and land was procured south and west of Box Canyon. Several of these early founders were also partners in the Oregon Short Line Railroad. Thus the name Railroad Ranch was born.
The owners of the Oregon Short Line Railroad eventually sold their holdings to Edward Henry Harriman. In 1908 Harriman and the owner of American Smelter, Solomon Guggenheim, acquired the rights to the Railroad Ranch. Both of these men were significant shareholders in the Union Pacific Railroad. Later that same year they added the Bob Osborne ranch that lies south of Osborne Bridge.
Edward Harriman never did visit the ranch. His sons Aerill (a New York governor) and Roland Harriman were intimately involved with the property. Aerill’s primary interest was recreational due to his political career and business pursuits in the East. Roland, in contrast, was the overseer of the ranching operation, and lucky for the many generations to come, an avid fly fisherman. Both of which continued until his death.
The Harriman family began a transfer of the ranch property in 1961 to the State of Idaho. The total gift amounted to 22 square miles of land and the operating ranch itself. Following the guidelines set out by Roland, the Harriman family ensured covenants were in place to protect waterfowl, regulate fishing, and ensure the ranching way of life. The grand gift of Harriman State Park was opened on July 17, 1982.
Early Mormon Settlements and Agriculture
As a continuation of Brigham Young’s great western colonization of the late 1800s, early, predominantly Mormon pioneers began homesteading settlements in the lower Henry’s Fork region around 1880. These settlements slowly expanded north along the river’s corridor over the next forty to sixty years. As these pioneer settlements spread, so too did an industrious way of agricultural life that persists to this day passing from one generation to the next. Clearing the land and engineering impressive corridors of irrigation canals eventually turned the rich, high desert soil of Easter Idaho into one of the unrivaled crop production regions in the world.
Today’s Agricultural Community
The relationship between numerous irrigation cooperatives/companies, government wildlife agencies, and the Henry’s Fork Foundation remains the keystone to ensuring a healthy Henry’s Fork watershed. The collaborative efforts achieved over the past 20 years continue to demonstrate a model of cooperation that is a role model for other areas of the country where competing interests on a watershed exist. Local business, family farms, generational legacy, recreation and conservation are all standing together to preserve and protect a most precious resource: the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.
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