The story of Jackson Hole begins over ten million years ago as the valley floor uplifted west of a major fault line and dropped to its east creating the majestic Teton Range. The Teton fault remains dynamic even today.
Prior to 1800 there were no written records about Jackson Hole. Reports from the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1803-1806) began to place the west into the imaginations of the general populace. After that time, non-indigenous people, mostly American, began to move into Jackson Hole as the Oregon Territory was explored further.
Mountain men left the first accounts of the region, from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone, as they moved through the area trapping beaver and other animals. Theirs was mostly a solitary life until they gathered in other regions for the Rendezvous where the season’s pelts were traded for goods that would sustain them for the upcoming year. News was exchanged here and one could sign on with a trapping expedition for the next season. Jackson Hole is named for David E. Jackson, an early partner in what became the famous Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
The fur trade declined around 1840 as beaver hats fell out of fashion. There is virtually nothing about the valley in the historical record again until 1860. Between this time and 1900 the region was explored, pioneers began to homestead the valley, and American Indians continued to use the valley. Because of their extensive knowledge of the geography of the west, many trappers, including Jim Bridger and Richard “Beaver Dick” Leigh, led U. S. government expeditions charged with exploring the west. Others rode with wagon trains bringing emigrant settlers westward to Oregon and California.
With the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, people could acquire land at the cost of improving it. While the Jackson Hole area was settled later than many parts of the west, its initial development, too, occurred under the Homestead Act. John Holland and John and Millie Carns first settled the valley. Soon many bachelors and several families also proved up homesteads, descendants who still call the valley home today. A sizable influx of Mormon settlers came to Jackson in the late 19th century.
The inhospitable climate with its very limited growing season soon caused some homesteaders to sell out. Others purchased these available lands to consolidate them into sizeable ranches. They grew hay and 90-day oats and raised beef cattle as cash crops. They fed their families off of wild game and produce gardens on their ranches.
Often life was marginal and settlers barely subsisted. Attempts to mine precious metals in the valley were not successful. The remoteness of Jackson Hole gave cover to fringe elements including poachers, elk tuskers (who killed elk for their two ivory teeth leaving the meat to waste), and horse thieves. Outfitting and guiding became a means of supplementing family income in the valley. Big game hunting and sport fishing became important attractions for the valley, ones that survive until this day. The latter brought the first presidential visitor, Chester A. Arthur, to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park.
Life was not easy in the area. As wealthy eastern visitors traveled to the valley, some ranchers determined that wrangling dudes was easier and more profitable than wrangling cows. In the early 20th century, economic downturns further encouraged the development of dude ranches. The Bar BC, the White Grass, and the Triangle X dude ranches became nationally known. Tourism began to become a significant business in the valley. Who would not want to spend their summers hiking, riding, and fishing beneath the Grand Teton?
At the time that cattle and dude ranching were evolving, the town of Jackson grew as well. Typical of frontier towns, it had mercantile stores, a post office, a school, cafes, saloons, the rodeo, churches, hotels, a playhouse, and a jail. Jackson, in 1920, elected one of the first all-woman town councils in the United States -dubbed the “petticoat government” by the New York Times.
The event that had, and continues to have, the most profound influence on the unique history of the region was the formation of Grand Teton National Park and the designation of other federal lands, including Yellowstone National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the National Elk Refuge. The expansion of Grand Teton National Park created incredible controversy that was played out on a national stage. It expanded into where communities existed, threatening to close land needed for the economic livelihood of residents. It forever changed the character and landscape of the valley. The creation of public lands impacted the economic and social future of the valley; fostered in part the decline of dude ranching; spawned a different type of tourism; encroached significantly on the grazing lands of cattle ranchers; and challenged the National Park Service to negotiate for one of the most unusual and spectacular parks in the system.
The current history of the valley continues to develop. Jackson Hole is primarily a tourism and recreation based community. Tourists from all over the world, numbering about 3 million annually, visit the area for the scenery, the wildlife, the recreational opportunities, the geographic features, and the romance of the American West. With the favorable Wyoming tax laws, many amenities, and infrastructure, Jackson is increasingly becoming a mecca for vacation home owners, retirees, and tele-commuters. Real Estate, construction, banking, financial services and technology are subsequently growing economic sectors in Teton County.
As growth continues, conservation of open space is considered a high priority – for conservationists and developers alike. With 97% of the land in Teton County being public, growth is limited. Those who come to Jackson Hole, permanently or part-time, know the value of the natural beauty of the area and the opportunities that result. The result is that as growth occurs, the community is very mindful of the sense of Jackson Hole’s past and its values.