Home to some of the most stunning alpine scenery in the United States, the territory in and around Grand Teton National Park also has a colorful human history. The first Anglo-American to see the saw-edged Teton peaks is believed to be John Colter. After traveling with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, Colter left the expedition during its return trip down the Missouri in 1807 to join two fur trappers headed back into the wilderness. He spent the next three years wandering through the northern Rocky Mountains, eventually finding his way into the valley at the base of the Tetons, which would later be called Jackson Hole.
Other adventurers followed in Colter’s footsteps, including the French-Canadian trappers who gave the mountain range the bawdy name of “Grand Tetons,” meaning “big breasts” in French. For decades trappers, outlaws, traders, and Indians passed through Jackson Hole, but it was not until 1887 that settlers established the first permanent habitation. The high northern valley with its short growing season was ill suited to farming, but the early settlers found it ideal for grazing cattle.
Tourists started coming to Jackson Hole not long after the first cattle ranches. Some of the ranchers supplemented their income by catering to “dudes,” eastern tenderfoots yearning to experience a little slice of the Old West in the shadow of the stunning Tetons. The tourists began to raise the first concerns about preserving the natural beauty of the region. The vast acres of Yellowstone Park, America’s first national park founded in 1872, were just north of Jackson Hole. Surely, they asked, the spectacular Grand Tetons deserved similar protection.
In 1916, Horace M. Albright, the director of the National Park Service, was the first to seriously suggest that the region be incorporated into Yellowstone. The ranchers and businesses catering to tourists, however, strongly resisted the suggestion that they be pushed off their lands to make a “museum” of the Old West for eastern tourists.
Finally, after more than a decade of political maneuvering, Grand Teton National Park was created in 1929. As a concession to the ranchers and tourist operators, the park only encompassed the mountains and a narrow strip at their base. Jackson Hole itself was excluded from the park and designated merely as a scenic preserve. Albright, though, had persuaded the wealthy John D. Rockefeller to begin buying up land in the Jackson Hole area for possible future incorporation into the park. This semisecret, private means of enlarging the park inspired further resentment among the residents, and some complained that it was a typical example of how “eastern money interests” were dictating the future of the West.
By the late 1940s, however, local opposition to the inclusion of the Rockefeller lands in the park had diminished, in part because of the growing economic importance of tourism. In 1949, Rockefeller donated his land holdings in Jackson Hole to the federal government that then incorporated them into the national park. Today, Grand Teton National Park encompasses 309,993 acres. Working ranches still exist in Jackson Hole, but the local economy is increasingly dependent on services provided to tourists and the wealthy owners of vacation homes.