Sawtooth National Recreation Area


These jagged mountains and gentle valleys shape human experiences and character today, just as they did in times past. Here's a place where you can discover remnants of frontier lifestyles and become part of western heritage stitched together through time and sewn into the fabric of this land.

Early Inhabitants
Prehistoric hunters visited the Redfish Lake area 9,500 years ago, using the Redfish Rockshelter as cover while they hunted elk, deer, antelope, mammoth and bison.

Native Americans later fished for salmon and quarried basalt for stone tools at other sites in the Sawtooth Valley. This group of the Northern Shoshoni, called "Tukudeka" (Tookoo-dee-ka) chose to live in isolation in the grassy meadows and high mountain valleys of the Salmon River country. Mountain sheep constituted a large part of their diet, and "Tukudeka" literally means "eaters of white meat." Early explorers and trappers referred to these native people as "Sheepeaters."

The Trappers
As the nineteenth century dawned the United States and England were locked in a struggle for control of the Pacific Northwest, with each side establishing trading posts and pushing the search for beaver furs into remote areas.

Alexander Ross, of the British-owned Hudson Bay Company, led the first party of trappers-explorers into what is now the Sawtooth NRA. On September 18, 1824, after leading his party into the Wood River drainage, he stood on the divide, later called Galena Summit, overlooking Sawtooth Valley.

By 1840, the beaver stock had been depleted, and trappers were leaving the western mountains. The Americans and British settled their territorial dispute in 1849, and for a time there was nothing to bring settlers into the wild valleys of Sawtooth country.

The event that brought the most abrupt change to Northern Shoshoni/Sheepeater country was the discovery of gold in central Idaho in 1860. By the winter of 1861-62, gold seekers were pouring into the Idaho mountains by the thousands.

In July of 1864, a group of miners led by Captain John Stanley arrived in the Valley Creek area near present-day Stanley, finding gold and staking claims.

They named the valley "Stanley Basin," but isolation, supply shortages and awareness of nearby Shoshoni discouraged the party enough to make them leave.

But others soon followed, and half a million dollars of gold was taken from the gravels of the Stanley Mining District in the 1870s.

The supply center, established by the miners, eventually became the City of Stanley.

Chinese Contribution
The burden of mine construction fell squarely on the backs of the thousands of Chinese who endlessly labored here. Their dedication, loyalty and hard work ensured that the mines would be profitable. Hailey once boasted the largest Chinese population in Idaho, and part of Hailey is still known as "China Garden."

The Sheepeater War
In 1879, the killing of five Chinese miners at Loon Creek was blamed on the Shoshoni/Sheepeaters, even though no reliable evidence linking the murders was found. The U.S. Cavalry was called in to round up these 11 renegades, beginning the Sheepeater War, which ended with the capture of 51 men, women, and children, who were resettled on the Fort Hall Reservation.

Today, members of the Shoshoni-Bannock Tribe continue to live in southern Idaho. A visit to the Fort Hall Reservation is a great way to learn about the history and heritage of Idaho's native peoples.

Silver Boom Towns
Levi Smiley discovered silver ore in the lower Sawtooth Valley in 1878. This discovery proved to be extraordinarily rich, and with capital from developers in San Francisco and New York, mines began operating. The Valley's first towns, Sawtooth City and Vienna, were established.

The ore soon played itself out and its boom towns rapidly began to disappear. Before the mill closed in 1887, Vienna had about 200 buildings, including three general stores, fourteen saloons, two livery stables, six restaurants and a variety of Chinese owned and operated businesses.

Traces of these towns are almost completely gone now. Snowloads, fire and vandalism have claimed the buildings and vegetation obscures their remnants. All that remains of historic Sawtooth City is part of one log cabin, held up by surrounding tree trunks.

In the Wood River Valley, the towns of Galena and Boulder City lived similarly short, but active lives. Only Atlanta, a gold-mining town just south of today's Sawtooth Wilderness, lived a longer and more prosperous life. It still has a number of year-round residents.

Basque Sheepherding
In 1887, sheepherding came to Sawtooth country, replacing mining as the new boom economy. By 1907, the area north of Ketchum supported 364,000 sheep, tended mostly by Basque sheepherders. After the establishment of the Sawtooth National Forest, the number of sheep was gradually reduced. In 1993 there were more than 12,800 sheep grazing in the Sawtooth Forest.

Homesteading began in the Sawtooth Valley at Stanley Basin in 1901 and continued until the 1920s. Family ranches were established, though some were abandoned because both the land and climate were harsh and unforgiving.

Federal Legislation
The establishment of the National Forest System in the early 1900's and of the Sawtooth National Forest in 1905, created a new ethic of forest management. In 1972 Congress established the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions