Those of us with adventurous spirits are forever drawn to the unknown. We are compelled by every fiber of our beings to seek out new experiences in far away and sometimes hostile lands.
While these experiences bring fulfillment to the well-prepared, there are a thousand different things that can go wrong in the wilderness. Most who frequently journey into the far-off and unspoiled corners of the backcountry have a story or two to tell of trial and tribulation. I myself have hunkered down in fierce hail storms, suffered equipment malfunctions, and have become lost more than I care to admit. Perhaps the most notable and terrifying mishap to have occurred to me in the wild was the time I awoke to a black bear licking my face.
I can, however, always take some degree of solace in the fact that, no matter how challenging these experiences of mine have been, they amount to little when compared to the frightful hardships, harrowing struggles, and abject hell that Truman Everts endured when he ventured into the vast and unspoiled wilderness of what is now present-day Yellowstone National Park.
During the mid-1800s, tales of the Yellowstone area and its wondrous geothermal features had been proclaimed by a number of trappers and explorers of the West, but these stories were disregarded and thought of as fantasies by most. This unforgiving wilderness was still one of the last uncharted corners of the contiguous United States, but demand for our new nation to once and for all confirm or disprove these accounts had grown. The first official attempt to properly chart the Yellowstone Plateau was assumed by Captain William F. Raynolds in the spring of 1860, but he and his troops were halted by a heavy snowstorm. The following spring, the Civil War had erupted, and with it, any further efforts by the Federal Government to explore the area were put on hold indefinitely. Finally in 1869, as the country was recovering from the war, the Folsom-Cook-Peterson expedition became the first group of European descent to formally document some of the long-rumored spectacles of the Yellowstone, including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Tower Fall, and the geothermal features above the caldera like Mud Volcano and the geysers that line the Firehole River. Not long after their return, an account of their travels was published in Western Monthly magazine, which quickly reignited the public interest in further exploration of the area.
One man who was eager to be among the first to see these rumored wonders was Truman Everts. Everts was a 54-year-old former Assessor of Internal Revenue for the territory of Montana, a post he had been appointed to by former president Abraham Lincoln. Seeking a grand adventure into the Yellowstone, he joined the 19 man party of the Washburn-Langford-Dome expedition, which was to be the second official exploration of the Yellowstone region. Setting out from Bozeman and escorted by members of the United States Calvary, the expedition departed Fort Ellis near present-day Bozeman, MT on August 22nd en route to the Yellowstone River by way of the Bozeman Pass. Their eventual goal would be to make it as far South as Yellowstone Lake.
The party successfully made their way by horseback deep into the Yellowstone. They explored the mud pots, ascended Mt Washburn, and gazed upon the incomparable Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Upon seeing the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, one group member wrote “Both of these cataracts deserve to be ranked among the great waterfalls of the continent. No adequate standard of comparison between such objects, either in beauty or grandeur can well be obtained”. Despite falling ill and being left behind for a few days along the way, Everts, along with the rest of the Washburn-Langford-Dome expedition, had finally arrived a mile from the South arm of Yellowstone Lake, where they set up camp near Grouse Creek, 18 days after they had left Bozeman.
Twenty-three days into the journey, as the party was exploring near Yellowstone Lake, the nearsighted Everts went missing. However, this had not been an uncommon occurrence for Truman, who, according to diaries from the expedition, had already been separated multiple times. At first, Everts was unconcerned by this separation, writing that “As separations like this had frequently occurred. It gave me no alarm, and I rode on, fully confident of soon rejoining the company, or of finding their camp… I rode on in the direction I supposed had been taken until darkness overtook me in the dense forest. I selected a spot for comfortable repose, picketed my horse, built a fire, and went to sleep.” Nathaniel P. Langford, one of the trips leaders was similarly unconcerned, as he wrote in his journal that “One of our comrades (the Hon. Truman C. Everts, late U.S. Assessor of Montana) had failed to come up with the rest of the company; but as this was a common circumstance, we gave it little heed until the lateness of the hour convinced us he had lost his way. We increased our fire and fired our guns, as signals; but all to no purpose.” But the expectation of both men did not come to pass. This time, the Hon. Truman C. Everts stayed very much lost.
The next day, Everts awoke. Convinced he would be able to rejoin his party on the beach of Yellowstone Lake, he recommenced his search. However, it didn’t take long for the accident-prone Everts to commit his first grave mistake, which would ultimately be a custom of his in the horrible series of misadventures to come. When he hopped off his horse to better navigate a challenging section of terrain, he neglected to harness it. Much to his dismay, the untethered horse promptly bolted away into the vast wilderness, carrying with it the vast majority of the supplies Everts would need to survive. “I turned around just in time to see him disappearing at full speed among the trees… My blankets, gun, pistols, fishing tackle, matches—everything, except the clothing on my person, a couple of knives, and a small opera-glass were attached to the saddle.” In an act of futility, he spent the first half of the next day searching for his astray horse, posting notes to his comrades along the way in the hopes they would discover them.
Finally, without his provisions, and with the emerging realization that he would be spending yet another night alone in the wilderness, the full gravity of this situation was becoming apparent to him. “I realized I was lost. Then came a crushing sense of destitution. No food, no fire; no means to procure either; alone in an unexplored wilderness, one hundred and fifty miles from the nearest human abode, surrounded by wild beasts, and famishing with hunger. It was no time for despondency.” Meanwhile, search parties from the expedition frantically combed the wilderness for the lost Everts. For days they battled the harsh elements of Yellowstone in hopes of rescuing him but to no avail. One search party came incredibly close to reaching Everts as he was laying near the shore of Heart Lake, huddled around nearby some thermal features in an attempt to stay warm. However, they were forced to turn around just before they reached him after one of their horses broke through the crust of a hot spring. Finally, after nearly exhausting all their supplies, an unexpected snowstorm on September 13th compelled them to call off the search entirely. They began heading West to Virginia City along the Madison River, leaving at their campsite notes and what little supplies they could spare in the hopes he would find these caches, but he never did.
The following weeks found the ill-fated and hapless Everts suffering a seemingly endless cascade of dreadful misfortunes and horrendous calamities. He lost both of his knives. During a multi-day storm, he was left drenched and freezing cold with his feet frostbitten. While sleeping, he burned both his hands in his campfire and went on to become horribly scalded on his hip after breaking through the crust of a hot spring. The desperate Everts even spent a night high up in a tree, attempting to save himself from a mountain lion growling and circling the base of the tree below.
But, for all the horrible misfortune Everts suffered in the wilderness, the unique landscape of Yellowstone and his own ingenuity did, on occasion, offer him small comforts. After four days of eating nothing, he learned that he could eat Thistle Root for some meager, but desperately needed sustenance. He discovered that he could magnify the midday sun with his opera-glass to start fires. He managed to fashion a makeshift knife out of his belt buckle and a fishing hook from a pin on his coat, although he would ultimately lose both in a forest fire that he himself started. And, perhaps most famously, he learned to find respite from the brutal cold by seeking out the park’s thermal features, much like the Bison of Yellowstone had done for millennia. During one storm, he used a thermal basin to keep warm for a whole week by clinging near the warm steam spewing from deep underground. “I was enveloped in a perpetual steam bath”, he wrote. “At first this was barely preferable to the storm, but I soon became accustomed to it, and before I left, though thoroughly parboiled, actually enjoyed it.”
Catastrophe after catastrophe and injury after injury befell him, yet somehow, Everts persevered. Kept alive by the warmth of geothermal features and a diet consisting primarily of thistle root, the emaciated Everts told himself, “I will not perish in this wilderness”. He continued on, desperately trying to drag his half-alive body North out of the Plateau.
When news of Everts’ ordeal reached friends in Helena, they posted a 600 dollar reward for his safe return. Prompted by what amounts to roughly 20,000 dollars in today’s money, a pair of trackers named George A. Prichett and Jack Baronett set out to locate Everts. On October 16th, near the present-day Northern boundary of the park by Crescent Hill, more than 50 miles from where Everts had been lost, the pair came across what they believed to be a wounded bear crawling on the rocks. Upon closer inspection, they realized that it was the bedraggled and emaciated former assessor himself. Crawling on his mangled hands and knees and weighing only 50 lbs, Everts was frost-bitten, burned, delirious, and on the verge of death. When one of the trappers asked if he was Mr. Everts, he replied “Yes, all that is left of him.” One of the men hurriedly rushed 75 miles back to Ft Ellis to summon help, while the other stayed behind, trying to nurse Everts back to help. In the end, after all these two men did to save his life, Truman Everts refused to pay them. He maintained that he would have found his way out by himself. Jack Baronett later said of Everts that he “wished he had let the son-of-a-gun roam.”
Miraculously, Everts went on to make a full recovery. He returned to his home in Helena, MT, and moved back East to Maryland, where he died of pneumonia in 1901 at the ripe old age of 85. He went on to write a book that recalled his ordeal titled “Thirty-Seven Days of Peril”. This story was published in a popular periodical of the day called “Scribner’s Monthly” in November of 1871, and somewhat ironically, this article would go on to help generate publicity and support for the movement to designate Yellowstone as the world’s first National Park. This isn’t the only way in which the legacy of Evert’s unfortunate ordeal is memorialized, either. There’s a mountain near Mammoth that bears his name, and the Thistle Root he so desperately depended on is often referred to as “Evert’s Thistle” to this day. When the National Park was first established in 1872, Everts was offered the job of Yellowstone’s first superintendent, but he turned down the position due to a lack of salary.
The book Everts published in Scribner’s Monthly concludes with the below passage…
“In the course of events the time is not far distant when the wonders of the Yellowstone will be made accessible to all lovers of sublimity, grandeur, and novelty in natural scenery, and its majestic waters become the abode of civilization and refinement; and when that arrives, I hope, in a happier mood and under more auspicious circumstances, to revisit scenes fraught for me with such thrilling interest; to ramble along the glowing beach of Bessie Lake; to sit down amid the hot springs under the shadow of Mount Everts; to thread unscared the many forests, retrace the dreary journey to the Madison Range, and with enraptured fancy gaze upon the mingled glories and terrors of the great falls and marvelous canon, and to enjoy, in happy contrast with the trials they recall, their power to delight, elevate, and overwhelm the mind with wondrous and majestic beauty.”
For those looking to join on a Backcountry Journeys tour of Yellowstone, rest assured, your time in the park will be a much more comfortable one than Truman’s.
John Steitz is an avid backpacker and landscape photographer, of over 15 years, from the great state of Minnesota. With a decade of experience as a college instructor, he came to Backcountry Journeys to share both his photographic talents and experience in higher education in order to help others improve their photography skills and capture nature’s beauty. John is excited to bring his infectious enthusiasm for the wild and his engaging and personable teaching style into the lands he dearly loves. In addition to helping folks improve their photography, he hopes to inspire others through his work to become better stewards of our planet. As a fierce defender of public lands and an advocate of the Leave No Trace principles, John is especially passionate about helping to foster a culture of responsible and thoughtful recreation in the outdoors. If you wish to see a sampling of John’s work, you can visit johnsteitzphotography.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Innovations in Wildlife Photography: Thinking of the Craft Beyond a Telephoto Lens
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, April 27th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)