Restless Optimism, Western Migration, and Mineral Development in and Around the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

Patrick Pierson


Americans are a restless lot.  We are a people who seemingly are never content.  We’ve pushed and prodded at the edges of civilized comfort, pushing the “frontier” ever westward over the 242 years of our national identity.   Similarly, Americans have been characterized as optimist. Our history is chocked full of American icons pioneering new lands, opportunities, and technologies as we seek personnel success, wealth, and freedoms.   This movement, resulted in Horace Greely’s calls to “Go West Young Man, Go West” resulting in a national movement and sense of divine governance termed Manifest Destiny.

Traveled and explored first by the trappers and traders, then followed in close proximity by prospectors and miners, the back waters of what would become America were visited by those of little to no financial means in an attempt to wrestle a living from what was termed “the wilderness”.  The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1849 energized a national migration in hopes of a better tomorrow.  Although Montana was not immediately on the travel log agenda, the good people of nineteenth century America would eventually find their way to the land of the Big Sky and the area which would eventually become known as the Greater Yellowstone Area. And there can be but little doubt of the critical role which the American prospector/miner played in establishing bastions of civilization around the Greater Yellowstone Area.

The Geologic Setting

The land which would eventually be designated, in 1989, as the 41st state consists of highly variable geology and geography.  The central and western portions of Montana are characterized as mountainous.  Geologic forces resulting from plate tectonics, mountain building, folding and faulting and thrusting served to push up or pull down on what would otherwise be flat lying monotonous terrain thereby exposing rocks that until the Laramide Orogeny had been comfortably residing far below the earth’s surface.

The resultant mountainous terrain, combined with a lack of vailing vegetation, enabled prospectors to observe mineralized occurrences with relative ease.  Even before portions of the Treasure State were opened to settlement and occupation, prospectors and miners seeking fame and fortune emigrated into these unsettled corners of the state looking for mineral wealth.  The first recorded gold strike took place in the early 1860’s along the lonely shores of Bear Creek near what would become the town of Jardine located in southern Park County Montana, immediately north of present Yellowstone National Park.  As rang true with most initial mineral discoveries, the desired mineral commodity was placer gold.


Patrick Pierson

Author Pat Pierson is a soon to be retired Forest Service Geologist who presently serves as both the Forest Geologist and Minerals and Geology Program Manager for the Custer Gallatin National Forest stationed in Billings. He has resided in Carbon County, along the northern face of the Beartooth Mountains since 1979. Pat attended the University of Montana from 1979 to 1982 perusing degrees in both Forest Resource Management and Geology. During his Forest Service career, he has served as a wildland firefighter, a forester, a range administrator, a developed recreation host and interpreter, and an environmental analysis coordinator for the Beartooth District. Pat is best characterized as a multi-dimensional outdoorsy guy with a focus and emphasis on fly fishing and upland bird hunting. When not involved in Forest Service workings, it is more than likely he’s on the Stillwater River or traipsing the Beartooth foothills following his bird dog.