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Yellowstone was named for the Yellowstone River, but the name of the river did not arise from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as the historian Chittenden had thought. (photo by William Henry Jackson)
History of Yellowstone as a Place Name
by James S. Macdonald Jr.

History of Yellowstone Place Names
Yellowstone History Guide
The Magic of Yellowstone

Use of the name "Yellowstone" originated with the Minnetaree Indians' expression for the Yellowstone River. They called it Mi tse a-da-zi, or Yellow Rock River (Haines, i, 4). Both the French trappers, who called it "Roche Jaune" or "Pierre Jaune", and the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805 came into contact with the Minnetaree(a branch of the Siouan Hidatsas), and they called the Yellowstone River by that name (Haines, i, 4).

Controversy in this discussion comes when reflecting on why the Minnetaree called the Yellowstone Mi tse a-da-zi. According to Chittenden, the only places along the Yellowstone that are indicative of Yellowstones are: 1)the yellowish sandstone bluffs far downstream along the Yellowstone; 2)the bright yellow formations along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone within current day Yellowstone National Park (Chittenden 7). Chittenden argues that the Indians must have gotten the name from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone because the formations are far more definitely yellow than the bluffs (Chittenden 7). Aubrey Haines disputes these findings, and I accept his argument. According to Haines, the Minnetaree originated in an area around Devil's Lake, North Dakota (Haines, i, 4). Eventually, they migrated towards the mouth of the Yellowstone where they integrated with the Mandan Indians and became agriculturalists (Haines, i, 4). So, the Minnetaree lived 300 miles from the Grand Canyon and were agriculturalists, meaning that they did not wander far from their land. Furthermore, the Indians living upstream, the Crow, called the river E-chee-dick-karsh-ah-shay, or Elk River (Haines, i, 4). So, Haines, from the evidence, concludes that the name "Yellowstone" originated from the sandstone bluffs on the lower Yellowstone.

The French name, "Roche Jaune" obtained popularity amongst fur trappers, French and non-French (Chittenden 3). Chittenden argues that the Frenchman De la Verendrye may have been the first to have called it "Roche Jaune" when he explored the area in the later eighteenth century (Chittenden 5). The Englishman David Thompson made the first use of the English "Yellow Stone" in an 1897 notation (Chittenden 4). Lewis and Clark, following a general policy of anglonization, after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 from Napoleon, also called the river "Yellow Stone" after encountering the Minnataree in 1805 (Chittenden 3). However, the French name died hard. Variations in literature and maps of the first quarter of the nineteenth century included "Rejone," "Rejhone," "Rochejone," "Rochejohn," and "Rhochejhone" (Chittenden 4). Chittenden also says the name "Roche Jaune" lived on amongst trappers long after the last time it appeared in literature in 1817 (Chittenden 4). Eventually, "Yellowstone" became the name of choice for the river.

As for the park, the The Act of Dedication does not give Yellowstone National Park its name. Apparently, it owes its official name to correspondences between first Superintendant Nathaniel Pitt Langford and the Secretary of the Interior (Haines, i, 10).