History in Focus: Naming of Yampa River has interesting history
April 12, 2018
The history and culture of Northwest Colorado can be discovered in the names of our cities, places and geographic features. In our early history, the Yampa River was simultaneously named the Bear River. By the early 20th century, the name of the river had become the focus of early efforts to forge an attractive identity and promote settlement and growth in the region.
Local folklore, possibly tied to early fur trapping forays into the valley, holds that the Ute Indian word "Yampa" was the English equivalent of "Bear' and was the start of the dual-named river. However, the Yampa is a common plant with an edible root, akin to a carrot or onion, and part of the diet of local Utes.
In 1844, while on a mapping expedition of the west, John C. Fremont worked his way around and north of the Yampa drainage and created some of the first maps of area. His work is stamped "Yampah" on our ribbon of water, but his early map did not firmly finalize the name of the river.
Soon, maps appeared labeling the river as Yampa, Bear or both. With help from Dan Davidson and Paul Knowles, at the Museum of Northwest Colorado, we can track this lack of clarity. In 1855, Colton's map, titled "The Territories of Utah and New Mexico," split the difference and labeled it, "Yampa or Bear River." In 1866, the Map of the Colorado Territory decided it was the Bear River. Then, in 1879, the General Land Office State of Colorado Map reversed course and titled it, "Yampah River." Finally, the 1889 Topographical Map of the state of Colorado labeled the river west of our future city, "Yampa" and to the east, it was titled "Bear." The exact location where the river changed names was not clear.
The confusion persisted as gold seekers, ranchers, sheep herders, and homesteaders filled the nooks and crannies of the valley. Soon, newspapers began pushing for a final decision on the river's name. In the spirit of democracy, the Yampa Leader, in May of 1907, ran ads asking, "Yampa or Bear? What Shall Routt County's Principal River be called?" Subscribers were urged to mail in their ballots.
By the early 20th century, the valley was gearing up for the imminent arrival of the railroad and a population boom. To separate the valley from the rest of the west, the Jan. 8, 1915, Routt County Sentinel argued, "'Yampa'" is a distinctive title, not duplicated anywhere else in the country, while there are dozens of Bear Rivers and Bear Creeks in every western state …" According to local news reports, the Colorado Geographical Society finally and officially adopted "Yampa" as the river's name in 1915.
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But old habits were hard to break. On April 19, 1918, the Routt County Sentinel chastised those still using the name "Bear River."
"This beautiful stream … should always be referred to as the Yampa, a distinctive name which has real meaning, given it long before the coming of the white man."
Today, our river is firmly identified as the Yampa, but vestiges of the second name can still be seen around the county. How our river finally became known as the Yampa demonstrates the power of names and their influence on our identity and view of the past.
"Yampa" ties us to a time period before the arrival of white men, when the river flowed to the rhythms of the spring run-off. Today, the Yampa is still considered one of the last "free-flowing" rivers left in the West, a river the old Utes and even the ancient Fremont would still recognize.