Nearly naked and afraid: Truman Everts lost in Yellowstone

In August 1870, a 54-year-old assessor from the Montana Territory named Truman Everts eagerly joined an expedition into a region of uncharted beauty, nestled away in the northwest corner of the Wyoming Territory. The objective of the 19 men, who made up the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition, along with 40 horses, was to map the area surrounding the Yellowstone River.

Everts’ excitement soon turned to terror a few days into the journey. While he was part of the group that named many of the physical features of what is now Yellowstone National Park, he is most remembered for the unfortunate circumstances and the surprising conclusion to his tale.

During a trek through a rather dense patch of the territory, Everts, not known for his outdoorsman skills and the recipient of a bad case of nearsightedness, became detached from his group. A naturally confident fellow, Everts was able to make a fire and laid down for the evening on a bed of pine needles. His plan was to rise early in the morning and, as he wrote, be with the party by breakfast.

The following day, matters became worse when Everts dismounted his steed to look for traces of the group. The next thing he knew, the horse was racing off, probably spooked by something. Everts had not only lost his mode of transportation, but also his blankets, guns, matches, food, fishing gear, and water. He was left with only two butcher knives, an opera glass, and the clothing on his back. To make matters worse, September weather in Wyoming can be volatile, with snowstorms beginning to whip through the region. Difficult circumstances for the seasoned outdoorsman, certain death for a lifelong government bureaucrat like Truman Everts.

Days passed and Everts began to starve. By this point, the two butcher knives were lost. The cold wind that had blown through was freezing his malnourished and improperly-clothed body. He had no fire. He was stalked by a mountain lion, only saved when heavy snow began to blanket the area.

His first bite of food in days came while he was hunkering down under a snow-covered tree. A bird, struggling with the dense snow, landed near Everts. Possibly affected by the cold temperatures, the bird was unable to escape the clutches of Everts, who plucked its feathers and ate it raw.

Everts continued to wander, eventually arriving at a spot that would allow his fortunes to turn around. In the middle of a snowstorm, shivering and delusional, Everts found a boiling hot spring near Heart Lake. He lay down besides, his body warmed by the geothermal wonder. He was able to spend seven days there, gaining functionality and surviving on edible thistle now known as Everts thistle. This period would not be without incident, however. On the third night, Everts rolled over in his sleep, becoming too close to a spring. His hip was scalded, an injury that would cause his pain for duration of his misadventure.

The primary expedition group had begun for Everts almost immediately, but to no avail. Two men nearly rode up to Heart Lake about the time Everts was lying near the spring, but turned around before searching the area. A crew did come across another geyser, one whose reliability made the name “Old Faithful” the moniker of choice for the group.

Everts was able to fashion a knife out of his belt buckle and learned he could make fire from his opera glass. He also made a fish hook from a button.

By this time, Everts’ mental faculties were affected by his hunger. His mind played tricks on him, as two pelicans presented themselves as two sailboats. Old friends appeared to him, offering advice on the best route. His body parts began talking to him, including his stomach, who complained of the thistle he was being fed. And the bumbling outdoorsman continued to get in his own way, such as the time he fell into his campfire while sleeping and severely burned his hand. Or the time he made a pine shelter which caught fire and burned off much of his hair, while losing all of his remaining possessions. Or when he ate raw minnows from a stream and suffered food poisoning.

While the hallucinations were often troubling, it was the image of an old friend that sent Everts on a journey along the Yellowstone River, where his fortunes would ultimately turn around.

His feet affected by frostbite and his body covered in burns, Everts was forced to crawl. He weighed no more than 50 pounds and his death seemed imminent.

In mid-October, 37 days after Everts disappeared, two men travelling along the Yellowstone River saw what they thought was a wounded bear on its belly. Preparing to shoot it, they realized it was a person, and possibly the lost Everts. They shouted out to him, asking if the man was Everts.

“Yes, all that’s left of him,” Everts responded.

The rescuers took Everts to Bozeman, where he recuperated and wrote an account of his adventure. By accident, his travails led to the discovery (by white men) of many of Yellowstone’s greatest natural wonders, both by his search party and by Everts himself. These accounts were, in part, the impetus of the federal government’s establishment of the first national park at Yellowstone. And for his role, Everts was offered the job as the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Unlike today, where Everts would have made millions from a book and possibly a movie deal, with the option for a reality show as the result of his ordeal, he still had to think about money. He turned down the superintendent role, citing its lack of pay.

Amazingly, given life expectancy at that time and his arduous experience, Everts lived another 30 years, dying in obscurity in Maryland, little known for his role in establishing the nation’s park service.

  1. Ferry, D. (2016, August 23). The Hapless Explorer Who Helped Create the National Park Service. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from https://www.outsideonline.com/2104231/hapless-explorer-who-helped-create-national-park-system
  2. Lost in Yellowstone, the Misadventures of Truman Everts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://www.yellowstonepark.com/truman-everts/
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