Please pass the thistle …

Everts Thistle The plant to the left is commonly known as “Everts Thistle,”named after Truman Everts, a low-level bureaucrat who used its roots to survive during a 37-day ordeal that lasted from September 9 to October 15, 1870. The plant was and is abundant in Yellowstone National Park.

This post is not part of the normal fare of this blog. I have long known the survival tale of Truman Everts, but never the details. I have long known that cirsium scariosum, or Elk Thistle, was renamed in honor of this man.  On our way to Yellowstone last month, my wife read the Everts tale to our grandson and me from the book by Dave Walter, Montana Campfire Tales, and I was enraptured. It is an heroic tale, but Everts did not go on to become a governor or senator, to write a book or to even become famous. He was just a man who in the face of 37 days of insults to his body and mind, survived.

I’ll recount the tale, hitting the highlights. If you are further interested, many accounts of the journey are around including the one linked above.

Truman Everts was IRS Assessor for Montana Territory, appointed to that position by Abraham Lincoln. He resided at the territorial capital, Virginia City. He was removed from his post and replaced due to a patronage maneuver by Ulyssis S. Grant. Finding himself unemployed and out west, and hearing of the tales of Yellowstone and its natural wonders – towering waterfalls, deep and colorful canyons, geysers and steam and mud pots – he joined what is now known as the “Washburn Expedition,” named after the then Surveyor General of the territory.

The list of names of the civilian participants is a Who’s Who of aristocrats in the untamed land, a businessmen, legislator, banker, lawyer and future diplomat, along with a military escort and two (former?) slaves, Nute and Johnny. Everts, a bureaucrat, was not much of an outdoors man, badly nearsighted. There were nineteen men in total. They set off on the journey on August 17, yes, I know, double-eights.

Things went well, the men were inspired by the natural wonders they were seeing. But on September 9, Everts, on horseback, got separated from the group. Thus began his calamity of mistakes coupled with bad luck. Rather than staying put and waiting to be found or to see a signal, Everts, on horseback at that time, began to move. He came upon a pack horse, but abandoned it even is it probably knew the way back to camp. He got confused, and headed southwest into the Snake River Drainage even as he thought he was heading northwest towards an arm of Yellowstone Lake.



(Above is a modern map of Yellowstone. I have placed red stars at the places I think to be where he first got lost (South Arm of Yellowstone Lake), and where he was rescued (“The Cut,” in Lamar Valley.) This appears to be about fifty miles as the crow flies. He wandered south, southwest and west over sixty miles on his journey.)

Others in the group realized he was missing that night, fired shots and initiated a search, too no avail. The following day, due to his poor vision, Everts dismounted and mounted frequently looking for tracks. At one point, overlooking a vista, he failed to hitch his horse, and it fled. With it went his blankets, gun, pistols, fishing tackle, matches – everything but a couple of knives and a small opera glass, which would later save his life.

He tried to follow the horse, and by then was hopelessly lost. The weather at night was below freezing. He was so far away from his group that they would never find him, though never giving up hope. Northeast of Heart Lake, he discovered the thistle, and found its roots palatable. He had food supply.

He occasionally in those first days encountered a loud shrill scream, and for this part I think either he is embellishing, or that his guardian, to appear later, was overseeing his survival. Thinking the scream human in origin, he answered it a dozen times, each time drawing closer. Once he realized he was flirting with a mountain lion in close range, he climbed a tree, losing both his knives in the process. If you think a tree not a good hiding place, I agree. Everts finally resorted to silence, the cat did not climb up to engage him, and went away.

Once down, he encountered a storm that would last five days, rain, sleet and snow. He huddled in the cavern of an uprooted tree, resting on pine boughs and eating thistle. He had no fire. After two such days, he set out and entered a geyser basin north of Heart Lake (under the words “Grant Village” on the map), at the base of (what is now known as) Sheridan Mountain. His feet were frostbitten by this time. He found two hot springs close together and rested between them using a bower of pine branches, enjoying the heat and even doing some cooking in the boiling waters (thistles). He stayed there for seven days until September 19. Upon leaving he said he was “thoroughly parboiled.”

At one point he spotted a rescuer on Heart Lake, thought it to be a man in a canoe, but it was really a pelican. He was despondent. But he nearly was rescued. Men on horseback looking for him were close by, but the storm had obliterated his trail. They thought he was on horseback.*  Unfortunately, one of the horses fell through thin crust into a boiling cauldron, scalding its ankles. Were it not for rising steam from geysers, they would have seen Everts’ lair, but the had to return with the horse to camp to nurse its wounds.

One disaster befell another. One night, sleeping fitfully, he broke through the crust, just like the horse, and scalded his right thigh. By that time his frostbitten feet were festering. But he had to keep moving to survive. He realized, however, that his opera glass might, when turned backwards towards the sun, provide enough heat to spark a fire. On seeing smoke arise from dry wood using the device, he realized he had food and fire, and decided to leave Heart Lake. His destination was West Thumb, where the main group planned on camping. He gave up after one day, unknowingly eluding the last of the rescuers, returning to Heart Lake and the warmth of a fire.

Everts was losing weight and stamina, fifteen days had past. He cut sandals from his worn-out boots with a knife fashioned from his belt buckle. He made his way ten miles over a continental divide to West Thumb, finding an abandoned camp and no food. He tried to follow the party down the Madison River, but lost the trail. He chose a forested mountainside to camp, and made a fire. He inadvertently started a small forest fire, badly burning his left hand and singeing his hair on escape. He had set the entire mountainside on fire, but was so distant from his party that no one noticed.

Everts turned around and east towards Yellowstone Lake, determined to make his way to the place where the party had entered the “wonderland” of Yellowstone. His physical stamina was extremely low, his mental abilities suffered as well. He questioned his decision to head north, and had an hallucination (“which many of my friends have mislabeled insanity” he later wrote).  He was confronted with an apparition, that of an old friend he held in high regard. Said the apparition,

“Travel [to the north] as fast and as far as possible. It is your only chance.”

Everts argued with his old friend, describing his condition as nearly hopeless.

“Your powers of endurance will carry you through. I will accompany you. Put your trust in heaven. Help yourself, and God will help you.”

Everts pushed north, using his daughter Bessie as inspiration, his repeated words to himself “I will not perish in the wilderness!” By this time he had been lost for four weeks, his weight was under eighty pounds, his clothing in tatters. He lost sense of time, and as starving people sometimes recount, felt no hunger, little pain. He talked to his body parts. He broke his spectacles, losing the better part of his ability to distinguish the landscape. He passed the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, finding them not at all enchanting.

Another snowstorm! He sought refuge by climbing down in what we today call the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to protect himself from the harsh elements. He then climbed out and forged forward, north, at one point losing his only remaining survival tool, his opera glass. He backtracked five miles and found it.

He finally made his way to a place I know well, called “The Cut,” a favorite nordic skiing trail when we lived in Bozeman. He was on his 37th day.

“Yellowstone Jack” Baronett and George Pritchett were searching for Everts in response to a $600 reward posted by Judge Robert Lawrence of Helena. Said Baronett,

“I saw something that dragged itself along the ground. I decided that some hunter had wounded bear and that it was trying to make its way up to the mountains. … I followed on. … I had trailed it for a mile or more, my dog began to growl and looking across to a small canyon to the mountainside beyond, I saw a black object upon the ground. … I crossed over to where he was. … for my life I could not tell what it was … I went up close to the object; it was making a low groaning noise, crawling upon its knees and elbows … then it suddenly occurred to me … I spoke his name.

The two men began to slowly bring Everts back to some semblance of health, but his intestines were blocked by the thistle diet. He was in excruciating pain. They carried him on horseback down to their cabin on Turkey Pen Creek.  Another mountain man stopped by and offered Everts a pint of hot bear grease, told him to drink it down. It delivered. By the next day, Everts had passed the thistle and was at the beginning of recovery.

The rest is history, as they say, save one small detail … Everts moved back to the East Coast, reunited with his daughter and remarried (he was a widow). This was at age 65. At age 75 he fathered a son.

OK, it’s an incredible tale, one of the indomitable will to survive, an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances enduring untold trial and misfortunes, encountering an apparition that led him to safety. I believe the entire story …

… except that last part, you know, fathering a son at age 75. Hmmmmm … ah well. As I like to say of the so-called “alpha male” in wolf packs, he is the one who is allowed to imagine he is the only one mating with the females.

*I would guess that Everts’ horse became food for grizzlies, wolves and cougars, though I wonder that someone has not in the ensuing years stumbled on the saddle and other non-edible accessories he had with him.

2 thoughts on “Please pass the thistle …

  1. Mark I respect the fact you believe this story. But cynicism reads it like a fictional movie script custom made for Peter Sellers or Ben Stiller playing the role of Trueman Efforts oops sorry Truman Everts. Reward money gives rise to fictional story as well since insurance scams have long history amongst aristocrats as I learned from POM & MMG and I would imagine $600 at that time was horns of plenty. One naturally wonders if reward was ever paid out and if so it would only seem right to share it with Truman for surviving this bad luck odyssey since his vanishing act into a vortex of sophomoric calamities birthed the reward. It is also easy for me however having lived and know of others having lived such truth is stranger than fiction to imagine all of this really taking place regardless of ones name and regardless of reward. And the most difficult part of living a story like this isn’t the recovery involved but actually getting anyone even Ripley to believe it happened the way you say it did or even at all. Far as your alpha male in wolf packs theory and he being the one who is allowed to imagine he is the only one mating with the females. I liken that mindset to an adolescent bedwetter who believes he didn’t soil the bed but rather his involuntary bladder did.


    1. As proof or even evidence is lacking, I have chosen to believe this tale. It is harmless. The man was a low level bureaucrat and did not profit thereby. There are no numeric indicators. I have gotten lost in the deep woods myself, going from comfort to calamity in a very short period, only surviving by luck and courage I did not know I possessed. Boneheaded stupidity was part of it. There’s a romantic angle as well … I have hiked, camped and skied these places. It is rough country, very easy before trails and markers to get lost, to at one moment be with companions, another isolated and alone. It takes only half an hour of walking in crowded Yellowstone to be completely isolated and alone.


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