Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

Oct 25, 2023, 2:55 PM | Updated: Nov 9, 2023, 1:35 pm

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Photo: Bear Lake Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau

This article about the history of Bear Lake is sponsored by the Bear Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau

Thousands of people flock to Bear Lake every summer to recreate and spend time with their family and friends. But Bear Lake is more than just a popular vacation destination in Northern Utah. The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people populate its shores.

Geological and geographic features

Bear Lake measures 109 square miles at 5,924 feet above sea level, located on the Idaho-Utah border. It sits between the northeast side of the Wasatch Range and the east side of the Bear River Mountains. The Bear Lake basin formed from fault subsidence that continues to deepen the lake up to this day.

Bear Lake is commonly known as the “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its naturally turquoise waters. The color comes from the refraction of calcium carbonate (limestone) deposits suspended in the lake. 

Native Americans in the Bear Lake Valley

For over 12,000 years, Native American tribes, especially the Northwestern band of the Shoshone Nation, but also including the Ute and Bannock tribes, inhabited the region surrounding the lake. They were nomadic peoples, moving seasonally between the Bear Lake and Salt Lake Valleys. 

These people gathered plants to store for the winter and caught fish and waterfowl near the lake and its surrounding wetlands. They also hunted for game such as rabbits, deer, bison, and antelope. They called the lake “Sweet Lake” for its clear water. 

Fur trappers and rendezvous

The first record of Europeans seeing the lake was in 1818 when French-Canadian trappers who worked for the North West Company followed the Bear River upstream to the lake. Among them was Donald McKenzie, who named the lake “Black Bear Lake” for its heavy population of black bears. 

In the summer of 1827 and 1828, fur trappers and other explorers hosted the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous near modern-day Laketown. This event attracted thousands of trappers, American Indians, and explorers for a soiree of drinking, dancing, and trading. Mountain men, including Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger, traded goods and supplies and reveled in amusements for several weeks. 

Mormon settlement of Bear Lake

The first Mormon settlement in Bear Lake was in present-day Paris, Idaho, in 1863, led by Charles C. Rich. At the time, they made an agreement with the Shoshone tribe that left most of the Utah portion of the valley in their possession. The Paris Tabernacle and the surrounding historic district in Paris have many of the historic buildings from this era. 

Paris, Idaho city shot historical downtown in the fall

Photo: Bear Lake Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau

Montpelier, Idaho, was soon settled shortly after in 1864. The railroad extension contributed to the town’s growth, and by 1900, it was the largest city in the Bear Lake region. The Montpelier Bank drew the attention of Butch Cassidy, one of the West’s most notorious criminals, who robbed $7,000 in 1896. This was the first bank heist of the Wild Bunch Gang, which gained notoriety for their activities. The bank still stands today and was restored as the Butch Cassidy Museum. 

Mormons initially strove for peaceful relations with the Shoshone Nation and established the small towns of St. Charles, Montpelier, Ovid, Bennington, and Fish Haven. These towns were all named after cities in Vermont, where Brigham Young was born. The area became to be known as “Mormon Valley.” 

Not everything was peaceful between the Mormons and the Shoshone nation, however. Tensions grew as the number of game animals the Shoshone people relied on diminished. President Grant issued an executive order in 1875 establishing a 100-square-mile reservation in Southeastern Idaho for the mixed tribes of Shoshone, Bannock, and Sheapeater Indians. Over time, Mormons gradually moved south to settle Garden City, Picklelville, and Laketown along the lake shore. 

Bear Lake folklore

The Bear Lake Monster is a popular legend in the region. In most tellings, people report that the monster resembles a serpent with spikes on its spine and legs that move swiftly. The monster supposedly only occasionally makes its presence known to humans. 

The first recorded instance of the monster appeared in an 1868 article in the Deseret News, though Native Americans had oral tales about the creature long before then. The legend became widely disputed, though locals claimed that witness testimonies came from enough independent sources and circumstances to deem it trustworthy. Articles appeared in several news articles about the monster. The last reported sighting was in 2002 from Bear Lake business owner Brian Hirschi.

Today, the Bear Lake Monster takes on a playful jest in Bear Lake events and celebrations. For example, the Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual event celebrating folklore by hosting competitions where people design cardboard boats like the monster. During Raspberry Days, people participate in parade floats and contests that honor the legendary beast. 

Midcentury to the present day

The ’60s and ’70s saw an explosion of private development on the Lakota and Ideal beaches. People saw Bear Lake as a great place for family vacations, and recreational boating became more popular. Motels and cabins started populating the shores. These developments included the Blue Water (now known as Sun Outdoors) and Sweetwater (now Ideal Beach) near Garden City. 

In 1962, the State of Utah purchased the land on the far southeast to operate Bear Lake State Park at Rendezvous Beach – the site of the infamous 19th-century Rendezvous mentioned above. The state also operates the marina on the lake’s west side. 

How to experience the history of Bear Lake during your next visit

We can’t possibly capture the whole history of Bear Lake in one article, so we encourage you to seek out more history during your next visit. Several historic monuments in the Bear Lake Valley allow you to step back in time and learn more about how the area has changed over the years.

signs of the Oregon historic byway

Photo: Bear Lake Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau

On your next trip, carve out some time to visit the Butch Cassidy Museum in Montpelier, ID, the Paris Historic District, or the American Fossil Fish Dig Quarry. Further, the Oregon Trail Bear Lake Scenic Byway and Pioneer Historic Byway offers a glimpse into what it was like for the early days of the pioneers. 

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This is a sponsored article brought to you by KSL News Radio in conjunction with the advertiser. The advertiser paid a fee to promote this article and may have influenced or authored the content. The views expressed in this article are those of the advertiser and do not necessarily reflect those of KSL News Radio, its parent company, or its staff.

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