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Yellowstone History: Heart Lake

Heart Lake, in the loosest sense possible, does resemble a heart, although not an anatomical one.

Situated at the base of Mount Sheridan in the Red Mountains range, Heart is a popular backcountry site, especially for anglers. It is one of the larger bodies of water in Yellowstone National Park, along with neighbors Lewis and Shoshone Lakes. And like its neighbors, Heart Lake is a gem, a pristine alpine lake.

Belying its calm waters and pleasing name, however, is a spirited debate over the proper name and its origins.

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As mentioned, most associate the name “Heart” with the lake’s shape, which you can see in a topo map above. Hiram Martin Chittenden, writing in his history of Yellowstone National Park, published in 1895 and revised over the years—most substantively in 1915—wrote of the name’s origins gave an alternate explanation:

Heart Lake was named prior to 1870 for an old hunter by the name of Hart Hunney, who in early times plied his trade in this vicinity. He was possibly one of [General Benjamin Louis Eulalie de] Bonneville’s men, for he seems to have known the General well and to have been familiar with his operations. He was killed by a war party of Crows in 1852.

The spelling, Heart, dates from the expeditions of 1871. The notion that the name arose from the shape of the lake seems to have originated with Captain Barlow. It has generally been accepted, although there is really no similarity between the form of the lake and that of a heart. Lewis Lake is the only heart-shaped lake in that locality.

In his 1871 “Reconnaissance of the Yellowstone River,” Barlow does mention Heart Lake and says the name stems from the lake’s shape. However, earlier in Chittenden’s history, in a chapter describing forays into Parkland before the official expeditions between 1869-1871, Chittenden ascribes the discovery of Heart Lake to a party out of Montana:

In 1866, a party under one George Huston left Virginia City, Montana, and ascended the Madison River to the geyser basins. Thence they crossed to the Yellowstone at Mud Geyser, ascended the river to the lake, passed completely around the later, discovering Heart Lake on their way, and then descended the Yellowstone by the Falls and Canyon, to Emigrant Gulch. Here they were interviewed by a newspaper reporter, and an account of their travels was published in the Omaha Herald. They had seen about all there was to be seen in the whole region.

Chittenden makes no mention of whether the Huston party had another name for the lake, or whether they merely passed by it.

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At any rate, Chittenden was convinced the official name was wrong, that it should have been “Hart,” not “Heart.” According to Lee H. Whittlesey, writing in Yellowstone Place Names, a former friend (though Whittlesey calls him a crony) of Hunney’s, Richard “Beaver Dick” Leigh, convinced Chittenden that Barlow had erred in naming the lake Heart. Chittenden event went so far as to write to Arnold Hague of the U.S. Geological Survey and petition that the name be switched from Heart to Hart.

Hague refused. Whittlesey adds that, beyond the recollections of Chittenden and “Beaver Dick” Leigh, no one knew anything of Hart Hunney, who apparently left no records.

It is believed that Truman C. Everts, a member of the 1870 Washburn Expedition who became lost for 37 days in Yellowstone, camped on the shores of Heart Lake and called it “Bessie” for his daughter.

Heart Lake is also a treasure for its geyser basin, which, like Shoshone’s, is undeveloped and rarely seen by people—besides day hikers, campers, and anglers, of course.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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