Who Were The Culvers Of Yellowstone?

Mattie Culver's Grave Yellowstone Park

Mattie Culver’s Grave. Photo by Mike Cline.

This is the story of a family who lived and worked in Yellowstone National Park in the 1880’s when the majority of our country was just beginning to discover the wonders of the Park.

The members of this family are Ellery Channing Culver, his wife, Mattie Shipley Culver and their only child, a daughter named Theda. Two of the members of this family would eventually leave the National Park but one would remain forever amidst the beauty and wonder of the Park.

Ellery was born in Shoreham, Addison County, Vermont on April 28, 1842. Martha Jane Shipley was born September 18, 1856 in Middlesex County Massachusetts. Theda was born on June 22, 1887 in the area around Billings, Montana.

So, how did they come to be in Yellowstone? Martha Jane, also known as Mattie, and Ellery, also referred to as E. C. were married April 6, 1886. Ellery served in the Civil War for 4 years with the 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. After his discharge, he and Mattie moved to Virginia City, Montana. By 1871 E. C. was well established in that town. Ten years later, by 1881, they had moved to the area around Billings where he was a businessman.

It was during their time in Billings that their only child, a daughter they named Theda was born. Mattie, E. C. and Theda spent the summers of 1887 and 1888 at the Firehole Hotel in Yellowstone. Mattie unfortunately suffered with tuberculosis and E.C. had hopes that the mountain air in Yellowstone would improve her condition. With that thought in mind, he became the caretaker of the hotel and the family spent the winters of 1888 and 1889 in Yellowstone. Unfortunately, hopes that the climate would improve Mattie’s condition were not to be realized. On March 2, 1889, at the age of 30 years, she succumbed to her illness.

Even though it was early March when Mattie passed away, the heavy snows and frozen ground made it impossible for a proper grave to be prepared for her. It is reported that some of the soldiers who were stationed at Fountain Soldier Station took two empty barrels, placed them end-to-end and placed Mattie’s body inside those barrels which were kept outside until the ground softened enough for a grave to be prepared.

That spring, Adelaide Child, wife of the president of the Yellowstone Park Improvement arranged a proper burial for Mattie. She also had the gravesite fenced and, it is assumed, that she was responsible for the headstone being erected. Today you can visit the grave of Mattie Culver. Considering all the harsh winters it has endured, the headstone remains in remarkable condition. Mattie is the one member of the Culver family who will never leave Yellowstone.

So – what happened to the other two members of the Culver family? Theda, who was approximately 2 years old when her mother died, was sent to Spokane to live with relatives. Research shows that Theda passed away on July 2, 1906 at the age of 19. She is buried in Fairmount Memorial Park in Spokane, Washington.

As for Ellery, in 1892 he was appointed US Court Commissioner for Wyoming and for the next 2 years he served in that capacity and was headquartered at Mammoth. He was in charge of the Norris Lunch Station and then in 1893 he went to work for the YPTCo and served as the train agent. He rode the rails from Livingston the Gardiner. He also worked for the YPA giving promotional lectures. In 1897 he became the Postmaster in Gardiner, Montana and also ran the Post Office Store there. In 1904 he retired due to poor health but later that same year he returned to work as the train runner.

Firehole Hotel 1885, Photographer Unknown

Firehole Hotel 1885, Photographer Unknown

In 1908 health issues forced him to retire once again. In 1909 he moved to the Sawtelle National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in California where he passed away on April 17, 1922. He is buried at the National Soldiers Home Cemetary.

And there you have the story of one family and their association with Yellowstone National Park. Not a very happy story to be sure. One would have hoped that Mattie would have recovered from her illness and lived to raise her daughter – but that was not to be the case.

Theda left Yellowstone at around the age of two, never to return to the Park. Ellery remained in the general vicinity of Yellowstone for many years after Mattie’s death. Mattie remains the sole member of the family who never left Yellowstone.


Today you can visit her grave located near the Nez Perce Picnic Area. The gravesite is well kept and often visitors find fresh flowers on the grave. Artifacts from the old hotel have also been found at her gravesite. I do not know if the National Park Service has someone who tends the grave or if concerned visitors do it.

Nevertheless, Mattie S. Culver will forever remain part of Yellowstone National Park.