Yellowstone National Park History: The Birth of National Park Systems

The United States was forever changed by the creation of our National Parks. Here’s what happened leading up to the formation of the first national park in the entire world.


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The journey to Yellowstone becoming the nation’s first national park was set into motion by the sands of time more than 11,000 years ago when humans first traveled these lands. The remaining glaciers left behind from the ending ice age cut and carved valleys deep into the rocky area that would become Yellowstone, creating rich, fertile valleys and grassland- the perfect environment for wild game animals (and the hunters that follow them).

The Greater Yellowstone area converges on the cultures of many different indigenous cultures; The Great Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau people all have roots that are intricately connected in the land that became Yellowstone. Ancestors to what became the Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene Nex, Shoshone, and Perce tribes traveled through the already established hunting and gathering trails. For thousands of years, before the Yellowstone area became a national park, it was a space where people thrived. Communities hunted, fished, gathered plants, quarried obsidian, and raised their families. Tribes visited geysers to conduct ceremonies and healing rituals. They engaged in trade. Some tribes gathered obsidian- used to field dress the bison they hunted.

Life fundamentally changed for the indigenous tribes in the early 1700s as tribes acquired horses. This transformed life for people living in the area, allowing tribes to travel faster and go further distances to hunt the bison and other game on the plains.

European American Exploration Begins

Western exploration and settlement truly began in the late 1700s. Fur traders pushed North and West, following a major tributary of the Missouri River, the Yellowstone, seeking Native Americans to trade with. These traders referred to the river by its French name, “Roche Jaune” as they logged the details of their travels. There isn’t any evidence that the traders traveling the area before 1800 observed any of the geysers or other hydro-thermic activity in the Yellowstone region, but its community thought that they were aware of these features from the natives they traded with.

Lewis and Clark were sent by President Thomas Jefferson in a two-year-long westward expedition to explore the newly acquired lands that were a part of the Louisiana Purchase. The expedition lasted from 1804-1806, but surprisingly, bypassed the Yellowstone region.

This was thought to be a grave mistake by one of the expedition members, John Colter. He left his expedition group as they headed back east, opting to join the trappers that had arrived in the Yellowstone area. During his travels, he noted the presence of “Hot Spring Brimstone,” so it’s likely that Colter skirted the northwest shore of Yellowstone Lake, crossing the Yellowstone River near Tower Fall.

As John Colter wrapped up his travels, the US was quickly wrapped up in the 1812 war, drawing both men and money away from Western exploration. This had a profound effect on the fur trade, which truly didn’t heal from the economic shock of the war until after it ended. It wasn’t until the 1820’s that the demand for furs came back; trappers soon returned to the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone. One of these trappers, Daniel Potts, was the first person to publicly document the wonders of Yellowstone when his letter was published in a Philadelphia Newspaper.

Another notable Yellowstone advocate was mountain man Jim Bridger, who explored Yellowstone during the same time as Daniel Potts. Bridger was known for his wild stories of the unbridled west that was Yellowstone and inspired many young adventurers to travel and experience the area for themselves.

End Of An Era In Yellowstone, And A Quick Death to Another

The trapper frenzy continued through the 1830s, but in the late 1840s, the market for beaver pelt dropped (due to over-trapping) and the trappers in Yellowstone moved on to guiding or other things.

Life in Yellowstone mellowed out for almost 20 years until the gold rush drove hopefuls pursuing riches west. From 1863-1871, prospectors traversed the Yellowstone Plateau in pursuit of gold and other precious materials. No big riches were ever found in what becomes Yellowstone National Park, but gold was discovered nearby.

The Expeditions That Captured A Nation’s Heart

Despite Yellowstone being thoroughly tracked, disseminated, and discussed by indigenous tribes and trappers alike, from the national perspective, Yellowstone wasn’t really ‘discovered’ until after a series of official expeditions.

Blame manifest destiny for this blatant erasure of thousands of years of human experience with this iconic space. The first (recognized) organized attempt came in 1860; Captain William F. Raynolds led a failed military expedition that was unable to fully explore the Yellowstone Plateau due to late spring snow.

The Civil War distracted the United States over the next several years and hindered planning for further exploration, and it wasn’t until 1869 that the next expedition got underway.

The Folsom-Cook-Peterson Expedition

One day in 1869, three explorers set out to seek adventure on what’s officially described as a ‘would-be’ expedition. David E. Folsom, Charles W. Cook, and William Peterson ignored the warnings from their friends (to be fair, their friends said this trip was the next thing to suicide’ because of ‘Indian trouble along the way.’) We would ignore this sort of advice as well.

From Bozeman, the trio traveled down the divide that separates the Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers. From there, they crossed the mountains to the Yellowstone and continued into the present parklands. This expedition proved to be quite fruitful- the group observed Tower Fall, noted the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as “this masterpiece of nature’s handiwork!” The group continued past Mud Volcano to Yellowstone Lake and then headed South to West Thumb.

The expedition explored Shoshone Lake and traversed the geyser basins of the Firehole River.

Overall, the expedition was quite successful. It led to an update of an earlier explorer’s map, wrote an article for Western Monthly magazine, and reignited scientist’s interest in the Yellowstone region– they decided to finally see for themselves if there was the truth of the expedition’s big tales of the beautiful places we had found fashioned by the practiced hand of nature, that man had not desecrated.’

The Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition

In late 1870, the second official expedition set out, led by Surveyor-General Henry D. Washburn, Montana politician, Nathaniel P. Langford, and attorney Cornelius Hedges. The trio met up with Lt. Gustavus C. Doane at Fort Ellis and from that point, Doane provided a military escort. The explorers adventured to Tower Fall, The Great Canyon, and Yellowstone Lake. The expedition led the team along the eastern and southern shores exploring the Lower, Midway, and Upper geyser basins- where they officially named Old Faithful.

The expedition led the group over several mountain peaks, descended the walls of the Great Canyon of the Yellowstone River, and attempted to measure and analyze several of the area’s more prominent, well-known features.

The Hayden Expedition

The next notable expedition kicked off in 1871, led by the head of the US Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Ferdinand V. Hayden. This expedition began at the same time that the US Army Corps of Engineers were surveying the area.

Historical scientific records of the Yellowstone area formally began with the work that was performed during Hayden’s expeditions. Hayden’s team in 1871 included two botanists, a meteorologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, a mineralogist, a topographer, and an agricultural statistician/entomologist.

And that was just the scientific research team. The 1871 survey team also included a healthy support staff that included an artist and a photographer. This work was the most extensive to date. The findings from the Hayden Survey corroborated earlier claims of thermal activity, gave the world an improved map of the Yellowstone area, and indisputable visual proof of the natural curiosities located in Yellowstone through the photographic work by William Henry Jackson and the art by Henry W. Elliot and Thomas Moran. This work stoked a fire within the scientific community, sparking even more national interest in the Yellowstone area.

Deep in Hayden’s notes, he observes, “The geysers of Iceland…sink into insignificance in comparison with the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole Basins.”

Yellowstone National Park History: The Birth Of A National Park

Perhaps the most important part of the work that came out of the expeditions was that they saved Yellowstone from private development. Langford and a number of his colleagues drafted a bill in Washington in late 1871 through early 1872 that called upon the precedent set by the Yosemite Act of 1864, preserving Yosemite Valley from settlement and entrusting it to the care of the state of California. To do this with an expanse of land the size of Yellowstone would be a complete departure from the current, established policy of transferring public land to private ownership. This decision would be a nail-biter!

However, the work of Jackson’s photographs, Moran’s paintings, and the sketches done by Elliot had effectively captured the imagination and hearts of congress. Thanks to the reports from these expeditions, the intrinsic value of the natural wonders contained within Yellowstone was demonstrated, and the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park just six months after the Hayden Expedition ended. On March 1st, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law.

This act broke from current policy, clearly stating “the headwaters of the Yellowstone River… is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale…and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Despite being in a culture and an era of encouraging and upholding policies that promote expansion, the federal government thought ahead and set aside land that was deemed too valuable in natural wonders to develop.