Thursday, October 16, 2014

Yellowstone National Park: Early Explorations of America's First National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs: Yellowstone National Park/Public Domain

It is home to grizzly bears, wolves, huge herds of bison and elk and the world's largest collection of natural geysers. It is one of the last nearly intact natural ecosystems in the world. It was America's first national park, established in 1872, making it all-around unique. 

Once called Roche Jaune (Yellow Rock) by French trappers, it is now known as Yellowstone National Park, a wonderland beyond compare. It is also on a dormant volcano, a volcano overdue for an explosion, a volcano many people believe could destroy most of North America at any time, which in my opinion just adds to its mystique!

 This adorable photograph was taken by Brian W. Schaller at Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park was established as a National Park by the US Congress in 1872 in an effort to preserve its unique geothermic features and protect the wildlife. This mystical, magical park consists of 3,468 square miles of shimmering lakes and raging rivers, towering mountain ranges, and deep canyons. 

It is on top of a volcano, which is the cause of the large amounts of geothermic activity including 300 geysers; hot springs; mud pots; and fumaroles (openings in the planet's crust emitting steam and gas). It has two of the most famous geysers in the world--Old Faithful and Steamboat Springs. 

It is also home to 50 animal species; 311 bird species; 18 fish species; six reptile species; four amphibian species; and five endangered or threatened species. It is like a combination biopark and wildlife refuge! 

Old Faithful in Yellowstone at its peak of eruption. Photo by Debeo Morium.

Since its early discovery, Yellowstone has endured rumors of hauntings, as well as accusations that its very existence was a rumor. When trappers and explorers first reported its existence the public reaction was that nothing so fantastic could possibly exist, but to this day it continues to inspire artists and leave tourists with a sense of wonder and awe beyond compare.

Yellowstone's Wild West History

Why is Yellowstone National Park a part of the Wild West? In order to understand its historical importance we have to go back to the early explorers and mountain men who reported Yellowstone's magnificent beauty. 

Albert Bierstadt 's "Yellowstone Falls," 1881. 

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself as the first trapper or explorer to see these incredible natural wonders. You might even question your own sanity! 

Early Reports

According to's National Parks, the first reports of Yellowstone came from explorers such as John Colter, who was actually a respected member of the original Lewis and Clark expedition, but when he tried to explain that he had found a magical place in the northwest corner of Wyoming territory where "mud boiled, water spouted, and steam came out of the ground" Colter was mocked and humiliated, and Yellowstone was referred to jokingly as "Colter's Hell." 

The famous trapper, law enforcement officer and politician Joe Meek also saw Yellowstone and reported his findings to the public. His stories were also dismissed. Trapper Jim Bridger said there were canyons so deep that a man could shout into its depths at night before he went to sleep and be awakened by the echo of his voice the following morning, and his report was also dismissed as the exaggerations of a storyteller. 

However, the intense, mysterious beauty described by these men was too great to ignore. A series of expeditions were planned and financed in order to confirm the rumors of these early mountain man explorers. If you've visited Yellowstone National Park, follow along with the descriptions of these expeditions and see if you recognize any of these names:

Yellowstone Expedition

An early frontier expedition was first authorized by US Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in order to establish a military fort near Bismarck, North Dakota where the Yellowstone River begins. 
Steamboat Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Public Domain.

This early expedition is often referred to as the Atkinson-Long Expedition and is credited with establishing Fort Atkinson in Nebraska, which was the first US Army post west of the Missouri. Unfortunately, the fort was considered a failure due to its extreme cost. 

Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition

The first organized expedition of Yellowstone National Park took place in 1869 and was privately funded by David E. Folsom, Charles W. Cook, and William Peterson of Diamond City, Montana. The group kept carefully-detailed journals of their trip, which proved to be invaluable to the expeditions that followed.

Cook, Folsom and Peterson left Diamond City, Montana on September 6, 1869 traveling up the Missouri River to Three Forks, Montana. At Three Forks they started on foot up the Gallatin Valley making a brief stop to resupply in Bozeman on September 8. They made camp at the base of Bozeman Pass four miles east of Fort Ellis and two days later started over the pass then down Trail Creek reaching the Yellowstone River near Emigrant Gulch. 

The men followed the river into what is now the region of Yellowstone National Park on September 13, 1869, entering where Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers converge. They crossed Gardiner then traveled along the west side of Yellowstone to Tower Fall where they crossed the Yellowstone River to explore the Lamar Valley. They returned to Yellowstone traveling West into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. 

The men then turned south and were forced to cross the Yellowstone River twice before reaching Yellowstone Lake near Pelican Creek. They continued to follow the western shore of the lake to West Thumb, then crossed the Continental Divide, emerging on the north side of Shoshone Lake. There they turned northwest, crossed the Divide again and traveled down Firehole River to the geyser basins. Can you imagine the sights that greeted them there! 

The group followed Firehole River and Madison River to exit the Yellowstone Park area near what is now the town of West Yellowstone on October 3, 1869, but their trip was not over. The continued to follow the Madison River through the Madison Canyon and into Virginia City, Montana. They ended their expedition on October 11, 1869 when they returned to Diamond City, Montana after 36 days of hard travel. 

The Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition

In 1863, engineer Walter De Lacy created a map of Yellowstone using journal notes from the previous expedition, and one year later a second expedition of nine men left to verify the information of the first expedition--apparently such great beauty was still believed too good to be true, but this is America, where great natural beauty is found in abundance.  

Henry D. Washburn, a surveyor from Montana, was made the captain of the expedition into Yellowstone. Photo in public domain.

One year after the last expedition nine men decided to defy the warnings of their families and friend--and the Crow, who believed the land was haunted by angry spirits--and set out to prove the existence of these magical geysers; pools of boiling color; and mountains that appeared to be made of glass. 

The men were shockingly unprepared for such an expedition--middle-aged businessmen including merchants; a bank president; and a lawyer; a county assessor--but they had determination on their side. They decided Henry D. Washburn, a surveyor from Montana, would be their captain, and the expedition began. 

An IRS collector, Nathaniel P. Langford, was the first to begin the adventure, riding ahead to request protection from Lt. Gustavus C. Doane of the United States Cavalry. 

Lt. Gustavus C. Doane. Photo in public domain.

Doane later wrote an account of the expedition in his diary and descriptions of what the men found. A post from 1870 reads, "fairy-like, yet solid mound of rock growing up amid clouds of steam and showers of boiling water...the period of this geyser is fifty minutes. First an increased rush of steam comes forth followed instantly by a rising jet of water which attains...the height of one hundred and twenty-five feet." 

Ferdinand V. Hayden, 1870. Photo in public domain.

The men succeeded and the detailed journal accounts of their expedition inspired the United States Congress to fund the next expedition, a more "official" expedition led by Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden. 

The Hayden Expedition

In 1871, the Hayden Geological Survey was federally funded to explore and document the Yellowstone region. Led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, the expedition led to the passage of legislation establishing Yellowstone as the country's first National Park. 

The expedition began in 1894 and was a bit different from previous expeditions because it was federally funded with $40,000 by the Pacific Railroad Survey, a bill passed by congress in 1853 with the intention of finding the most efficient routes for railroad travel from the Mississippi to the Pacific. 

The Hayden Expedition, as you will see, was much more extensive, and included explorers, engineers, scientists, topographers, and artists to document the area and included famous experts, such as John Wesley Powell; Clarence King; and George Wheeler. 

On June 8, 1871, the Hayden Expedition left Ogden, Utah traveling north to Taylor's Bridge on the Snake River, which they reached on June 25. Five days later the party reached Montana and camped near Monida Pass near the Continental Divide. Following the path of earlier expeditions, they moved into Virginia City, Montana on July 4, 1871 then Fort Ellis near Bozeman on July 10, 1871. Unfortunately, their botanist, George Alle, and entomologist, Cyrus Thomas, were both forced to leave the expedition at this time due to health issues. 

The group resupplied and coordinated their efforts with the US Army at Fort Ellis then started out once more on July 15, moving along the Yellowstone River. They met up with another expeditionary group--the Barlow-Heap Expedition--and traveled together for 45 days. Colonel Barlow was the Chief Engineer for General Sheridan and was sent into Yellowstone on orders from the US Army.

They survey team moved alongside the Yellowstone River until they reached Paradise Valley, then realized the trail was impassable and they would have to leave their supply wagons behind. They established a base camp near Emigrant Gulch for communications where they left the wagons and headed for Yankee Jim Canyon on July 20, 1871. 

Hayden Expedition Map of Yellowstone, 1871/Public Domain

The Hayden Survey Expedition didn't actually enter the park region until July 21, 1871 when they arrived at the Gardner River and traveled to Mammoth Hot Springs. They remained at the hot springs for two days. There they discovered two men--J.C. McCartney and H.R. Horr--claimed 320 acres as their own and had already established a ranch and bath house near Liberty Cap. The men were eventually evicted when Yellowstone became a National Park.

The Hayden team left Mammoth on July 24 traveling along Mammoth-Tower road past Undine Falls and Wraith Falls on Lupine Creek. They reached Tower Creek the following day, then spent three days exploring Mount Washburn and the western edge of the Yellowstone River in what is now known as Hayden Valley in order to locate the source of the Yellowstone. They camped at Cascade Creek and W.H. Jackson took the first known photographs of Yellowstone Falls.

Four days later, members of the Hayden expedition carved oars from trees and built a boat, which they called Annie, the first known boat to sail the Yellowstone Lake and explore the islands. The first trip was made by James Stevenson and Henry Elliot to what is now known as Stevenson Island.

While some team members stayed behind to continue documenting the area, Hayden and other members of the survey team left on July 31, 1871, to head back into Hayden Valley then west into the geyser basins of the Madison River. They reached the Nez Perce and traveled six miles from Firehole River then spent two more days in the Lower, Midway, and Upper Geyser Basin. They left the area on August 6, 1871, following Firehole River back to Madison Lake then over the Continental Divide to Shoshone Lake where they established camp at Lost Lake near the West Thumb area of Yellowstone Lake. They remained in this area for two days to document their findings while some members of their military escort returned to Fort Ellis to deliver specimens.

For the next ten days the Hayden Survey party traveled along the south and east sides of Yellowstone Lake and crossed the Continental Divide numerous times in their exploration of the Yellowstone River. They arrived at Steamboat Point on August 19, 1871 and camped near Turbid Lake, then returned to Yellowstone River. While there, the men experienced two extreme earthquakes lasting 20 seconds or more, but long enough to leave them in a state of shock as they watched the trees shake and bend and the horses leap to their feet and try to run. They documented three aftershocks.

Poor Annie was taken apart on August 23, 1871 (wouldn't she have made a great museum exhibition!) and the Hayden party move northeast to Pelican Creek then on to Mirror Lake. The following morning they followed the Lamar River to Soda Butte Creek where they camped for the night. On August 25, 1871, they crossed into the Lamar Valley and traveled to Baronette Bridge.

It was about this time that one of the men, Truman C. Everts, became separated from the expedition and lost along the Yellowstone River. A Helena prospector, John C. Baronett, helped the man return to the expedition. After he rescued Everts, Baronett went on to construct a pack train bridge across the Yellowstone above the Lamar River--the first bridge across the Yellowstone. Hayden named a nearby peak Baronett Peak in honor of the work of the compassionate prospector.

On August 26, 1871, the survey party left the park region and camped north of Gardiner on the Yellowstone, then met up with the rest of their group at Bottler's Ranch to post a report of their progress. They spent two days traveling back to Fort Ellis and six days recuperating from the long expedition while they prepared their correspondence and shipped specimens for documentation. The party then traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Fort Bridger and on October 2, 1871, Hayden officially declared that the expedition was concluded and the group disbanded.

Yellowstone National Park, which is primarily located in the state of Wyoming, but extends into Montana and Idaho, as well, was established and signed into law by American President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

"We trace the creation of the park from the Folsom-Cook expedition of 1869 to the Washburn expedition of 1870, and thence to the Hayden expedition (U. S. Geological Survey) of 1871, Not to one of these expeditions more than to another do we owe the legislation which set apart this "pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." --Nathaniel P. Langford, Yellowstone National Park's first park superintendent and a member of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition

Yellowstone: The First National Park, Full Vintage Documentary


I did not know that! The controversial fires that struck Yellowstone National Park in 1988 affected 793,880 acres, which accounts for 36 percent of the park's lands. This natural disaster consisted of five fires that actually burned into the park from nearby public lands. The largest fire--North Fork Fire--burned more than 410,000 acres and was started by a single discarded cigarette.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...