THE IDEA OF YELLOWSTONE
One morning in May 1834, in the northwest corner of Wyoming three men waited anxiously for the end of a night of strange noises and curious smells. Warren Ferris, a clerk for the American Fur Company, had ventured into the upper Yellowstone country with two Indian companions to find out for himself the truth about the wild tales trappers told about the region. It was a place, they said, of hot springs, water volcanoes, noxious gases, and terrifying vibrations. The water volcanoes especially interested him, and now, as dawn broke over the Upper Geyser Basin, Ferris looked out on an unforgettable scene:
Ferris later recalled that his companions thought it unwise to trifle with the supernatural:
Ferris and his friends quickly concluded their excursion and went back to earning a living in the fur trade. They had not been the first visitors to this land of geysers. But they were the first who came as "tourists," having no purpose other than to see the country.
It was the awesome evidence of this land's great volcanic past that drew Ferris and his comrades, and others after them, into an uncharted wilderness. For whatever the other attractions of this regionand there are manyman has reacted most to this spectacle of a great dialetic of nature, this apparent duel between the hot earth and the waters that continually attempt to invade it.
Seething mud pots, hot pools of delicate beauty, hissing vents, periodic earthquakes, and sudden, frightening geysers are foreign to our ordinary experience. But in this region a wonderful variety of such features, seeming to speak of powers beyond human comprehension, confronts visitors at every turn. So it is easy to understand why many observers have speculated, along with the companions of Warren Ferris, that this may indeed be near the dark region of the white man's religion.
Yet this Biblical metaphor, which came so naturally to men of the 19th century, fails to evoke the full sense of Yellowstone. Lt Gustavus C. Doane, who explored the country on the celebrated 1870 expedition, thought that "No figure of imagination, no description of enchantment, can equal in imagery the vista of these great mountains." There is the stately lodgepole forest, the ranging wildlife, the fantastic geysers, and the great lake, and there is the mighty torrent of the Yellowstone River, the spectacular waterfalls, and the rugged, many-hued chasm from which the river and ultimately the region took its name. And beyond all this, there is Yellowstone the symbol. The notion that a wilderness should be set aside and perpetuated for the benefit of all the peoplea revolutionary idea in 1872has flowered beyond the wildest dreams of those who conceived it.
This is the story, in broadest outline, of the people who have visited this remarkable country, of their influence upon it, and of Yellowstone's influence upon them. It begins long ago, as all such stories must on the American continent, with the red man.
Last Updated: 04-Nov-2009