Saved Our National Parks
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Chapter 2:
The Nation's First National Park

THE FIRST GROUP of white men to visit the area that later became Yellowstone National Park were the fur trappers, followed by the traders, and, with the discovery of minerals, the prospectors. The United States Army was there, as it was in most of the Western frontier area, but instead of facilitating settlement and exploitation as it did elsewhere, here it prevented it.

Until 1869—a scant three years before Congress created Yellowstone Park—knowledge of the natural curiosities and wonders of the region was based principally upon the tales of the occasional trapper or explorer. Probably the first white man to visit the Yellowstone region was John Colter, who, during the winter of 1807-1808, traveled through the wilderness area that was to become the first National Park. [1] Colter reported seeing geysers and other evidences of hydrothermal activity around the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, but it was not the reports of natural curiosities that aroused interest in this Western country; it was the news brought back by the Lewis and Clark Expedition—reports of mountain streams teeming with beaver, and an all-water route along the Missouri River that would lead the trapper to those streams.

During the winter of 1806-1807, St. Louis was the scene of much activity and excitement as traders and trappers congregated to await the spring thaw that would clear the Missouri of ice and allow their passage into the mountainous regions to the west. One such trader was the Spaniard, Manuel Lisa, who, with a group of forty-two frontiersmen, journeyed up the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in 1807 to the mouth of the Big Horn, where a timbered blockhouse was constructed. From here the men dispersed in various directions to trap, trade, and hunt. The indomitable John Colter was one of these trappers, and it was from Fort Manuel, as the blockhouse was named, that he started his trip into the Yellowstone region. The success of this group's first venture led to the formation of the Missouri Fur Company in 1809. Soon trappers representing Astor's American Fur Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, and later the Rocky Mountain Fur Company spread throughout the northern and central Rockies, and some six hundred trappers searched the many streams for "sign," traded with the Indians, and explored vast areas of what, until their arrival, had been unknown to white men.

It is probable that many of these explorers wandered into the Yellowstone region, but only a few left reports of their findings; initials carved in trees and remnants of campsites indicate that they were there. [2] It is generally believed that trappers working for England's North West Company and, later, the Hudson's Bay Company visited the area in 1818 and again in 1824, and it is quite likely that famous "mountain men" like James Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Jedediah S. Smith were familiar with the geyser region as early as 1824. The first printed account of the "infernal region" appeared in the Philadelphia Gazette and Daily Advertizer on September 27, 1827, and was reprinted in the Niles Weekly Register on October 6, 1827. This report of the natural phenomena found at the headwaters of the Yellowstone contains an accurate description of Yellowstone Lake and some of the thermal springs located near it. [3] During the 1830's, when the American fur trade was approaching its apogee, many trappers and traders ventured into the area, and some of their descriptions were placed in journals or later published in book form. [4]

Yellowstone NP
George S. Anderson and pet bear cub. National Park Service.

Actually the geyser areas were best described by the trappers, who considered their talents as storytellers second only to their prowess in killing game. Naturally their stories were often embellished, exaggerated, and sometimes totally untrue. The stories Jim Bridger is said to have told best exemplify this process, and though fact is to be found in many of these tales of the Yellowstone region, they were far from literal truth. Bridger told of glass mountains, of geysers spouting water seventy feet into the air, of petrified birds perched on petrified trees singing petrified songs. [5] Perhaps the most accurate and descriptive diarist among the early trappers was Osborne Russell, who visited the Yellowstone area at least three different times between 1835 and 1839, but his competent observations failed to replace the tall tales of Bridger and others. [6] But by the 1840's the days of the trader and trapper were ending and the white man was seen less frequently in this portion of the West. [7]

In some instances the trails blazed by the trapper were followed by prospectors searching for a trace of "color" that might indicate a large ore body, but precious minerals were scarce in the Yellowstone region, and for the most part this area was bypassed. Some parties who ventured into the geyser basins left a few place names and influenced later and larger explorations of the area, but fortunately for the preservation of the later National Park, the only big strikes discovered were located to the north and east of the present boundaries of the park.

The tales of the early trappers did generate some further interest in the unexplained phenomena referred to by these early explorers. In 1859 Captain W. F. Raynolds of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, United States Army, was directed to head an expedition to investigate the character and habits of the Indians and the possibilities of agriculture and settlement of the area surrounding the headwaters of the Missouri River—including sources of the Yellowstone, Gallatin, and Madison Rivers. This was the first effort by the government to ascertain the validity of the fabled stories. The expedition failed to explore the area because of the combined obstacles of snow and mountains. It did, however, link up the past and future. Jim Bridger was the guide for the party, and Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, who later saw and described the phenomena in scientific terms, was the geologist. [8] The formal report of the expedition was not published until 1868, too late to provide any real impetus to further exploration. Chittenden considers Raynolds' failure to fully explore the Yellowstone region "a fact quite as fortunate as any other" in the region's history, since a full report authenticating what had previously been discounted as myth and fantasy would surely have drawn speculators and settlers into the area. [9] Before Bridger's tales reached the public in the form of a government document a few private individuals were developing plans for the "rediscovery" of the Yellowstone wonderland. [10]

A year before the publication of the Raynolds report there was talk among the people of Montana Territory about organizing an exploring party to journey into the Yellowstone country and either confirm or refute the accounts of volcanic phenomena earlier reported by the trappers and miners; however, no expedition was formed that year. [11] Plans were again made in 1868, and while these, too, failed to materialize, the interest aroused was sufficient to prompt three men to ascend the Yellowstone River and thoroughly explore the regions surrounding its headwaters. David E. Folsom, C. W. Cook, and William Peterson, in 1869, made the first purposeful exploration of the area with the sole objective of determining its actual character. Upon their return the explorers were hesitant to make known their discoveries, for, unlike Bridger, they wished to maintain their reputations as honest men. Some time later, however, Folsom, aided by Cook, prepared an article accurately describing the wonders the small party had seen; after being rejected by several Eastern publications, it was finally published in July, 1870, by the Lakeside Publishing Company of Chicago in their Western Monthly. [12]

The lucid and articulate reports of Folsom, Cook, and Peterson served to stimulate some interest in the heretofore rumored wonderland and in the spring of 1870 two leading citizens of the Montana Territory appealed to General Winfield S. Hancock, Commanding Officer, Department of Dakota, for military escort for a projected Yellowstone exploration party. One of these men, Nathaniel P. Langford, famous for his part in the vigilante days of 1863 and 1864 in the Territory, later wrote that he "indulged, for several years, a great curiosity to see the upper valley of the Yellowstone," his curiosity having been aroused by the stories told "by trappers and mountaineers of the natural phenomena of that region." As a result of his urging a group was formed who "determined to make the journey." [13]

Under the leadership of Henry D. Washburn, Surveyor-General of Public Lands for Montana Territory, Langford, Samuel T. Hauser, Cornelius Hedges, Warren C. Gillette, Truman C. Everts, Walter Trumbull, Benjamin F. Stickney, and Jacob Smith, accompanied by Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane and six cavalrymen, departed from Fort Ellis on August 22, 1870, for the Yellowstone Region. The expedition made an extensive and thorough exploration of the geysers, hot springs, and towering falls and through its efforts the unique wonders of the region were at last reported in detail. Upon their return several members of the party prepared articles for magazines and newspapers, [14] and Langford gave lectures in Helena, Minneapolis, New York City, and Washington, D. C. Through these descriptions the public was at last made aware of this remarkable mountain wilderness. The official report of the expedition, prepared by Lieutenant Doane, was described by Dr. F. V. Hayden as being "remarkable . . . written under the inspiration of the wonderful physical phenomena" and "that for graphic descriptions and thrilling interest it has not been surpassed by any official report . . . since the time of Lewis and Clark." [15]

The immediate result of the Washurn-Langford-Doane Expedition was the organization, a year later, of two government expeditions to secure further official scientific information on the area. The sources of the Yellowstone River were explored and plotted by the Barlow-Heap Expedition, a party of Army Engineers that was sent out in 1871 under direct orders from Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, Commanding Officer of the Division of the Missouri. At the same time the region was canvassed by the Hayden Expedition sent out by the Interior Department. [16] The ultimate results of the three exploration parties into the Yellowstone region between 1869 and 1871 was the establishment of the Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

The idea of establishing the geyser region and its environs as a national park has been credited to many. Chittenden admitted that "no special credit for originality should attach to the matter," then proceeded to state categorically that the source of the idea could be found in "the Washburn Expedition of 1870"; the place of conception was at a campsite near the junction of the Firehole and Gibbons Rivers, the date was September 19, 1870, and the man responsible was Cornelius Hedges. [17] In 1904 Hedges published his diary, to which he appended a note maintaining that it "was at the first camp after leaving the lower Geyser Basin when all were speculating which point in the region we had been through, would become most notable that I first suggested the uniting all our efforts to get it made a National Park." [18] Lieutenant Doane made no reference to this suggestion in his official report, nor did Langford or Trumbull in the articles they published in May and June, 1871, in Scribner's and the Overland Monthly.

Even though the suggestion may have been made by Hedges at the now famous campfire, the idea of establishing national parks did not originate there. Chittenden's statement concerning the birth of the national park idea has been repeated in almost every book dealing with the origins of national parks despite evidence to the contrary. Cramton, writing in 1932, and Huth in 1950, effectively demolished the historical basis for the National Park Service's campfire vignette, presented annually on the banks of the Madison; finally, in 1964, the Park historian was able to end the historical travesty. [19]

While members of the Washburn Expedition worked in many ways to promote the establishment of the Yellowstone area as a national park, the suggestion of setting that region apart for the use of the public at large seems to have been made before 1870. As early as 1865 a young Jesuit priest, Father Francis X. Kuppens, visited the Yellowstone region and described the wonders he had seen to a group of men, among whom were Cornelius Hedges and the Acting Governor of Montana Territory, Thomas F. Meagher. Kuppens later wrote that the Acting Governor, upon hearing a description of the area, stated that the area should be reserved as a park by the government, if indeed "things were as described," and agreed with the rest of the company that further explorations should be made. [20] Others suggest that David Folsom, upon returning from the 1869 exploration, "discussed with General Washburn the project of creating a park" in order to preserve the natural wonders of the region, [21] and that he incorporated in the article submitted to the Western Monthly a similar suggestion. [22]

But regardless of all of these "suggestions," one must speculate that the park idea did not originate in the Yellowstone area, but in the act of Congress in 1864 granting the Yosemite Valley to the State of California "for public use, resort and recreation." Yosemite was soon referred to as a National Park. [23] In 1871 an editor, referring to Yosemite, went on to describe the Yellowstone area and stated, "Let this, too, be set apart by Congress as a domain retained unto all mankind . . . and let it be esta perpetua." [24]

The legislation creating the California grant had established a precedent; but since the Yellowstone region embraced parts of three Territories, it could not be given in trusteeship to one state. The only way to preserve the area was to place it directly under Federal control.

One of the most influential events that led to the park legislation was the expedition led by F. V. Hayden, head of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories. Through his efforts an item appropriating $40,000 for survey work around the sources of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers was included in the sundry civil act of March 3, 1871. Since he had not had the money or opportunity to thoroughly explore the region in 1860 when he was attached as geologist to the Raynolds Expedition, Hayden organized a comprehensive group of scientists, artists, and photographers, and during the summer of 1871 they thoroughly surveyed the Yellowstone region, compiling extensive data on its geology, zoology, botany, paleontology, and meteorology. [25] In addition to the scientific reports, visual reproductions of the natural curiosities were prepared by W. H. Jackson, the frontier photographer, and the artist Thomas Moran. [26]

When he returned to Washington, Hayden was met by Nathaniel Langford, Cornelius Hedges, and Samuel Hauser, Helena bank president and a member of the 1870 expedition. This small group feared that if some action were not taken to preserve the Yellowstone area, it would soon be claimed by homesteaders. Langford and Hedges had already enlisted the aid of William H. Clagett, newly elected Delegate from Montana Territory. Working under the guidance of Congressman Henry L. Dawes, [27] Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, these men began to frame legislation that would establish a national park in the Yellowstone region. [28]

A bill to "set aside a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park" was introduced in the two houses of Congress on December 18, 1871, and was immediately referred to the committees on public lands. [29] The Senate bill was reported back on January 22, 1872, by Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas, who, speaking for the Committee, recommended its passage. After a series of minor legislative delays, the bill finally came up for consideration on January 30, 1872. [30] The only serious opposition to its passage was voiced by Senator Cornelius Cole of California, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, who, in a speech representing the attitude of many 19th-century men, stated:

I have grave doubts about the propriety of passing this bill. . . . The geysers will remain, no matter where the ownership of the land may be, and I do not know why settlers should be excluded from a tract of land forty miles square. . . . I cannot see how the natural curiosities can be interfered with if settlers are allowed to appropriate them. . . . I do not see the reason or propriety of setting apart a large tract of land . . . in the Territories of the United States for a public park. [31]

Nevertheless the Senate passed the measure without a call for ayes and noes and it went to the House, where it remained on the Speaker's table until February 27. [32]

While the bill was being considered by Congress, its proponents were far from idle. Langford was busy writing, lecturing, and attempting to influence any member of Congress with whom he came in contact. Four hundred copies of Scribner's Magazine, in which his articles describing the Yellowstone area had appeared the previous May and June, were obtained and placed upon Congressional desks. [33] Hayden, with the aid of the Secretary of the Interior, exhibited Jackson's photographs, maps, and specimens acquired on his expedition in the lobbies of Congress and personally expounded the wonders of the region in interviews with Congressmen. [34] He wrote another article for Scribner's [35] and one for the American Journal of Science and Arts. In this he asserted that the speedy passage of the park bill would "prevent squatters from taking possession of the springs and destroying the beautiful decorations." [36]

Further pressure for the preservation of the area came from the legislature of the Territory of Montana, which, however, proposed that the new park be placed under Territorial control. These Montana frontiersmen exhibited the same desire for local control as had been shown by the residents of California in respect to the Yosemite Valley. Settlers in Wyoming Territory, fearing ejection from the Yellowstone region, opposed the formation of a park, but the editor of the Rocky Mountain Gazette criticized their position. A desire for preservation of forests was also present in Montana Territory even at this early date. Noting the existence of forest fires, the editor of the Helena Daily Herald stated, "The loss to us is trifling, but the value of these timber lands to future generations is incalculable." [37]

When, on February 27, 1872, the Senate bill providing for the establishment of the park came before the House for consideration, attempts were made to delay the measure by referring it to either the Committee on Public Lands or the Committee on Territories. Representative Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts recommended immediate consideration and explained its purpose:

This bill follows the analogy of the bill passed by Congress six or eight years ago, setting apart the Yosemite valley . . . for the public park, with this difference: that bill granted to the State of California the jurisdiction over that land beyond the control of the United States. This bill reserves the control over the land and preserves the control over it to the United States. Nobody can dwell upon it for the purpose of agriculture . . . it will infringe upon no vested rights, the title to it will still remain in the United States. . . . This bill treads upon no rights of the settler . . . and it receives the urgent and ardent support of the Legislature of that Territory [ Montana] and of the Delegate himself. . . . [38]

In part because of assurances that the land to be set aside was economically worthless, and the fact that the bill provided for the reservation of land already belonging to the government and contained no appropriation, no speech was made in the House in opposition to the Yellowstone bill. On the roll call, 115 representatives favored the bill, 65 opposed, and 60 failed to vote. [39] The bill was promptly signed by President Grant and became operative on March 1, 1872.

The editors of Scribner's assured their readers that the Yellowstone bill would call attention to the "unexampled richness" of Montana and Wyoming Territories, enticing both the artist and the pleasure tourist, "while it aims to ensure that the region in question shall be kept in the most favorable condition to attract travel and gratify a cultivated and intelligent curiosity. By the Act, some 2,500 square miles of territory . . . are set apart as a National Park (!) . . . Verily a colossal sort of junketing-place!" [40]

Thus, through the efforts of an energetic and zealous group of men, the long, though sometimes faint, tradition of conservation in the United States was finally recognized. The setting apart "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" of more than two million acres of land with a wealth of timber, game, grass, water power, and possible minerals was a dramatic departure from the general public land policy previously followed by Congress. This occurred during a period when public opinion was more materialistic than idealistic; when millions of acres were being reserved not for the public but for the railroads; when vast areas of timber in the old Northwest were being slashed and cut by greedy lumbermen, without thought of reforestation; when cattlemen were spreading their herds over the public domain and resisting any efforts toward conservation that might interfere with the development of power and riches; when the frontier military commanders claimed that the Indians could be brought to terms only when their main subsistence was destroyed, urged the slaughter of buffalo, and resisted through Congress any effort to protect and preserve them.

The new Yellowstone Park was fortunately situated somewhat to the west of most private activity, so when the bill came before Congress an attitude of indifference prevailed on the part of both Congressmen and the public. However, this historic Act did not mean that the public had suddenly become aware of its wasteful habits. It did not mean the end of exploitation of the country's resources; the ravages of uncontrolled enterprise continued unabated for at least two decades, and Congress wavered constantly on the advisability of even maintaining the nation's one park. On several occasions members of Congress, representing the views of their constituents, advocated selling the area to private parties as had been done with other public lands, and getting out of the "show business," since it was not the purpose of the government to "raise wild animals" nor was it the government's duty to establish a hunting reserve for the "wealthy and traveling foreign dignitaries."


How the U.S. Cavalry Saved Our National Parks
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