Yellowstone National Park has rich human and ecological stories that continue to unfold. People have spent time in the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Many tribes and bands used the park as their home, hunting grounds, and transportation routes prior to and after European American arrival. Yellowstone was established as the world's first national park in 1872. Yellowstone tells the stories of people and their connections to the park.
People have visited and lived in the area we now call Yellowstone National Park since the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago. We don't know very much about these early people, but it is fun to imagine what kind of Yellowstone they might have lived in. When they were here, the glaciers that once blanketed Yellowstone in a mile thick layer of ice had melted away leaving only the mountaintops covered with snow and ice. In those days the temperature was much colder than it is in Yellowstone today. However, 10,000 years ago lodgepole pine forests and aspen groves were starting to grow. Animals found in Yellowstone today such as elk, bison, black bear, bighorn sheep, and coyotes were present at that time. But there were other animals that we don't currently see, such as camels and sloths. At the close of the last Ice Age, about 8,500 years ago, temperatures warmed. Some animals like the wooly mammoth were better suited for colder and wetter conditions and became extinct while others adapted to the warmer environment.
These animals served as the food source for early people inhabiting the Yellowstone region. We think these people were nomadic hunters, following large herds of animals like elk and bison. Stone tools and projectile points made from rocks are but a few of the material clues indicating these people's presence. As the climate changed, American Indians continued to live off this land by hunting for game and foraging for plants. The Yellowstone country also provided another important resource for these early people-obsidian! They quarried this stone to make tools such as spear points. As proof to its quality and value, Yellowstone obsidian was widely transported overland east and west of the Rocky Mountains and has been found as far away as Ohio.
As long as 11,000 years ago, American Indians created trails across the Yellowstone landscape. What is now called the "Bannock Trail" was probably a system of trail-ways that made up a complex route leading to and from the Yellowstone country. American Indians used these trails for easier access to the wealth of animals, plants, and minerals found here. Evidence of the "Bannock Trail" can still be seen today. The existence of such trails, as well as the arrival of the horse in the late 1600s, and eventually guns, gave other benefits to the American Indians. For example, game animals could be hunted more easily. Oral traditions of the American Indian tribes tell us that Yellowstone's geyser basins were also important destinations for ceremonial, medicinal, and practical reasons. American Indians tell us that their ancestors did not fear the geysers, but rather respected the possible danger they represented.
The Sheep Eaters, a group of Shoshone Indians, chose not to use horses. They lived in mountainous terrain and probably thought dogs could better handle that environment. Since the Sheep Eaters had neither horses nor guns, they found it difficult to compete with other groups of American Indians such as the Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux, and Nez Perce who also visited the Yellowstone country. The Sheep Eaters lived in small family groups of ten to twenty people and traveled by foot, hunting with the help of their dogs. Their name, Sheep Eaters, gives us a clue as to one of the animals they hunted. Their bows, made from the horns of bighorn sheep and decorated with porcupine quills, were considered among the finest bows anywhere in the Yellowstone country and were a prized item of trade among Plains Indians.
When the first Euro-Americans arrived, the Sheep Eaters were noted as inhabitants of Yellowstone. French-Canadian fur trappers and traders were the next visitors to the Yellowstone region. They observed groups of American Indians, such as the Blackfeet and Flathead. The tribes they traded with probably shared descriptions of Yellowstone's wonders with them. There is no evidence that these trappers and traders actually witnessed any of these wonders themselves. In 1806, a portion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition led by William Clark passed just to the north of Yellowstone, but not actually through it. They did not hear of the area's geysers and hot springs, although American Indians did tell them about the great lake to the south, now known as Yellowstone Lake. Clark would later mention the Yellowstone area in his journals and included one hot spring area on his map, a place he called "Hot Spring Brimstone." He must have gotten his information later from John Colter, a member of the Expedition, who traveled into Yellowstone, as well as from other trappers and explorers.
Near the end of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806, John Colter went to work for the Missouri Fur Trading Company. During the following year he was sent on a 500-mile journey through untracked country with hopes of setting up trade with several tribes. On this dangerous and solitary adventure, Colter trekked through Yellowstone. He is believed to be the first Euro-American to see Yellowstone Lake and witness some of the hot springs that would someday become Yellowstone National Park. Between 1822-1840, other trappers came to this region. They came in search of the great flat-tailed rodent, the beaver, whose pelts were in great demand. The pelts were used to make stylish beaver felt hats such as the one Abraham Lincoln wore. These trappers returned to more civilized areas with more than just beaver pelts. They also brought back stories of the hot springs, geysers, and other strange wonders they had found.
One of the best known trappers was Jim Bridger (pictured). Among other things, he was famous for telling tall tales. He spoke of rivers in Yellowstone "that ran so fast they got hot on the bottom" and of being able to see "Hell bubbling up" and witnessing "peetrifaction." His stories were exaggerated, but they were not total lies. In Yellowstone, there are warm rivers, hot water, and mud that boils and bubbles, and there is a huge petrified forest. Still, it's no wonder that most people reading stories like these in eastern newspapers dismissed them as fairy tales and lies. The fur trapping business could not last forever. After thirty years of trapping, beavers almost became extinct. The beaver felt hat also went out of style, replaced with a more popular silk hat. The combination of these factors meant the end of the colorful era of the trapper. The tales of their stories, however, would be rediscovered many years later.
During the next twenty years, Euro-Americans rarely visited Yellowstone. The 1860s, however, brought a new kind of hunter-the prospector. Once again the quiet corners of Yellowstone were probed, this time by prospectors and miners searching for gold. Although most never found the riches they were looking for, they did see Yellowstone's wonders. They provided a wealth of information, including one of the first maps of the Yellowstone area. It was published in 1865, thanks to a prospector named Walter DeLacy. Also, like the trappers before them, prospectors told stories of what they had seen. These magical stories excited, inspired, and even compelled other people to visit the area for themselves. In the summer of 1869 an expedition to explore the upper Yellowstone River was proposed and then cancelled due to trouble with American Indians and lack of military escort. Three of the members-determined Montanans-decided to make the journey on their own. Despite dire warnings, they set off into the wilderness with such parting comments as: "Good-bye, boys, look out for your hair!", "It's the next thing to suicide", "If you get into a scrap, remember I warned you!" This was not an encouraging start, to say the least.
Folsom, Cook, and Peterson-the three expedition members-entered Yellowstone near what is now the north entrance of the park. During their trip they explored the Hot Spring Brimstone that the trapper John Colter had mentioned. Here, Cook almost ended up in a steam vent that they later discovered was 194F. They visited Tower Fall and stood in awe on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, describing it as a "masterpiece of nature's handiwork." They spent several days along the shores of Yellowstone Lake and visited both the Lower and Midway geyser basins where their reaction to Great Fountain Geyser was to throw up their hats and yell with all their might! After 36 days in the wilderness-and maybe to the surprise of their friends-the expedition returned safely home. They had many stories to tell, but Cook was skeptical that any magazine would be interested and that their story would be dismissed as "the too vivid imagination of a typical Rocky Mountain liar". Their expedition, however, contributed much to the overall exploration of the Yellowstone region. A descriptive magazine article and an improved map of the area provoked intense interest among a number of Montana's leading citizens.
By August of 1870, several of those citizens had put together their own expedition led by Surveyor-General Henry D. Washburn. The expedition also included politician and business promoter Nathaniel P. Langford and attorney Cornelius Hedges. Later these men would prove instrumental in the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. The Washburn expedition followed the same general route taken by the 1869 party, with a few exceptions. They took the eastern rather than the western route around Yellowstone Lake and visited the Upper Geyser Basin as well as Midway and Lower Geyser Basins. By the end of the expedition, they had named Tower Fall, descended into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and measured it to be 1050 feet below the rim, climbed several peaks, and reached the fabled Firehole (Upper Geyser Basin). Here they were welcomed by the eruption of a geyser 100 feet into the air. It erupted regularly during their stay-and they named it Old Faithful. This trip gathered even more publicity than the 1869 venture. Several articles were written and Langford went on a speaking tour in the East that included Washington D.C. All this publicity resulted in the funding for an official exploration of Yellowstone-the 1871 Hayden Expedition. Led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of what would become the U.S. Geological Survey, the 1871 expedition was more thorough than the previous ones. Hayden enlisted the help of two artists and three photographers on this trip. They brought back a new kind of evidence in the form of colorful paintings and real life photographs. For the first time people could see what previously could only be described to them. The existence of Yellowstone could no longer be denied. It was not fantasy. It was real! Only a few years after the close of the Civil War, Americans began a new fight-one to preserve this special place. It would not be easy. In the words of Nathaniel P. Langford: "Our purpose to create a park can only be accomplished by untiring work and concerted action in a warfare against the incredulity and unbelief of our national legislators when our proposal shall be presented for their approval. Nevertheless, I believe we can win the battle."
[President Grant] Supported by railroad companies, and with assistance from members of the Washburn expedition and others, Ferdinand V. Hayden promoted legislation in Congress in 1871 and 1872 to protect approximately two million acres of the land "lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River". On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law declaring that this area would forever be preserved: "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." The world's first national park had been born!
Unfortunately, this national inspiration soon became a national headache. The difficulties were considerable. The idea was so fresh and original that there were no references to draw upon, no blueprints to follow, and no examples to observe which would provide direction for how such a park should be managed and maintained. Also, the area was remote, inaccessible and vast-the size of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The United States had recently fought a civil war, and funds to support a national park were nonexistent. In fact, Yellowstone had actually been presented to Congress as a preserve that could be run cost-free under the control of the Secretary of the Interior-an illusion that was far from the real situation. Imagine that this situation had been dumped in your lap and was now your problem to solve. How would you proceed? The Secretary's response was to secure someone to oversee the new park-a superintendent. It was a stopgap measure at best, and Yellowstone would experience five different superintendents during its first fourteen years.
The first superintendent, Nathaniel P. Langford, had been a member of the 1870 Washburn Expedition and an advocate to preserve Yellowstone. There was no money available to offer him a salary for this new position, so he had to make his living elsewhere. This left Langford with little time to run the park, and he entered it only twice during his five years as superintendent. The first time was as a guest on the second Hayden Expedition in 1872, and his second took place in 1874 to evict a man named Matthew McGuirk. McGuirk claimed to own the Boiling River-one of the park's hot springs rumored to have healing powers. Imagine how frustrating and difficult it would have been to be in Langford's position. He had no salary, no funding for the park, and no legal way to enforce protection for its wildlife
and geologic features. Political pressure, which took the guise of accusing Langford of neglect, forced the removal of Yellowstone's first superintendent in 1877. He was replaced by Philetus W. Norris.
Norris must have been a man who enjoyed challenges, for he essentially volunteered for the position, after traveling through Yellowstone and witnessing its problems first-hand. In June 1878, Congress finally approved a salary for the park's superintendent, as well as minimal funds "to protect, preserve, and improve the Park." It was only $10,000 a year, but Norris made good use of it. In 1878, Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly, a frontier scout, described travel through Yellowstone in the following account:
"In the chill mist of early morning, we passed like ghosts along a rude road into the geyser basin . . .the trail had disappeared and we were treading a crust that sounded hollow and was hot to touch. I dismounted and led my horse carefully around the thin places for fear he would break through and scald his legs. . .at this time there were practically no trails in the park aside from game trails, only a rough track connecting the geyser basin with Mammoth Hot Springs."
When Norris arrived in 1877, there were approximately 32 miles of roads and 108 miles of trails. By the time he left in 1882, there were five times as many roads and twice as many trails. The roads were crude and many described them as only "fair" wagon trails. Still, they provided access to "the land of wonders."
Norris also hired Harry Yount (nicknamed "Rocky Mountain Harry") to control poaching and vandalism in the park. Yount spent one winter alone in a cabin in the Lamar Valley. He was isolated in a vast wilderness, with deep snow, howling wind, and driving cold. His primary companions were the herds of animals he was to protect and the poachers he was single-handedly charged to control! It was a difficult job for one person and Yount resigned the following fall. In his letter of resignation he wrote:
"I do not think that any one man . . .is what is needed or can prove effective for certain necessary purposes, but a small and reliable police force of men. . .is what is really the most practicable way of seeing that the game is protected from wanton slaughter, the forests from careless use of fire, and the enforcement of all the other laws, rules, and regulations for the protection and improvement of the park."
Today, Harry Yount is considered the very first national park ranger. Norris was removed from his post in 1882 due to political maneuvering. Three additional superintendents followed, but none proved effective in stopping the destruction of Yellowstone's magnificent natural resources. By 1886 the park was in great danger. It was only fourteen years old, had never been adequately financed or maintained, and was no longer protected by virtue of being unknown. Poachers slaughtered the wildlife. Visitors and souvenir vendors chipped away at the geyser cones and travertine terraces. Vandals purposely set forest fires, squatters illegally occupied land within the park, and delicate thermal features became wishing wells-or trashcans. Congress, tired of the ceaseless problems, refused to allocate additional funding. Under authority given by Congress, the Secretary of the Interior requested help from the Secretary of War for the management of Yellowstone. On an evening in August 1886, 50 soldiers of Company M, First United States Cavalry from Fort Custer, Montana Territory, marched into Mammoth Hot Springs, to begin making "order out of chaos". Most of the soldiers came from dry and dusty duty on southwest or western plains and some had never seen mountains or snow, not to mention geysers and hot springs. Many soldiers considered Yellowstone a good duty station. The men of the "snowshoe cavalry" especially enjoyed their rugged life and often volunteered to serve at remote snowshoe cabins. (They called them snowshoes, we call them skis.) No doubt the work was often hard, isolated, and dangerous, but the rewards were plentiful as well.
Private Edwin Kelsey described his life in a letter dated December 3, 1898:
"Left here (Old Faithful area) for the post (Ft. Yellowstone) the Sunday before Thanksgiving. . .I made 26 miles the first day, staying all night at Norris Station. The next morning it was 22 degrees below zero, but I pulled out for the Post, which I reached about two p.m. after a cold hard ride of 20 miles. There is something about life in the wilderness that fascinates me. I saddle my beast, and go off on long rides through the forest where everything is so quiet that one can almost hear the solitude."
Troops enforced park regulations vigorously, patrolling on horseback during the summer and on skis during the winter. Their most persistent problem was controlling poachers. During the latter part of the 1800s, bison had been nearly exterminated from the American West and the last free-ranging herd had taken refuge in the wilds of Yellowstone. Unfortunately, this was a bit like going out of the fire into the frying pan, as the activities of poachers were a constant threat to these last remaining animals. The maximum punishment the Army could impose for this crime was to confiscate a poacher's belongings and banish him from the park. However, it proved nearly impossible to prevent him from returning. Most poachers were local residents who knew the area well and could slip in and out of the park boundaries without being noticed. In the spring of 1894, Army officers learned that an infamous bison poacher named Edgar Howell was camped in Yellowstone's Pelican Valley. Howell was caught literally red-handed, blood staining his hands as he skinned a bison he had just killed. Soldiers escorted him back to Army headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, where they intended to hold Howell for as long as possible in the guard house. As luck would have it, en route, they encountered a group of visitors, one of whom was a prominent reporter of the New York magazine, Forest and Stream. Appalled at hearing about the minor punishment Howell would receive for his poaching activities, the reporter wired the story to his editor.
An old saying contends that "the pen is mightier than the sword". This was certainly the case here! The story caused a national outcry and within two months Congress passed the National Park Protection Act (also known as the Lacey Act) to "protect the birds and animals in Yellowstone National Park, and to punish crimes in said park, and for other purposes." No longer were the Army's hands tied-it was now possible to prosecute those who committed crimes against the park's wildlife. In the fall of 1886, troops constructed Camp Sheridan near the Mammoth Hot Springs. Although roughly built, it provided adequate shelter from one of the region's worst winters on record. Five years later, the Army began work on a more permanent post, christened Fort Yellowstone. Construction spanned 22 years, beginning in 1891 with a guardhouse and ending in 1913 with a chapel. Many of the buildings of Fort Yellowstone are still used today as the park's main headquarters and administration buildings, and as housing for park staff.
It was becoming obvious that a separate agency was needed to manage the steadily increasing number of American national parks and monuments. By 1914, there were thirty such sites, including Yellowstone. Each was managed separately, resulting in a lack of direction for the system as a whole. There was also a steady flow of visitors clamoring for information and interpretation of these special places. The National Park Service Act, passed on August 16, 1916, created the National Park Service and charged the new agency "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." In 1918 the Cavalry at last left Yellowstone, passing on responsibility for its care to the new agency. The first ranger force, although composed of only 21 people, was experienced, capable, and dedicated. In fact, many were cavalrymen who chose to remain in the park. Today the flat-brimmed hats worn by national park rangers are modeled from the Army campaign hats and serve as a salute to the Army's contributions. Tourism to Yellowstone continued to flourish, jumping from 300 people in 1872 to 5,000 in 1883. This was largely due to the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad at the North Entrance of the park. Additional rail lines to other park entrance points followed on the Northern Pacific's heels. Once at the park, visitors could pay approximately $40 to embark on a 5 day adventure through "Wonderland". They traveled by stagecoaches, surrey carts, and "Tallyho Wagons", especially designed for use in Yellowstone.
[Automobile next to geyser] There was also increasing pressure to allow the use of a "new-fangled" form of transportation, known as the automobile! Park officials were certain that allowing these new machines into the park would spell trouble. For one thing, the roads were rough and very hazardous; for another, they were certain to cause chaos and conflict with the horses used so widely throughout the park. Finally, on April 21, 1915, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane authorized private automobiles to officially enter Yellowstone, beginning later that same year. By the close of the first season, 958 automobiles, carrying 3,513 people had entered the park. The expected conflict between horses and automobiles did indeed arise, eventually resulting in the decision that horses would no longer be permitted on the park roads. By the 1920s, people were being encouraged to "See America First" and the world was going on wheels. Visitors flocked to the national parks, eager to learn more about them. Recognizing the need and opportunity for education in the parks, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial donated funds for the construction of four trailside museums in Yellowstone. They were located at points of major interest in the park (Old Faithful, Norris, Madison, and Fishing Bridge), each separated by (at that time) "an easy day's journey". Construction began first at Old Faithful in 1928 and the museum opened its doors in 1929.
Later that year, on October 29, our country slid into massive panic. On Black Tuesday, as it's come to be known, the stock market crashed, and Americans plunged headlong into the Great Depression. The United States government established the Civilian Conservation Corps as a federal relief program for the unemployed. The CCC worked in Yellowstone from 1933 through the summer of 1941. They provided general park maintenance, including trail and road construction, brush control, and clean-up duties. As our country entered World War II, Yellowstone fought a few battles of its own. Many of the rangers and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps enlisted in the military. There were few visitors due to the rationing of gasoline and other commodities. Funding was redirected to the war effort, leaving a backlog of maintenance needs and park projects half-completed. Once the war ended, visitation jumped again, breaking the one million mark in 1948, and placing heavy stress on neglected facilities. In 1955, the National Park Service began a program to address the accumulation of maintenance needs, including adequate housing for park employees, and the construction of modern public facilities. It was called "Mission 66", because all projects were scheduled for completion by the 50th Anniversary of the National Park Service in 1966. The first completed Mission 66 project in Yellowstone was the creation of Canyon Village, opening in 1958.
Despite more comfortable traveling conditions, Yellowstone remains a place of vast wildness, where nature reigns in all of its beauty and violence. This was never more evident than during a quiet night in August of 1959 when one of the severest earthquakes recorded on the North American continent, struck just west of the park. At a magnitude of 7.5, it sent a 20 foot high wall of water surging down narrow Madison Canyon, caused half of a 7,600 foot high mountain to collapse, and killed 28 people. In Yellowstone, the earthquake affected the function of geysers and hot springs. Slides and boulders blocked large sections of park roads, and phone lines to Old Faithful and West Yellowstone were instantly broken. Visitors were evacuated from the massive Old Faithful Inn as its timbers creaked and groaned, and the great stone fireplace and chimney crashed down upon the dining room floor. This event has since been remembered as "the night the mountain fell". As our country embarked on a decade of social change, revolution, and innovation in the 1960s, the management of Yellowstone also experienced vast change. During the winter of 1963, six snowmobiles entered the park. (This was the start of a new mode of recreation, which has ballooned to over 140,000 winter visitors each year. In fact, the large number of snowmobiles is currently cause for growing concern over the impact they make on Yellowstone National Park. Managers are in the process of finalizing a winter use plan for the park.)
Wildfire in Yellowstone National Park In the 1960s the management of Yellowstone's wildlife also became revolutionized. For decades, park managers had actively controlled the park's elk and bison herds. The elk's chief natural predator, the wolf, had long ago been exterminated from the park, and subsequently managers set elk population limits based upon the perceived range carrying capacity. When these limits were reached, the animals were actively killed or culled to reduce the herd size. In 1963, a national park advisory group published the Leopold Report, a document that helped establish the framework for park management, which is still used today. The plan called for a "hands-off" rather than "hands-on" approach to natural resource management. In other words, natural processes, including predation and natural culling of wildlife would be allowed to occur, with as little interference from humans as possible. Stemming from this decision, Yellowstone closed garbage dumps within the park, implemented a new bear management plan, and eventually reintroduced wolves into Yellowstone in 1995 to restore natural balance to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Natural balance also called for recognition of the role fire plays in creating the landscape. Fires in Yellowstone had been suppressed since the arrival of the U.S. Army in 1886. Over eighty years later, the park initiated a natural fire management plan, calling for some natural fires to be allowed to run their courses. The philosophy of natural fire management was severely tested during Yellowstone's Summer of Fire in 1988. During that long, hot summer, 36 percent of the park (793,880 acres) were affected, leading to a major review of past fire management policies and extensive research on fire ecology.
One hundred and thirty years have passed since Yellowstone became the world's first national park, and we continue to learn from past mistakes, as well as from our past successes. Today approximately 3 million visitors from around the world travel to Yellowstone every year. Think of what our country has pioneered-the legacy we have begun! An idea that began in tenuous balance has flowered into far-reaching inspiration. National parks are considered by many to be America's greatest gift to the world; in fact, Yellowstone and the United States National Park System continue to serve as models for other countries as they strive to protect their own natural and cultural treasures. One international visitor expressed what many others feel: "Yellowstone may be located in the United States, but it belongs to the world." As we move forward into the 21st century, new challenges await our national parks and will test our spirit. We must continue to change our way of managing resources as we increase our knowledge of natural systems. Events that are happening in Yellowstone today will soon be classified as "history".
Yellowstone National Park