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America's First National Park | A Story of Exploration, Unbelievable Tales, and Land Preservation

When visiting the National Parks, it is easy to be so focused on the views that you forget to appreciate all the history behind them.

Each National Park has such a unique story and they really deserve to be told and remembered.

Today, I'd like to dive into the history of Yellowstone, our oldest National Park. When was Yellowstone discovered? When and why did it become a National Park? Who were the people that decided to take these actions?

As Far Back as We Know

As soon as American settlers got to these lands, they wanted to expand. Doing so made sense as it would grant them more resources. No one really knew how far the land went or what they would find.

Surely none of them expected to find anything as unusual and captivating as the massive geysers and collection of hydrothermal activity that's found in what is now called Yellowstone National park.

Fur traders traveled down the Yellowstone River seeking out Native Americans to trade their goods with. The French gave the area the name "Roche Jaune" which translates to yellow rock. It is from this that we got the name we have today.

In 1808, one brave man was so intrigued by the stories from the trappers that he ventured alone into uncharted lands to see them for himself. John Colter was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition for three years before joining Manuel Lisa's trapping party in 1806. In 1807, these two set up the first trading post at the mouth of the Bighorn River in Yellowstone. This led to lots of conflict between the Native Americans and U.S. Government in the 1860s and 70s.

Unlike the trappers, Colter recorded his findings and returned with many reports about the Yellowstone area that he discovered. He focused primarily on the geothermal areas. His descriptions of the place include things like "steam coming from the ground", "boiling mud", "spouting water", and "beautiful colored pools".

When Colter returned and told others of the sights he saw, his audience did not believe him. Rather, they mocked him by calling the land of thermal features he described as "Colter's Hell" and writing him off as crazy.

This name has stuck and there is indeed an area in Yellowstone called Colter's Hell. Today, however, this name serves to remind us of the brave and incredible journey that this man made.

yellowstone national park colter's hell trail in wyoming state in remembrance of explorer John Colter who first discovered yellowstone
The nickname that stuck

The Rise of Formal Expeditions

After more trappers and mountain men over the next 40 years continually returned with stories of unbelievable sights similar to those of John Colter, the Government finally started to take note. The people started to think that maybe these things were possible and not simply the hallucinations of delusional men exhausted from their trip.

In the 1860s organized expeditions specifically for the exploration of the Yellowstone area started to arise. The government wanted to know what was out there. Several of these expeditions were failed attempts, many never happened, and others returned warning of the dangers from "Indian troubles" along the way.

Still they persisted.

Below are three of the most noteworthy expeditions to Yellowstone that we know of.

1869 - Folsom-Cook-Peterson Expedition

These men sound out on a journey that their friends warned them not to go on. Despite the warnings of this expedition being "the next thing to suicide", they set off to explore. They did indeed get to see many of the prominent features of Yellowstone.

They were able to update a map of the area made in 1865, and even wrote an article for the Western Monthly magazine, and rekindled the fire of excitement in the hearts of scientists who wanted to explore these sights for themselves.

"...beautiful places we had found fashioned by the practiced hand of nature, that man had not desecrated.”

1870 - Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition

This trio is made up from a surveyor-general, a Montana politician and businessman, and an attorney. Seems like an odd trio to set out on an expedition. If you think about it though, these men all wanted to push the boundaries of the nation to get more resources, materials, and control.

I guess it really is all business and politics.

explorer nathaniel p langford in yellowstone national park on horseback while documenting the landscape
Nathaniel P. Langford in Yellowstone

1871 - Hayden Expedition

This expedition seems to be put together a lot more. Hayden was the head of the US Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. He led this scientific expedition alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His surveying crew included two botanists, a meteorologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, a mineralogist, a topographer, and an agricultural statistician/entomologist. In addition to this, there were photographers, artists, and a support crew.

Imagine needing to bring an artist along to paint pictures of the views as proof. Now, we would just whip out our phone and capture a quick shot without even thinking about it.

Though there were expeditions before Hayden's, this one marked the true start of science in the Yellowstone area.

Upon their return, the US gained incredible visual proof of the wondrous lands, an improved map of Yellowstone, and reports that excited the scientific community greatly.

How Did These Men Affect the Creation of a National Park?

In 1871, Langford and his companions from their expedition started the process of passing a bill to save Yellowstone from private development. They took their inspiration from the Yosemite Act of 1864, in which Yosemite was placed in the hands of California State for protection and preservation. Typically to save public land like this, it was transferred from public to private land.

Langford and his men were proposing something unusual.

They wanted to completely shut off the option for public settlement in Yellowstone and not hand it off to private ownership.

The documentation and stories of Yellowstone captivated congress and in the following year, the pleas of the Langford group were met. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law in 1872 making it the very first National Park.

the original signed yellowstone act march 1, 1872 signed by president ulysses s grant and proposed by langford

Why was Yellowstone Turned into a National Park?

The act of March 1, 1872 describes the intentions for making Yellowstone a National Park, how it is to be run and by whom it is to be run by, and how things are to be run in order to maintain, protect, and develop said National Park.

"...dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...".

- Yellowstone Act, 1872

Well, there you have it. Yellowstone was turned into a National Park so that we can go and enjoy it!

Of course, there is a little bit more to it than that.

Part of the reason that Yellowstone was turned into a National Park and set under strict control is to ensure that it stays well kept and in it's original condition. Without rules set in place to protect Yellowstone National Park, people would want to develop the land, climb on and therefore erode the natural features, and take things from within the parks as souvenirs. After enough time of this happening, Yellowstone would start to lose its natural wonder and would no longer be the attraction it once was.

"...preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition."

-Yellowstone Act, 1872

Langford, the member of the 1870 expedition and main force in proposing that Yellowstone become a National Park, became the first park superintendent. Without any wildlife protection laws or law enforcement officers, Langford could only do so much. He did however make a trip into the park in 1874 to kick out a squatter.

nathaniel p langford in a black and white photo as the first superintendent for yellowstone national park
Langford was the first superintendent for Yellowstone

After five years in this position, he was replaced by Philetus W. Norris in 1877. Under him, appropriations “to protect, preserve, and improve the Park.” were approved by the US Congress. He began to construct roads, built a headquarters for the park at Mammoth Springs, and hired the park's first gamekeeper.

second superintendent of yellowstone national park Philetus posing for black and white photo
The second superintendent of Yellowstone National Park

Eventually he too was booted out and new superintendents were appointed. However, the next few were no good and could not keep the park protected.

Poachers, vandals, woodcutters, and squatters were destroying the park and taking advantage of the weak system.

In August of 1886, the US Army took charge of the park as appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. They could enforce regulations, protect major attractions, and patrol the area to kick out troublemakers.

l.o.o.m. 18th infantry 941 US Army soldiers stationed in yellowstone national park to protect and preserve the land
The US Army has soldiers stationed in Yellowstone National Park to help protect the lands

In 1894, a poacher named Ed Howell was captured for killing bison within the park and keeping the heads. At the time, all they could do was ban him from entering the park again, so he walked away with relatively no punishment. When reporters got a hold of the story, there was a public outcry that lead to the passing of the National Protection Act only two months later.

Bison heads taken  by the army stationed in yellowstone national park from Ed Howell, the first poacher to be punished under the National Park Protection Act, 1894
Bison heads taken from Ed Howell, the first poacher to be punished under the National Park Protection Act, 1894

While the Army was able to protect Yellowstone National Park, they weren't able to satisfy the wants of the people who visited the park and wanted to learn about it. The Army didn't make very good tour guides and park hosts.

It wasn't until 1918, after the start up of the National Parks Service, that Yellowstone got its first official Park Rangers like the ones we see today.

In Conclusion

I'd say we owe a thank you to the men who led these expeditions and decided that Yellowstone was something worth setting apart and protecting. Convincing the public and the government of this was no easy feat. They were often met with disbelief and ridicule. We also owe some gratitude to the US Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant for being willing to listen and believe the documentation the explorers brought back.

Without the support of the government and the convincing of some explorers, Yellowstone National Park would not be the beautiful place that it is today.

I sure learned a lot while doing my research to write this post, and found it all quite fascinating. I hope you are able to learn something from this incredible story as well, and will be able to look at Yellowstone with a new found appreciation.

Which National Parks you would like to learn about next? Let me know in the comments.

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Meet the Author


Hey! I'm Kaitlynn, a lover of the outdoors and all things travel. I quit my job to travel full-time with my husband, Matthew, in our skoolie. 

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Matt & Kate

Project 63 

Bringing you travel information and inspiration as we travel to all 63 National Parks.

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