Among the nearly 60 people that participated in Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition was a man by the name of John Colter. When the rest of the Corps of Discovery returned east with tales of gorgeous and virgin landscapes (sadly, they didn’t find any mammoths), Colter stayed behind, wandering the West for much of his life and becoming one of the country’s first mountain men.
In 1807, he was traveling through an unknown area and was shocked to find an alien world: scalding hot water came shooting up out of the ground, boiling puddles of mud, a strange world wreaking of acid and sulfur. When Colter told others of what he’d seen, they laughed at him. The frontiersmen Colter knew mockingly referred to it as “Colter’s Hell.” It fell into legend.
Over two decades passed before more strange stories started to seep out of the Yellowstone River Basin. And as the legend grew, some men decided to settle the question for themselves by exploring the area. What they found there so shocked and mesmerized the country, that the Congress of the United States took a step never done before in the history of the world; they created the concept of a National Park.
This week in history we backtrack 145 years to March 1, 1872, to the creation of Yellowstone National Park.
Remote Wilds of AmericaTough-to-reach places like the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Colorado River, and much of the area throughout the Rocky Mountains were complete question marks to European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The map was full of blanks. Of course, American Indians knew the areas intimately, but because they generally didn’t have written languages and because the relationships between the Europeans and the Indians were at best strained, their knowledge largely remained a mystery to the newcomers.
America’s Complex Relationship With NatureThe nation’s relationship with nature in the mid-19th century was complex and problematic; nature was a thing to be subdued and to be exploited. As civilization marched westward, “wilderness” was considered the almost the bane of civilized society. And the mark of civilization had everything to do with farming. According to the United States Census Bureau, the land along the country’s frontier was “redeemed from wilderness by the hand of man.” Farming was inextricably linked to this idea of civilization. And it was seen as a much more “civilized” occupation than banker, journalist, shopkeeper, or just about any other trade available at the time. Farmers were taking dangerous and wild areas and creating order. So to them, the virgin stands of forest and the wide prairies of the midwest were seen as something to be overcome, plowed, cultivated, not admired or protected.
Landmarks that couldn’t be overcome were largely seen as oddities that could be exploited. Niagara Falls was by far the country’s most recognizable natural attraction. and speculators had leaped at the chance to capitalize on it. Land was bought up on either side of the Niagara river, and visitors had to pay fees to view the falls from the best vantage points. Festival attractions, rides, and food vendors popped up to entice tourists and their money to one area or another, and the grandeur of Niagra Falls was overshadowed, somewhat by the carnival atmosphere.
Some visitors were turned off at the developments around Niagra, including Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park. He and others started a movement they called “Free Niagara,” with the goal of trying to restore some of the natural beauty and land surrounding the falls and allowing free access for all people.
Olmstead was an early member of the American conservation movement. The movement was inspired by the transcendentalist writings of authors like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his writings, Emerson called for “little oases of nature” to be preserved from development. These ideas slowly began to take root in the 1860’s and 70’s, but they were far from becoming mainstream, and the country wasn’t ready to listen to thinkers like Olmstead or Emerson who wanted to protect nature against rampant development
The concept must have seemed unnecessary to most people; the country was seemingly endless, and most of it seemed pristine. No amount of progress could seem to put a dent in the overwhelming expanse of the American continent and these abundant natural resources.
Manifest DestinyWhile America’s politics were roiling in the divisions that eventually led to the Civil War, the West provided a respite from society’s ills and promise of a new life. The famous concept of Manifest Destiny was in full swing. Now, we generally think of Manifest Destiny as the idea that the U.S. would eventually—inevitably—extend all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But it ran much deeper than that; to many Americans, central to this concept was the belief that God had ordained Americans—and it should be pointed out, they believed it was white Americans—to inherit the land, to “save” the natives, and to develop and civilize the areas. The west had a romance that hasn’t fully been extinguished, even today. There’s an allure to wildness, and a desire to try to tame it, to beat it, to survive it.
That allure became nearly irresistible when gold was discovered in California in 1849. Thousands of people came streaming westward in hopes of a fortune. All over the west settlers and prospectors started spreading into the unexplored parts of the land, looking for their fortune. California was so well established in so short a time, that it was admitted to the union as the 31st state in 1850.
YosemiteIn this rush to settle and tame the west, the Native Americans were routinely exploited, cheated, displaced and murdered. In 1851 a group in central California thought local Indians posed an unacceptable threat, so they banded together into an army—they called themselves the Mariposa Battalion—and marched into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to chase out or kill the natives who lived there. In their murderous mission, they discovered Yosemite Valley. While they gawked at the beauty of the place, they forced out the band of Indians who had for centuries called the valley home.
Their experiences in Yosemite spread. Local newspapers started printing articles and illustrations of Yosemite’s towering granite walls, stunning waterfalls, and the nearby stand of giant sequoias. Now that the Yosemite Valley was emptied of its Native American population, white tourists started to make the long trip to see the place for themselves. They wrote their own articles and published the first photographs. An inn was constructed in Yosemite Valley to accommodate the burgeoning tourist population. Within ten years, paintings and photographs of Yosemite started to spread throughout the entire country.
In 1864, while in depths of the Civil War, Senator John Conness from California proposed a bill setting aside what he called “some of the greatest wonders of the world” for protection, under the management of the state of California. After brief debate, wherein Conness assured his colleagues in Congress that the land was “worthless” in regard to farming or other industries, the bill passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law on June 30th, 1864. Though it wasn’t called this at the time, it was the first-ever State Park and was a completely new idea not only in the country, but in the world. But because the country was so distracted by the bloodiest war in our history, no one really seemed to notice the significance of the decision they had just made.
Valley of DeathEmigrants continued to head west during and after the Civil War to start a new life for themselves. As they went, they continued to work their way into remote, unexplored territories, most often looking for gold. Small gold strikes were discovered all over the west: including on the Salmon river in the Oregon Territory (what’s now Idaho.) As explorers and prospectors returned from their travels, more tales about the Yellowstone River Basin began to excite interest and lend credibility to the legend again. Curious, a group of prospectors went into the area. They were so unnerved by what they saw there that they called it the “Valley of Death.”
Charles Cook, a man from the party, sent a description of their experience to Lippincott’s Magazine in Philadelphia. In their rejection letter, they told him, “Thank you, but we don’t print fiction.” Cook and the rest of his friends were hesitant to tell anyone else because they were mocked mercilessly when they did. It was just too incredible to be believed.
The Washburn Expedition
The other important figure to remember was a pleasant, older man named Truman Everts. His experience would do more than any other persons to bring notoriety and fame to Yellowstone.
As Washburn’s group traveled up the river, they encountered their first geothermal feature. Here’s what Nathaniel Langford had to say about it:
. . .we came suddenly upon a basin of boiling sulphur springs, exhibiting signs of activity. . . so wonderful as to fully absorb our curiosity. The largest of these, about twenty feet in diameter, is boiling like a cauldron, throwing water and fearful volumes of sulphurous vapor higher than our heads. Its color is a disagreeable greenish yellow. The central spring of the group, of dark leaden hue, is in the most violent agitation, its convulsive spasms frequently projecting large masses of water to the height of seven or eight feet. The spring lying to the east of this, more diabolical in appearance, filled with a hot brownish substance of the consistency of mucilage, is in constant noisy ebullition, emitting fumes of villainous odor. Its surface is covered with bubbles, which are constantly rising and bursting, and emitting sulphurous gases from various parts of its surface. Its appearance has suggested the name, . . ."Hell-Broth springs;" -Nathaniel Pitt Langford
They moved along, gawking at the strange vents, geysers, hot springs, and other weird geologic formations they’d never imagined. After a number of days, they found themselves standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a huge canyon half a mile deep with two large waterfalls careening into its depths. The group was awestruck.
I cannot confine myself to a bare description of the falls of the Yellowstone alone, for these two great cataracts are but one feature in a scene composed of so many of the elements of grandeur and sublimity, that I almost despair of giving . . . the faintest conception of it. The immense canyon. . . is calculated to fill the observer with feelings of mingled awe and terror.
The canyon must be more than half a vertical mile in depth. . . Our company [viewed the canyon] by lying prone upon the rock, to gaze into its awful depths; depths so amazing that the sound of the rapids in their course over immense boulders, and lashing in fury the base of the rocks on which we were lying, could not be heard. The stillness. . . and the solemn grandeur of the scene surpasses conception. You feel the absence of sound—the oppression of absolute silence. Down, down, down, you see the river attenuated to a thread. . . With a grateful heart you. . . thank God that he. . . permitted you to gaze unharmed upon this majestic display of his handiwork.
Lying there . . . I thought how utterly impossible it would be to describe to another the sensations inspired by such a presence. As I took in this scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature. More than all this I felt as never before my entire dependence upon that Almighty Power who had wrought these wonders.
-Nathaniel Pitt LangfordYellowstone was everything Langford had dreamed and more. He eagerly looked forward to development of the area and looked forward to a time when people would come from all over the country to see this marvel of nature.
The Misadventure of Truman EvertsAt one point, Truman Everts, the 54-year-old who had come along on the trip for fun, got separated from the group as they were trying to navigate a dense forest thick with fallen logs. Even though night was descending, Everts wasn’t alarmed, figuring he’d connect back with his friends in the morning. He pitched camp and went to sleep.
The next day, as he tried to find his group, he continued to dismount to try to find footprints or any other sign of their direction. While dismounted his horse was spooked by something, and Everts turned to see his horse galloping away at full speed, taking his blankets, rifle, pistols, fishing gear, matches, and all of his food. All he had left was a couple of small knives, which he quickly lost, an opera glass, and the clothes on his back. He never saw his horse again.
Everts’ friends knew by the next night that he was lost, and spent several days trying to search for him. But their rations were starting to run out and an early September snowstorm dumped two feet on them. They reluctantly gave up the search and moved on, leaving smalls portions of food and notes behind, in the hopes Everts would find them.
Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser BasinThey pressed on into the Upper Geyser Basin, continuing to name and record the various features they discovered. One of the most impressive geysers they found shot water nearly 100 feet into the air and erupted about every 60 minutes. Impressed by its regularity, Washburn named it Old Faithful.
The continued to name features as they went: the Grotto, the Fan, the Castle, the Giant, and Giantess. Many of the names now used in the park were made by Washburn and his men as they gawked at this strange world. They finally returned to Helena overwhelmed with what they had seen, and deeply concerned for Truman Everts, fearing the worst. Word soon spread, both about the confirmed legends of the Yellowstone Basin and about the missing Everts. Local newspapers picked up the story, and readers were enthralled.
Langford quickly wrote an account and sent it to Scribner's Monthly Magazine, who published two articles by him later in 1870. One reader responded to the magazine in protest, saying, “This Langford must be the champion liar of the Northwest.”
But besides a few incredulous skeptics, the account was believed, and imaginations all over the country were piqued. The tale of Truman Everts spread, too, and the drama of his story did more than any other account to inspire interest in Yellowstone.
Truman Evert’s Misadventure ContinuesAfter several days hunting for his party, Everts realized he wasn’t going to find them. Starving and disoriented, he pushed on. Initially, he was terrified to run into local Indians, but the more desperate his circumstances became, the more eager he was to see anyone. Four days after he was lost, and several days since his last meal, he stumbled on a beautiful lake teeming with wildlife. He thought he saw an Indian paddling a canoe across the lake, and with relief starting running toward it, only to realize it was a large pelican. He was hallucinating.
Desperate, he dug up a plant called elk thistle. It had a large root that vaguely resembled a radish. He ate it and was elated to find out that it wasn’t poisonous. He fell asleep, satisfied at having found food, only to be shocked awake by the scream of a mountain lion. “So alarmingly near,” he wrote, “as to cause every nerve to thrill with terror.” He scrambled up the tree and spent the night cowering in fear as the cougar prowling back and forth at the base of the tree.
The next day, the weather turned foul, as he experienced the same storm that forced the rest of his group to abandon their search for him. He huddled underneath a spruce tree, half-burying himself in dirt and pine branches, and spent two days there. When there was a small lull in the storm, he hiked ten miles and finally managed to find some hot springs, though not before he had badly frostbitten his toes.
I [was there] seven days—the first three of which were darkened by one of the most furious storms I ever saw. The vapor which supplied me with warmth saturated my clothing with its condensations. I was enveloped in a perpetual steam-bath. At first, this was barely preferable to the storm, but I soon became accustomed to it, and before I left, though thoroughly parboiled, actually enjoyed it.
-Truman EvertsThough the springs were keeping him warm, at one point he wandered too close to the edge of one, and broke through the thin crust of earth, scalding his hip badly. The pain was so bad that for the rest of his time lost in the wilderness, he could only sleep in a sitting posture.
One day when the weather cleared up, he realized he could use his opera glass to start a fire, using it like a magnifying glass. But, because he couldn’t do this at night, he would start a fire, grab a stick from the fire, and continuously blow on the ember to keep it alive until he could make camp for the night. Picture this guy’s situation: frostbitten toes, a badly burned hip, stumbling around this alien world carrying a smoldering stick! And then things somehow got worse.
One night, he made a fire, fell asleep, and awoke to realize the entire world around him was on ablaze; Everts has the honor of being the first-known person to start a human-caused wildfire in Yellowstone. Sadly, of course, he wouldn’t be the last. He jumped up and started to run from the blaze, but tripped, fell into the flames, and badly burned his hands.
Weeks passed and he began to hallucinate again, seeing and speaking with old friends. His dreams became lavish and vivid: eating huge dinners at the most luxurious restaurants in New York and Washington DC. He realized that despite his diet of elk thistle, he was slowly starving to death.
I lost all sense of time. Days and nights came and went, and were numbered only by the growing consciousness that I was gradually starving. I felt no hunger. . . I experienced but little pain. The gaping sores on my feet, the severe burn on my hip, the festering crevices at the joints of my fingers, all terrible in appearance, had ceased to give me the least concern.
-Truman EvertsThirty-seven days after being separated from his group, two rescuers managed to find Everts crawling along a hillside. He weighed a mere fifty pounds. They cared for him several days, sure that he wasn’t going to survive.
Being the survivor he was, though, Everts managed to come back from the brink of death. He lived another thirty years, and the account he wrote of his five weeks ordeal caught the rapt attention of the American Public who demanded more information about this strange world. At the end of his account he wrote:
My narrative is finished. In the course of events the time is not far distant when the wonders of the Yellowstone will be made accessible to all lovers of sublimity, grandeur, and novelty in natural scenery, and its majestic waters become the abode of civilization and refinement; and when that arrives, I hope, in happier mood and under more auspicious circumstances, to revisit scenes fraught for me with such thrilling interest. . . mingled glories and terrors. . . and to enjoy, in happy contrast with the trials they recall, their power to delight, elevate, and overwhelm the mind with wondrous and majestic beauty.
Other groups started streaming into the area and writing their own accounts of what they found. Among these were a photographer who was to publish the first known photographs of the area. In that same group was a painter by the name of Thomas Moran, whose paintings of Yellowstone became so famous, Congress bought one at the price of $10,000: nearly $200,000 by today’s standards. Their images galvanized interest in the area in ways no story could, and the fame of the Yellowstone Basin exploded in popular thought.
Yellowstone: America’s Wonderland
One man, C. C. Clawson, referred to the area as “Wonderland,” a reference to Lewis Carol’s recently published book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The name caught on. And as the Northern Pacific began to advertise the area to potential tourists, they released an illustrated brochure called “Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland.”
A Public Park ForeverNathaniel Langford went on a lecture circuit (financed, of course, by the Northern Pacific Railroad). A surveyor by the name of Ferdinand Hayden was in the audience at one of Langford’s speeches. He was so enthralled by what he heard, he organized a group of botanists, geologists, zoologists, and other scientists to study the area. Within a year, this scientific expedition had cataloged and documented their findings. Hayden was asked to present a report to Congress on the experience, and as he was preparing, he received a letter from a lobbyist for the Northern Pacific railroad.
“Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever—just as it has reserved that far inferior wonder the Yosemite Valley and Big Trees. . . If you approve this, would such a recommendation be appropriate in your official report?”
Hayden loved this idea and obliged, making the recommendation to Congress. There were some mild arguments against the proposal. One senator was perplexed why the area needed protection; the geysers, he insisted, were going to keep erupting with or without congress’ protection, and if the land was as useless for farming and mining as was claimed, why did it need to be preserved? Another pointed out that homestead claims were already being made over access points to the proposed park, and it was under threat of becoming a second Niagara. Congress approved the measure overwhelmingly. The bill promised protection and that the land should be “withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Unlike Yosemite, Yellowstone was located in a territory—not an established state. Congress felt that because the Territorial government lacked infrastructure necessary to manage the park, it would best be administered by the Federal Department of the Interior. The law passed with a large majority, and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone National Park, the first of its kind in the world.
The park was enormous at over two million acres—that’s over 3000 square miles; it was bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and more than fifty times larger than the land set aside in Yosemite. Yosemite would eventually be expanded upon, but so would Yellowstone, making it larger today than it was the day it was created.
Yellowstone’s LegacyIt’s remarkable that in an era so bent on progress and dominating and subduing natural land that these men had the foresight to preserve areas of natural beauty for everyone to enjoy. It was an incredibly democratic act, preserving the natural wonders of our country for the “benefit and enjoyment” not just of Americans of the time, but for generations to come. Like with Yosemite, it seems like the significance of Congress’ act didn’t really occur to them; but I guess world-changing decisions often don’t feel that way in the moment.
The United States now has 59 National Parks. Other tools for protecting natural and historic resources have come into existence since 1872. Today there are 18 National Recreation Areas, 20 National grasslands, 117 National Monuments, and 154 National Forests, all with varying degrees of management and protection. Last year alone over 4.2 million people traveled to see Yellowstone National Park. And across all the National Parks, there were 325 Million visitors. That’s nearly the entire population of the United States! (although, of course, a large number of the visitors were foreigners visiting our country.)
It’s sometimes easy to be frustrated by politics in our country. That’s nothing new; politics in this or any other country have always been acrimonious. But the next time you’re feeling discouraged about the direction of the country, visit your nearest National Park and remember that once in a while, our country gets something very, very right.