Yellowstone National Park, USA: European Exploration Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Yellowstone National Park, USA: European Exploration

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Yellowstone National Park
Origins | Geology | Pre-European Archaeology | European Exploration

While the area of Yellowstone National Park was well known and sacred to Native American cultures, it was more or less unknown of to the Europeans on the continent. In 1797, the British explorer, geographer and fur trader David Thompson made the first references to the Yellowstone River in his notes on the Upper Missouri River. The first European notice of the park itself came from Governor James Wilkinson of Louisiana Territory, in a letter addressed to the Secretary of War on 8 September, 1805:

I have equipt a Perogue out of my Small private means, not with any view to Self interest, to ascend the Missouri and enter the River Piere jaune, or yellow Stone, called by the natives, Unicorn River, the same by which Capt Lewis I since find expects to return and which my informants tell me is filled with wonders, this Party will not get back before the Summer of 1807 – they are natives of this Town, and are just able to give us course and distance, with the names and population of the Indian nations and bring back with them Specimens of the natural products...

There is no record of the above expedition; however, Governor Wilkinson obtained additional information from Native American sources - a map of the Missouri River and its south-western headwaters drawn on a buffalo pelt. It had no scale or compass, but described a volcano on Yellow Stone River, the river whose headwaters are in today's Yellowstone National Park. It was sent to President Thomas Jefferson, who brought it back to his Virginia home, Monticello, and was most likely transferred to the University of Virginia and housed in the Rotunda there. Unfortunately, this map is thought to have been destroyed by fire along with the Rotunda.

Lewis and Clark

The first European record of Yellowstone dates back to the Lewis and Clark expedition across the northwest region of North America from 1804 - 1806. Merriweather Lewis and William Clark did not venture into the region; the only mention of what might have been Yellowstone is from a vague entry in Clark's journal after he interviewed a nameless Native American upon his return to St Louis, Missouri. It describes a place where:

At the head of this river the natives give an account that there is frequently herd a loud noise, like Thunder, which makes the earth Tremble, they State that they seldom go there because their children Cannot sleep – and Conceive it possessed of spirits, who were averse that men Should be near them.

Of course, knowing the reverence the Native Americans held for Yellowstone, the above statement is laughable.

Colter's Hell

While Lewis and Clark returned to civilisation with their findings, a member of their expedition team named John Colter had not had enough of the wilderness. He spent the winter from 1807 - 1808 trapping and trading with Native Americans in what is today Yellowstone National Park, and is probably the first European to see its wonders. Of course his accounts of the thermal features were thought of as 'mad hallucinations' by the sensible people of his time. The first written account of the Yellowstone region in a Philadelphia newspaper was not taken seriously for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, more fur trappers and mountain men 'discovered' Yellowstone. Joe Meek's 1892 account of the Norris Geyser basin described 'fire and brimstone'. Also, trapper Daniel T Potts composed one of the earliest letters regarding present-day Yellowstone Park, in which he described the thermal features in the area. Warren Angus Ferris is thought to be the first tourist, visiting solely out of curiosity in 1834. He was the first to provide an adequate description of a geyser, and apply the term to Yellowstone's thermal features. Tales from other eyewitnesses in the 1830s, like famed trapper and storyteller Jim Bridger, who in 1851 collaborated with Jesuit priest Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet on a relatively accurate map of the park, and the mountain man Osborne Russell were often scoffed at and thought of as hyperbole.

Visits to the park decreased when the beaver hat went out of style around 1840 and Europeans no longer had a reason to visit the park. Struggles with the American Civil War occupied much of the US Government's energy in the 1860s, and support for an exploration party into the park could not be mustered. For a little while, Yellowstone was again left to the Native Americans.

Gold Rush

Yellowstone was not left alone for long, however. After the Civil War, prospectors1 came to Yellowstone in a mostly futile search for gold. An 1863 expedition of prospectors led by Washington deLacy found its way into the southern portion of the park. A group of Piegans2 guided Jesuit priest Father Francis Xavier Kuppens3 into the park in 1865, where he visited the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the geysers of the Firehole Basin.

Tales of steam shooting out of the ground and boiling pools of mud fanned curiosity, and in 1869, David Folsom, Charles Cook, and William Peterson explored the park area to experience these wonders for themselves. They kept diaries, but when they attempted to publish them in the New York Tribune and Harper's Magazine, they were refused4. Needless to say, very few educated people believed that Yellowstone as we know it was even possible.

The First 'Real' Expedition

Even though discoveries from the Folsom-Cook-Peterson expedition remained unpublished, notice was still taken of their efforts. A friend of these adventurers named Nathaniel P Langford5 remembered their stories and those of Jim Bridger, and rallied a group of distinguished leaders in 1870 for an expedition that would sort out fact from fiction. This is officially known as the Washburn expedition, after General Henry Washburn, the Montana surveyor general that officially led the explorers through the park. Due to the social standing of these explorers, their accounts of spectacular geysers, gurgling fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, hot springs, crystal clear alpine lakes, mountains and petrified forests were not so easily dismissed.

This expedition led to others. Upon hearing Langford lecture on his travels through what was then still known as Colter's Hell, Dr Ferdinand V Hayden, director of the US Geological Survey became interested in the features of Yellowstone. After appropriating $40,000 for expenses (a tidy sum in 1871), he led 34 men through the park, following the footsteps of the Washburn expedition. His party included Thomas Moran, the young landscape painter, and photographer William Henry Jackson. Both became famous because of their artwork in the park, and both were instrumental in providing proof that the Yellowstone tales were true, and that their source deserved protection.

Prelude to the Park

Unfortunately, even as the park was being explored, there were those who sought to use its wonders for private gain. Even before the major expeditions, trappers hunted fur bearing animals and prospectors tried their luck in the mountains. Naturally, some members of the expedition parties tried to stake their claims6. However, once news spread of the strange and wonderful things in Yellowstone, commercial pressures started to build. In the fall of 1870, The Honorable William H Clagget, Montana Territory delegate to Congress, learned of two men who had gone into one of the more spectacular geyser basins in the park, and 'cut a large number of poles, intending to come back next summer and fence in the tract of land containing the principal geysers and hold possession for speculative purposes.'

Clearly, there was no time to waste.

The creation of a national park in Yellowstone is an idea that had been brought forth several times. However, the first time it was acted on was after the Hayden expedition, when a letter came to Dr Hayden from AB Nettleton on the stationery of 'Jay Cooke & Co, Bankers, Financial Agents, Northern Pacific Railroad Company,'

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 agreed, and soon a plan was put into motion. This came to fruition on 1 March, 1872, when President Ulysses Grant signed into existence the world's first national park. The 2.2 million acres of wilderness known as Yellowstone National Park was 'set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.' Langford was appointed the first superintendent of the Park, and was immediately assigned the task of making a 'thorough exploration' of the Park, and decided to make his investigation as a guest of the Hayden Survey party, which was returning to Yellowstone for further research.

1Pressure from the prospectors caused the peaceful 'Sheep Eaters' to rejoin their Shoshone brethren on the Wind River reservation, and leave the park in 1871.2A minor Native American tribe.3Kuppens described his journey to Acting Territorial Governor Thomas Francis Meagher, who was instrumental in the movement to have Yellowstone declared a national park.4Harper's Magazine purportedly responded to the stories as follows: 'We do not publish fiction.'5Langford was an employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad at the time, and convinced the company to send him on this expedition to further their knowledge of an area where a railroad could be built.6According to legend, Cornelius Hedges is the member of the party that advocated no private ownership of Yellowstone, and that the whole area should be a national park. However, there is no evidence that such a discussion took place.

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