.. A Very Brief & Competent Essay About Park Origins

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October 20, 2007

From Idea to Reality: The Creation of Yellowstone National Park

One of the quintessential American experiences is the family road trip to Yellowstone National Park. What many average Americans do not realize, however, is that the very idea of a public park is a relatively new concept. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that gave birth to Yellowstone National Park, the very first federally managed park ever created in the world. The evolution in public thinking that led to the acceptance of preserving land solely for the enjoyment of the community, was long and convoluted. The actual legal process, on the other hand, was short and straightforward. On December 18, 1871, both Senator Pomeroy from Kansas and Congressman Clagett from Montana Territory introduced bills into their respective assemblies to create a public park near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. Less than three months later Senator Pomeroy’s Yellowstone Bill had become law. To understand why the bill moved so rapidly through congress it is necessary to examine the history of the exploration of the Yellowstone area, as well as the many factors that stood to benefit the bill’s quick passage.

Ever since 1807 trappers and miners had explored the Yellowstone region for pelts and precious metals, but all to no avail. The very first government sponsored exploration was in 1859, when the Corps of Topographical Engineers charged Captain Raynolds with the task of mapping the Yellowstone River. Raynolds’ report is the earliest known government document pertaining to the Yellowstone area. [1] Several years after the Raynolds Expedition, in the spring of 1865, Father Francis Xavier Kuppens visited the park region from his mission in Montana Territory. That October a party including Cornelius Hedges and then Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher sheltered at Kuppens’ mission from a storm. To pass the time Kuppens told of the marvels of Yellowstone. In a book about the origins of Yellowstone National Park, published in 1897, Kuppens recalled that Meagher said, “if things were as described the government ought to reserve the territory for a national park.” This was the first documented account of the idea to preserve some portion of the Yellowstone for a public park.[2]

Meagher tried to mount an expedition to see the headwaters of the Yellowstone, but he died in battle with the Sioux Indians shortly thereafter. Only three of his original volunteers for the mission decided to follow through with the plan. The group left Bozeman Montana on September 10, 1869, and returned to the same city on October 11. One of the members, David Folsom, worked that winter for Henry D. Washburn, the newly appointed surveyor general of Montana Territory. While at the Helena office, Folsom provided Washburn with detailed information about the Yellowstone country, as well as the idea that he had inherited from Meagher of preserving the area as a public park. Folsom later described his adventure to a group at the First National Bank in Helena. One of the attendees, Nathaniel P. Langford, recalled how “the accounts which he [Folsom] gave to Hauser, Gillette and myself renewed in us a determination to visit that region [Yellowstone] during the following year.”[3]

Langford, who was then collector of internal revenue for Montana Territory, lost his job due to political intrigue in Washington DC and returned to the eastern states. While in Philadelphia, he talked with the famous civil war financier Jay Cooke, owner of the private banking house Jay Cooke and Company, and chief backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR). After being chartered on July 2, 1864, the NPRR had only just begun construction on February 15, 1870, due to lack of funds.[4] Jay Cooke and Company had advanced a small sum to get the project started, but the majority of the money for the NPRR was to come from the sale of bonds. Therefore, Jay Cooke needed a way to interest people to buy bonds for the NPRR. During their June 4 meeting of 1870, Cooke and Langford struck on the idea to use the impressive natural wonders of the Yellowstone area to help promote the sale of bonds. They agreed that a well-documented expedition would be just the sensation they needed to spike people’s interest, and Langford set off for Montana with that idea firmly planted in his mind.[5]

On August 22, Langford led a team of nineteen men from Fort Ellis to Yellowstone Lake. The party included Henry D. Washburn, Cornelius Hedges, Samuel T. Hauser, and Warren C. Gillette, all of whom had heard of the park idea and were interested in its creation.[6] At the conclusion of the trip on September 23, Langford returned to the east and began a series of public lectures about Yellowstone to help promote bonds for Jay Cooke and Company. His first lecture, held at Lincoln Hall in Washington DC on January 19, 1871, was heard by none other than Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden. Langford’s speech kindled Hayden’s interest in the area, and using his influence with congressmen James G. Blaines, another advocate of the NPRR, and congressmen Henry M. Dawes, Dr. Hayden was able to procure a $40,000 grant for the continuation of his Geological Survey of the Territories. That summer, Dr. Hayden surveyed the sources of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, the area now encompassed by the park. The information gathered by Dr. Hayden and the half dozen other scientists who accompanied him was instrumental in passage of the bill that turned Yellowstone into a national park.[7]

When Dr. Hayden returned to D.C, he found on his desk a note from A.B. Nettleton, Jay Cooke’s office manager. Nettleton related how Judge Kelley, a congressmen from Pennsylvania and deeply involved in the dealings of Jay Cooke and Company, told him that he thought it would be a good idea if “congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever.” Dr. Hayden agreed, and immediately began lobbying towards this end. It is easy to see why supporters of the NPRR such as Jay Cooke took such a strong interest in creating a national park. If Yellowstone became a national park then tourists would flock to the area, and all would ride the NPRR to get there. Thus it was in the vital interest of the NPRR to see Yellowstone’s creation succeed. Historian Aubrey L. Haines remarked, “Without a doubt, the NPRR took up Judge Kelley’s suggestion and proceeded to implement it as a matter of company policy.”[8] Historians generally agree that supporters of the NPRR were responsible for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Without the power and influence of the NPRR, the many factions clamoring for the preservation of the Yellowstone area would have hindered rather than helped each other reach that goal.

The idea of a national park, nevertheless, was still an unknown concept. The NPRR and most Montanans simply wanted to preserve the Yellowstone country along the same lines as Yosemite. However, Yosemite had been granted to a state, whereas Montana was only a territory at the time. The majority of Yellowstone was also in Wyoming Territory, and it would have been a major faux pa to suggest taking land from one territory to give it to another. Therefore, the only viable option left was to place Yellowstone in the hands of the federal government. On December 18, 1871, delegate William H. Clagett from Montana introduced H.R. 764, which exactly mirrored the Yosemite Grant of June 30, 1864. The only difference between the two bills was that the federal government instead of the State of California was to hold the land in trust.[9]

Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy from Kansas introduced the exact same bill in the senate as S. 392, describing it as a bill to set aside forty miles by fifty miles as a pubic park. He also mentioned that Dr. Hayden had made a very elaborate report of the area.[10] Dr. Hayden not only made a report, but he also set up a display in the rotunda of the capital building. Langford distributed copies of his article “The Wonders of Yellowstone,” as well as copies of Lieutenant Doane’s report of the 1870 Washburn Expedition. Clagett later remarked “between him [Dr. Hayden], Langford and myself, I believe there was not a single member of Congress in either House who was not posted by one or the other of us in personal views.”[11]

Both of the bills were sent to their respective bodies’ committee on public lands. On January 30, 1872, Senator Pomeroy reported from the senate committee on public lands, of which he was the chairman. The committee added two minor amendments to make the wording of the bill clearer, but otherwise left it as it was. Senator Henry B. Anthony from Rhode Island wanted to change the wording that forbid the hunting of game and fish for profit to forbid hunting in the park for any reason whatsoever. Senator Pomeroy pointed out, however, that visitors would need to hunt for sustenance, and Senator Anthony recalled his objection. Senator George F. Edmunds from Vermont then voiced his support of the bill, but Senator Cornelius Cole of California followed with a protest. Senator Cole argued that the grant was unnecessary because the whole of the Rocky Mountains were in essence a public park. He also believed that US citizens should still have the right to settle there if they so chose. Senator Lyman Trumbull from Illinois rebutted this argument by stating that the land proposed for a park was too high and cold for settlers and that since the federal government would hold it in trust, they could “repeal this law if it is in anybodies way.” Trumbull also reminded Cole of the Yosemite grant given to his own state, and the propriety of passing the Yellowstone bill while that area was still uninhabited. The senate then voted, passed, and sent the bill to the House.[12]

The bill moved more slowly in the House because Delegate Clagett was preoccupied with his legislation to remove the Flathead Indians from Montana Territory. Not until January 27, 1872, did Mark Dunnell, the subcommittee chairman for the House Committee on Public Lands, ask the Interior Department for a report from Dr. Hayden. [13] Dr. Hayden sent a preliminary report in which he recommended the passage of the bill because the Yellowstone area “is not susceptible of cultivation, and the winters would be too severe for stock-raising.” He also did not believe there were “any mines or minerals of any value.”[14] While the House Committee on Public Lands read Hayden’s report and the senate version of the bill sat on the Speaker’s table, there was another great advertising campaign in favor of the bill. Newspapers in Montana demanded the immediate passage of the bill. The editor of the Helena Herald, “being well aware who was behind this particular legislation, added: ‘Without a doubt the NPRR will have a branch track penetrating this plutonian region.’”[15]

The House finally took up the senate version of the bill on February 27. Representative Glenn W. Schofield of Pennsylvania moved to send the bill to the Committee on Public Lands, of which he was a member, and Representative John Taffe of Nebraska wanted to send it to the Committee on Territories, of which he was a member. These attempts to forestall the passage of the bill might have prevailed had Representative Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts not stood in its defense. He believed the bill to be a “meritorious measure,” and hoped that the bill would be “put upon its passage at once.” Representative Dunnell then stated that the House Committee on Public Lands had instructed him to ask the House to pass HR. 764, which was similar in all respects to S. 392. In his report, Dunnell praised the bill in flowing terms, stating “in a few years this region will be a place of resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world…The withdrawal of this tract … will be regarded by the entire civilized world as a step of progress.”[16]

After the bill was read, Representative Dawes’ took up its defense again, using the same arguments as Senator Trumbull had in his justification of the senate version. He emphasized how the area in question was not suitable for settlers or exploitation of any kind. Dawes then reminded the House that they had passed a similar bill, the Yosemite grant, eight years earlier and that not to do so now would be irrational. Finally, he stated that the bill put the park in the hands of the U.S. government, so that if they desired, congress could alter the bill in the future.[17]

Representative Taffe then posed question of how the bill would affect the Sioux Indian Reservation. Taffe believed the area of the park was inside the land already designated as the Sioux Indians’ Reservation. Dawes’ reiterated that it was impossible for anyone to live in the Geyser Basin, Indian or settler alike, so it was a moot question. The House then put the bill to a vote, and it passed by a margin of 115 in favor, 65 against, and 60 abstaining.[18] On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law. One stipulation of the bill, however, was that the park would require zero funding from the national treasury. This lead to a letter from the Secretary of the Interior on February 21, 1874, asking to amend the Yellowstone Law by specifying a budget for the park.[19] Senator William Windom from Minnesota proposed a bill to this effect on March 6. [20] The bill was sent to the Committee on Public Lands, reported back March 27, and ultimately dropped.[21] As one can see the passage of the bill was simple and clear-cut. The idea and original conception of the bill, however, took a much longer and tortuous path to come to fruition. Beginning with explorers and frontiersmen, the proposal eventually reached the east where the NPRR and its supporters such as Jay Cooke and Company adopted it as their own. With its far-reaching influence the NPRR was able to unite the many parties in favor of the Yellowstone park scheme, and turn it into a bill. Without the persuasion of the NPRR the idea never would have reached the capital. Once a bill, progressive thinkers such as Henry Dawes were essential in guaranteeing its success. Thanks to the above parties, American’s can still take their families to see some of the most spectacular natural phenomenon in the world.


[1] The Report of General W.F. Raynolds on the Exploration of the Yellowstone and the Country Drained by that River, U.S., 40th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Ex. Doc. 77, July 17, 1868, p. 77.

[2] Paul Schullery and Lee Whittlesey, Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 1-2. Whether Meagher actually used the words ‘national park,’ or Kuppens placed them in hindsight, is debatable.

[3] Nathaniel Pitt Langford, Discovery of Yellowstone Park: Complete Story of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the year 1870 (St. Paul: J.E. Haynes, 1905), p. 23.

[5] Aubrey L. Haines, The Yellowstone Story: A History of Our First National Park (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1977), 105.

[6] Letter from the Secretary of War, communicating the report of Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane upon the so-called Yellowstone Expedition of 1870. U.S., 41st Congress, 3rd Session, Senate Ex. Doc. 51, March 3 1871.

[7] Haines, Yellowstone Story, 137-141.

[8] Ibid., 165.

[9] An Act granting to the State of California of the ‘Yo-Semite Valley,’ and of the land embracing the ‘Mariposa Big Tree Grove,’ (U.S., Statutes at Large, vol. 13, June 30 1864, p. 325).

[10] U.S., Congressional Globe, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, December 18, 1871, part 1, p.159

[11] Langford, Discovery of Yellowstone, p. 41.

[12] U.S., Congressional Globe, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, January 30, 1872, part 1, p.679.

[13] Preliminary Report of the United States Geological Survey of Montana and Portions of Adjacent Territories; Being a Fifth Annual Report of Progress By F.V. Hayden, U.S., 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, House Ex. Doc. 326, 1872, p.1-9.

[14] Harold D. Hampton, How the US Cavalry Saved our National Parks (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), p. 52.

[15] Haines, The Yellowstone Story, 170-171.

[16] The Yellowstone Park, U.S., 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, House Report no. 26, February 27, 1872.

[17] U.S., Congressional Globe, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, February 27, 1872, part 2, p. 1243.

[18] Ibid. 1244

[19] Yellowstone Park: Letter from the Secretary of the Interior, transmitting a draught amendatory and supplementary to the Yellowstone Act. U.S., Congressional Serial Set, 43rd Congress, 1st Session, House Ex. Doc. 147, February 21, 1874.

[20] A bill to amend the Yellowstone Act of 1872, U.S., 43rd Congress, 1st Session, Senate Bill 581, March 6, 1874.

[21] U.S., Register, 43rd Congress, 1st Session, part 2, p. 2510.

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