“DISCOVERY” IS A RELATIVE TERM
The Yellowstone Plateau, (a remnant of super-volcanic episodes,) is ringed by high mountains and is drained by the Snake River, Madison River, Yellowstone River, Shoshone River, and Gardiner River. The rivers are steep and precipitous in their courses and allow no simple access to the plateau.Because of the rugged surroundings it was late in the “Westward Push” that Euro Americans finally “discovered” Yellowstone.
++The first white man who is known to have traveled through Yellowstone actually came up the Missouri River with Lewis and Clark. But, as they returned to the States, John Colter decided that he wanted to stay in the Rocky Mountains and begin a life trapping the beaver rich waters of the West. He returned upstream with a group of trappers employed by a Spanish American entrepreneur named Manuel Lisa and built Fort Raymond at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers. Lisa sent men out that fall to “advertise” the trading post to surrounding Indians. Colter was one of those men who left the fort and toured the mountains that fall and winter to alert Crows and other Indians of Lisa’s intent to trade. The details of Colter’s five hundred-mile winter trek are debatable because he did not leave a written account. However, he did tell others about his trip, and many of the places he traveled can be verified from their information.
Colter explored the Bighorn Basin and the Wind River areas where he probably encountered Crows in their wintering grounds and gathered geographic information from them. Some of them may have occasionally traveled with Colter as well. From there he probably went west to what would become Jackson Hole and over Teton Pass to Pierre’s Hole. He then went north into the current boundaries of Yellowstone Park where he found Yellowstone Lake and followed its western shore to the lake’s outlet and down the river from there. Colter may have gone as far down the Yellowstone River as the mouth of the Lamar River and followed that river to the Absoroka Mountains and back down to the Bighorn River where he returned to Lisa’s trading post.
Colter returned with stories of the thermal features that he found in the area. One of which became known as “Colter’s Hell” to fur trappers in the years that followed. He told his companions of the steam that constantly filled the air and the odor that accompanied it. Although he may not have understood the geological forces at work in Yellowstone, Colter’s knowledge of the region’s geography and experience with the Crows became important tools for the fur trade. Later traders went to the area to verify the accounts of what they heard and eventually their knowledge of the area was put to use in mapping it.
++Soon after Captains Lewis and Clark passed to the north of the Yellowstone region in 1806, white Americans began to explore it. Some came in search of furs and wealth, some heard stories of the wonders that the landscape possessed and wanted to satisfy their curiosities, while others were forced into the area by circumstances beyond their control. Whatever their intents and purposes for traveling there, Yellowstone usually left a distinct impression on its visitors.
A discharged member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter, is claimed to have been the first white man to travel in the area and to see Yellowstone Lake as well as the other features for which the area is known. Colter was commissioned to alert Crow and other Indians in the area to the presence of the Missouri Fur Trading Company that employed him. In 1807 the Missouri Company built Fort Raymond at the mouth of the Bighorn River to the east of Yellowstone. Colter’s experience in Yellowstone was especially unique in that he traveled five hundred miles in the fall and winter of 1807 and 1808 and he managed to safely return to Fort Raymond in the spring despite the harsh mountain winter. That winter provided Colter with invaluable knowledge of the region that he passed on to his peers.
The next recorded travelers in the Yellowstone were Canadians who worked for the North West Company in 1818. Another group of Canadians who worked for the Hudson Bay Company went through the area in 1824. Europeans and Americans tread lightly in the Northern Rocky Mountains between 1812 and the early 1820s because of the sensitive relationship that the War of 1812 left between the United States and the British. Claims to much of the territory in the Pacific Northwest were undecided, and although the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 included the land up to the Continental Divide, most of the region was unknown.
In 1822, however, William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company invaded the upper Missouri. Men like Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith and Daniel Potts entered the Rocky Mountains in pursuit of furs and adventure. This began a uniquely American way of life that came to be known as the mountain man’s.
Daniel Potts wrote a letter to his brother in 1827 and described his wanderings among the wonders of Yellowstone. His brother forwarded the letter to the editor of a newspaper in Philadelphia who rewrote it and published it. That became the first published account of Yellowstone that Americans read.
Joe Meek, another well-known fur trapper, was forced into Yellowstone in 1829. He did not go there by choice because he was forced to flee from an attack by Piegans near the mouth of Tom Miner Creek on the Yellowstone River. As a result, Meek followed the river upstream and over the Mammoth springs near the current north entrance of the park. Eventually he ended up in Norris Geyser Basin and later provided a description of it.
Johnson Gardner, formerly of the Rocky Mountain Company, joined the American Fur Company in 1832 and he established a post on the branch of the Yellowstone that now bears his name. He intended to extract all of the beaver from that region, but clearly the territory was too large for one man to do it alone. Meanwhile, two of the most well known mountain men, Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick, trapped in other periphery areas of the park that same year. Bridger may have been learning about Yellowstone’s peculiarities that fueled the tall tales for which he later became known. The next summer, a group of American Fur Company trappers followed Gardner to the Yellowstone and penetrated the interior of the region. They found the geysers along the Firehole River and their accounts of them inspired the curiosity of more visitors.
Hearing of the wonders in Yellowstone at the annual fur trade rendezvous in 1833, Warren Ferris decided to see them for himself the next year. Trained in New York as a surveyor, Ferris had a keen sense of geography and an insatiable curiosity about the western landscape. Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines called Ferris the first Yellowstone tourist because of his curiosity about the region and his apparent lack of interest in trapping there. Ferris did more than tour, however. During his brief stay, he made crude measurements and made observations about the thermal features on the Firehole River. He described them in comparison to the geysers in Iceland and he was also the first person to use the term “geyser” for these features. He also filled in a large gap on his own map of the West. His map, however, was ignored in 1830s and was not published made available to the public. After his return to the East in 1836, Ferris turned his journal into a book called Life in the Rocky Mountains, but was not published until it resurfaced in 1940.
Another devoted chronicler trapped beaver in Yellowstone the year after Ferris passed through. Osborne Russell trapped in the Lamar Valley in 1835 and provided a rare, early account of a group of Sheep Eaters. The beauty that surrounded him there struck Russell. He liked it enough to return several more times in the following years. The following year he and his companions discovered Two Ocean Pass which had long been the object of great speculation. Such a place even occupied Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts three decades earlier as he commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Atop the Continental Divide, the waters from one mountain spring divided into two streams. One stream flowed east to the Atlantic, while the other flowed west to the Pacific. The existence of such a place, however, was not confirmed until 1860 when a military expedition led by Captain W. F. Raynolds found it again.
By 1840, the fur trade came to a halt. Some trappers turned to cultivating the land in the East or on new frontiers. Others found ways to stay in the mountains by guiding overland immigrants to Oregon and California. During the next two decades, Yellowstone partially remained a landscape known to the old trappers and a few others who had passed through. Yellowstone was recreated by the stories of the mountain men. Interest in the region increased again the 1860s when prospectors began to populate the northern Rockies.
++After the Civil War Americans renewed their interest in exploring parts of the West that were not mapped. Yellowstone’s geography and wonders were hardly known to the government and general public in the 1860s. A group of prominent Montanans stopped at a Jesuit mission near Great Falls, Montana in October 1865 to take shelter from a blizzard that slowed their trip to Fort Benton. While they were taking shelter at the mission, Father Francis Kuppens confirmed what rumors the Montanans had heard about the Yellowstone region and increased their interest in the area. Kuppens had traveled into Yellowstone with Piegans on a buffalo hunt and had seen the wonders there.
For the next few summers, Montanans planned several expeditions to the core of Yellowstone, but none of them materialized until 1869. The expedition of 1869 started a four year phase of exploration in Yellowstone’s history that historian Aubrey Haines described as giving Americans “definitive knowledge” of this primary western watershed. Until 1869 and even after it, many of the wonders contained at the sources of the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers were just rumors surrounded by fantastic tales and perpetuated by imaginative trappers and a few prospectors.
The expedition of 1869 began on a large scale. But like the plans for other expeditions before it, its members failed to follow through with their commitment to the expedition. More than twenty men had planned to accompany the party to Yellowstone, but a week before it was scheduled to depart from Helena, “business matters” detained most of the participants. Three of the men, however, resolved to proceed with the original plan. Charles Cook, David Folsom and William Petersen left Helena on September 6 despite farewells of “Good-bye boys, look out for your hair!” and “If you get into a scrap, remember I warned you.” Montanans were clearly apprehensive about traveling in Yellowstone for fear of Indian hostilities. Cook, Folsom and Peterson, however, proved those fears to be unreasonable. They did encounter Indians on their journey, but none were hostile.
With six weeks of provisions packed on two horses, the trio left from Bozeman–the last place to acquire provisions–and crossed the Gallatin Range into the Yellowstone Valley. They followed the Yellowstone River upstream to where it joined the Gardner River. This became the standard approach to Yellowstone in the years that followed and the main entrance to the park once tourists began to arrive. Cook, Folsom and Petersen continued up the Yellowstone River to the mouth of the lake. On their way they observed the land’s peculiar features. From Yellowstone Lake they crossed west to the Firehole Basin and witnessed the geysers there. They followed the Firehole to the Madison River and the Madison to the Three Forks of the Missouri where they continued to Helena in October. Thirty-six days after their departure, they still had their scalps.
The next year Montana’s Surveyor General, Henry Washburn headed a full-scale expedition into Yellowstone. The Washburn group included Nathaniel Langford, an aspiring Montana politician and employee of a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Other prominent Montanans were among the expedition as well. The expedition also had a military escort, despite Cook, Folsom and Petersen’s success the year before. Lieutenant Gustavus Doane commanded an escort of five soldiers from Fort Ellis near Bozeman. Two packers and two black cooks also assisted the party. Altogether nineteen men and a dog named Booby made the journey.
The Washburn party followed the same route as the previous year’s expedition to the mouth of Yellowstone Lake. From there, they followed the lake’s eastern shore to the arms on the south end of the lake. There, one of the members of the party became lost in the thick timber and was not found for thirty-seven days. Truman Everts was the oldest member of the group and his epic adventure became one of Yellowstone’s best known stories. The party left soldiers to search for the missing Everts, but they soon had to leave for lack of supplies. Another search party found him near Blacktail Deer Plateau in tattered cloths, severely famished and delirious.
On the west side of the lake, the expedition crossed the divide between Yellowstone Lake and Firehole River, where they followed the same route as Cook, Folsom and Petersen again. The Madison River forms at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers. The expedition stopped there to camp at the beginning of their return to civilization. A marker is there now, which commemorates the conception of the idea to create a national park. However, historians of Yellowstone have debated its accuracy for nearly a century. Sitting around the campfire that September night, the men in the expedition debated Yellowstone’s fate. Some suggested they should all carve out their own claims–something that was already beginning to occur–and profit from tourists once the railroad arrived a few years later. But, as the story goes, Cornelius Hedges suggested that it should be reserved for public use and private profit should be discouraged.
The results of the Washburn Expedition gained recognition. A group of “reputable” men had finally witnessed the wonders there and returned with “reliable” testimonies about it. They took measurements of geysers, named and calculated the elevation of peaks, measured the heights of waterfalls and found species of small mammals and plants that were not yet catalogued. They collected specimens, including petrified wood, soil, and water from springs. They even made daily records of barometric pressure and temperature.
That winter (1870-1871) Nathaniel Langford took his specimens east on a promotional speaking tour that was funded by the Northern Pacific Railroad. At one of his stops in Washington, he renewed the interest of the nation’s foremost geologist, Ferdinand Hayden. Hayden had attempted to penetrate the Yellowstone wilderness with Captain W. H. Raynolds of the United States Topographical Survey in 1860, but the party was deterred from the south by a high, sharp ridge. Raynolds’s party found itself trying to enter from the west also, but in early June the snows were still too deep. Hayden published a map of his geological discoveries with Raynolds in the West, but there was a large void where Yellowstone lay.
Hayden lobbied the House Appropriations Committee in 1872 and secured $40,000 dollars that year for the sole purpose of exploring Yellowstone. The survey included: Hayden and his assistant, one “agricultural statistician and entomologist,” two topographers, two photographers, one meteorologist, two botanists, one mineralogist, one physician, one zoologist, a secretary, two “general assistants,” and the son of Senator Henry Dawes from Massachusetts who was also supposed to act as an assistant. One artist, Thomas Moran also accompanied the survey. A crew of fifteen “teamsters, laborers, cooks, or hunters” also supported Hayden’s expedition. In addition to Hayden’s survey crew, he discovered that General Sheridan had commissioned a reconnaissance into Yellowstone after reading Lieutenant Doane’s report. Both the Army engineers and Hayden’s expedition were assigned a military escort from Fort Ellis. The geographic and scientific results of this survey were convincing enough to persuade Congress to pass the Yellowstone Act in March 1872, and to nearly double Hayden’s funding for another survey the next year.
There were several results of this era of exploration in Yellowstone. First, and most obvious, it created the first large preserve of public land in the world. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Act into law in 1864, but that only preserved a small piece of land mostly restricted to the Yosemite Valley. Yellowstone was so large that it generated some controversy. Politicians and entrepreneurs argued that it might be harmful to the economy if valuable natural resources were found there. Another effect of exploration was that Yellowstone was finally charted. In 1836, Warren Ferris, a fur trapper drew a map of the West–Yellowstone included–accompanying his journals from the years that he spent in the Rocky Mountains. His map revealed an intimate knowledge of Yellowstone’s topography, but publishers rejected his book and the map. Few People ever saw either. Yellowstone was not mapped as accurately until W. W. De Lacy published a map in 1870 based on information provided by Cook, Folsom and Petersen. The Washburn Expedition expanded on this knowledge and Hayden made it scientifically legitimate. Another effect that exploring Yellowstone had was that it gave natural scientists a priceless laboratory in which to work. Yellowstone’s preservation was a venue for geologists, botanist, zoologists and naturalists to become professionals. Since its creation, countless scientists have built careers on and around Yellowstone.
For further reading:
Ferris, Warren Angus. Life in the Rocky Mountains. Edited by Paul Phillips. Denver: The Old West Publishing Company, 1940.
Haines, Aubrey. Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment. Washington: Department of the Interior, 1974.
Langford, Nathaniel P. Diary of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870. St. Paul: F. J. Haynes Co., 1905.
Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience, 3d Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
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