The "Yellowstone Creation Myth": A Good Tale, But Little More Than That

Firehole River, Yellowstone NP, Kurt Repanshek photo.

As popular lure long had it, in a setting about 16 miles downstream of the Firehole River in this picture, a campfire discussion in September 1870 led to America's national park movement. Kurt Repanshek photo.

One of the more enduring stories about America's national park movement is that it was spawned in the early fall of 1870 during talk around a campfire deep in the heart of today's Yellowstone National Park. But did it?

Nathaniel Pitt Langford, who was among those seated before the flickering flames and who went on to serve as Yellowstone's first superintendent, from May 10, 1872, until April 18, 1877, maintains that was indeed the case. He even put it down in writing in The Discovery of Yellowstone Park, which carried the subtitle, Diary of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870.

Published 35 years by Mr. Langford, the author mentions in the introduction that "(T)he suggestion that the region should be made into a National Park was first broached to the members of our party on September 19, 1870, by Mr. (Cornelius) Hedges, while we were in camp at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon rivers, as is related in this diary."

Furthermore, added Mr. Langford, there later was a large slab erected at the junction of the two rivers upon which was engraved:

JUNCTION of the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers, Forming the Madison Fork of the Missouri

On the point of land between the tributary streams, September 19, 1870, the celebrated Washburn Expedition, which first made known to the world the wonders of the Yellowstone, was encamped, and here was first suggested the idea of setting apart this region as a National Park.

Great story, no? A small group of guys gathered around a flickering campfire in a then-remote corner of the country where Hell boiled up in the form of geysers, fumaroles, mudpots, and other thermal features. Here's one version of how it played out, from Mr. Langford's diary entry from September 20, 1870:

Last night, and also this morning in camp, the entire party had a rather unusual discussion. The proposition was made by some member that we utilize the result of our exploration by taking up quarter sections of land at the most prominent points of interest, and a general discussion followed. One member of our party suggested that if there could be secured by pre-emption a good title to two or three quarter sections of land opposite the lower fall of the Yellowstone and extended down the river along the canon, they would eventually become a source of great profit to the owners. Another member of the party thought that it would be more desirable to take up a quarter section of land at the Upper Geyser Basin, for the reason that that locality could be more easily reached by tourists and pleasure seekers. A third suggestion was that each member of the party pre-empt a claim, and in order that no one should have an advantage over the others, the whole should be thrown into a common pool for the benefit of the entire party.

Mr. Hedges then said that he did not approve of any of these plans -- that there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set aside as a great National Park, and that each one of us ought to make an effort to have this accomplished. His suggestion met with an instantaneous and favorable response from all -- except one -- of the members of our party, and each hour since the matter was first broached, our enthusiasm has increased.

Such a good story was it that the National Park Service long held tightly to it ... until the 1960s, when research by park historian Aubrey Haines and Richard Bartlett, an outside historian, raised questions about Mr. Langford's version.

In discussing Yellowstone's Creation Myth in an essay that ran in the George Wright Society forum back in 1998 and which in 2003 led to a book, Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park, Lee Whittlesey (Yellowstone's staff historian) and Paul Schullery (an historian who worked many years for the National Park Service in Yellowstone) further debunked the "campfire" scenario, saying it was riddled with too many holes.

We have reviewed the 20 or so first-hand accounts left by members of the Washburn party: a wealth of unpublished diaries and letters, as well as numerous articles and reports shortly after the expedition returned to the settlements. As Aubrey Haines has showed and we confirm, none even mention the conversation or the idea of creating a national park, a term that Langford, many years later, claimed the group used that night.

In his diary, the following morning, Cornelius Hedges himself said only, "Didn't sleep well last night. got thinking of home & business." But in 1904, when Hedges' diary was finally published in an edited version, he added the following critical passage part of a larger footnote:

It was at the first camp after leaving the lower Geyser basin when all were speculating which point in the region we had been through, would become most notable, that I first suggested the uniting all our efforts to get it made a National Park, little dreaming that such a thing were possible.

According to Messieurs Whittlesey and Schullery, "only four party members left diary entries covering that night, and none mentioned any such conversation."

Furthermore, they note, "...by June of 1871, members of the Washburn Party had published at least fifteen articles, letters, and extended episodes in newspapers and magazines. None of these publications said a word about this great idea that, according to Langford, filled them with a sense of mission to spread the word about the national park idea. This is hardly the sort of ardent advocacy that Langford would later claim existed among these men as a result of their September 19 campfire conversations."

You can find the rest of Yellowstone's Creation Myth attached below and draw your own conclusion as to whether Mr. Langford and Mr. Hedges came upon the campfire scenario only as an afterthought in, perhaps, a bid to draw personal recognition.

Sure, it's a great story, and one that adds to the lure of Yellowstone. But what's more important is that less than two years after that supposed campfire discussion, on this date in 1872, Yellowstone became the world's first national park. So raise a glass today, or perhaps have a piece of birthday cake in the park's honor. And be glad that there was enough foresight in the 1870s to turn Yellowstone into a national park, and not a jigsaw puzzle of tourist traps.

Traveler trivia: Mr. Langford also has claimed that he and James Stevenson, a U.S. Geological Survey employee, made the first ascent of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, located just southwest of Yellowstone, on July 29, 1872. His claim was later debunked by W.O. Owen, who claimed he was in fact the first white man to summit the crag. You can read more about this dispute in The Grand Controversy.

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Comments

Are you familiar with the once influencial essay "Yosemite: The Story of an Idea" by Hans Huth from 1948 in the Sierra Club Bulletin? It is obviously almost forgotten, Richard Sellars doesn't even mention it in his history of the National Parks. It is at least not prominently named in Heacox "An American Idea", so I didn't find it thumbing through. Fortunately it is online one the somewhat obscure Website yosemite.ca.us at http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/yosemite_story_of_an_idea.html and worth reading it, more then 60 years later.

Whittlesey and Schullery's book on the creation myth is a pretty good one that goes not only into the myth but the history of trying to debunk the myth. Previous Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines had to deal with a lot of angst within the Park Service to publish against the myth that men like Horace Albright worked so hard to keep in tact. And, it still is in tact to some extent; there's still this horrible plaque outside the Madison Visitor Center looking toward National Park Mountain.

My only beef with the book is that they go on to defend this myth, not as history, but as myth. And, while I think myth is deeply important, I think this particular myth is not the kind of story we should be perpetuating. On this and myth making in Yellowstone, I spent a lot of time writing, as I find the whole thing fascinating. See Re-mythologizing Yellowstone for a lot more.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

MRC, Whittlesey and Schullery cited Huth's paper in their footnotes. Had time allowed, I would have delved into it and noted the annual "Madison Junction Pageant" that he objected to. Thanks for providing the link.

Who's to say whether such a conversation ever took place? I have sat around enough campfires to know that most of what is discussed is quickly forgotten. And how many fires did these gentlemen sit around on this trip? Even Mr. Hedges writes that he had the suggestion..." little dreaming that such a thing were possible." Likely, if it did occur, the other members of the party quickly dismissed the idea as little more than a fanciful daydream of no more importance than fantisizing about some saloon girl they had all met. Perhaps too, it was more of a private conversation between Langsford and Hedges. Perhaps it never took place at all. We will never know for sure.
Who among us hasn't had some thought or idea that we figured was a good idea but impossible, so we dismissed it; only to have it come true later. Of course we are scoffed at when we say, "Hey I thought of that!" Years before microwave popcorn came out I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to pop popcorn in the microwave. I only mentioned it to a few close friends because I didn't want to be labeled a nut case. Later, when it came out, I remember saying that it was "my idea", to thunderous laughter of course.

Read the book; the case is pretty convincing. That doesn't mean that it didn't happen; what does seem evident is that it wasn't the way Langford describes it in the book. They did not immediately set on making the idea happen; Haines traces it to a message from Jay Cooke and Co. to Hayden (I think). The other really sketchy thing is that the actual journal entries for that period are missing, very odd for a guy who took meticulous notes. There's a lot more besides that makes the actual campfire story very sketchy at best - and even in the best case scenario, it wasn't particularly important for the history that follows.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I have read the book and absolutely agree that "..it wasn't particularly important for the history that follows..", but that doesn't mean that some sort of BS session conversation didn't occur. "Hey, sure would be a shame to see a town sprout up right here. Should be some kind of park or something...." Move on to other topics and forget about it until years later. No one alive today can know for sure.