Park History: Yellowstone National Park

Noteworthy as the world's first national park, Yellowstone's modern history extends back to the early 19th century, when mountain men John Colter and Jim Bridger found themselves in a landscape that conjured descriptions of hell and brimstone.

Lewis and Clark could have encountered the landscape we now know as Yellowstone, for they passed just to the north of it en route to the West Coast. But they were determined to reach the coast and didn't linger to explore the area.

Among the mountain men who found their way into the Yellowstone landscape were John Colter, Jim Bridger, Joe Meek, and Warren Angus Ferris, who actually was a clerk for the American Fur Co., according to Yellowstone historian Aubrey L. Haines.

John Colter passed through parts of the park in 1807-08, a trip considered the first by a white man in Yellowstone. When he told stories of gurgling hot springs, exploding gesyers and glass mountains, well, they were laughingly referred to as "tall tales" and he was thought to be crazy.

Shoshone Geyser Basin, Yellowstone NP
Shoshone Geyser Basin, Yellowstone NP.

Osborne Russell was a trapper who reached the Yellowstone area in 1839, following the Snake River north out of Jackson Hole to Lewis Lake and then Shoshone Lake, where he came upon a geyser basin on the western shore. In his journal he described a small geyser called "Hour Spring" by other trappers.

...the first thing that attracts the attention is a hole about 15 inches in diameter in which the water is boiling slowly about 4 inches below the surface at length it begins to boil and bubble violently and the water commences raising and shooting upwards until the column arises to the hight of sixty feet from whence it falls to the ground in drops on a circle of about 30 feet in diameter being perfetly cold when it strikes the ground. It continues shooting up in this manner five or six minutes and then sinks back to its former state of Slowly boiling for an hour and then shoots forth as before My Comrade Said he had watched the motions of this Spring for one whole day and part of the night the year previous and found no irregularity whatever in its movements.

As more stories drifted out of Yellowstone, the U.S. government in 1871 dispatched an official expedition into the region to investigate these tales. The expedition was led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who, at the request of the Northern Pacific Railroad brought a young artist by the name of Thomas Moran, and William Henry Jackson, a photographer, along to document this "wonderland."

When the expedition reached Yellowstone in the summer of 1871, its members were astounded by what they saw. They watched Old Faithful belch clouds of steam and streams of hot water, clambered down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and sailed a boat on Yellowstone Lake. They closely examined hot springs and took samples of plants, rocks, and animals.

From a camp in the Upper Geyser Basin they were surprised by a geyser that erupted from a pool of water. So notable was it that the event made its way into Hayden's journal:

Soon after reaching camp a tremendous rumbling was heard, shaking the ground in every direction, and soon a column of steam burst forth from a crater near the edge of the east side of the river. Following the steam, arose, by a succession of impulses, a column of water, apparently 6 feet in diameter, to a height of 200 feet, while the steam ascended a thousand feet or more. ... We called this the Grand Geyser, for its power seemed greater than any other of which we obtained any knowledge in the valley.

After a month of exploring the Yellowstone area the expedition returned to Washington with pictures, maps, sketches, and note that Hayden used to write a 500-page report. The documents helped convince Congress that the area should be protected so future generations could enjoy its wonders.

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the legislation that made Yellowstone the first national park in the world.