Yellowstone's "Creation" Myth

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.