It’s the late 1700s, in the northwest corner of modern-day Wyoming.
A Native American hunter stalks along a riverbank, his body low to the ground. Some fifty feet ahead, just beyond a bend in the river, a herd of bighorn sheep grazes in the tall grass. The tip of the hunter’s arrow glints in the midday sun as he quietly advances on his unsuspecting quarry.
This hunter is a member of the Tukudeka, or the Sheepeaters – a subgroup of the Shoshone tribe native to this part of North America. During the summer months, the Sheepeaters track the migration of the bighorns as they seek out higher ground. Today, after many weeks, the Sheepeaters have finally caught up with the herd. And it’s this hunter’s job to provide for his hungry and weary tribe.
The hunter takes a deep breath, holds it, and raises his bow.
But then, out of the corner of his eye, he spots something prowling through the underbrush…
It’s a pair of coyotes, their unblinking amber eyes trained on the grazing herd. The hunter has waited too long to concede his prey to these scavengers. He prepares to loose his arrow, but before he can… the coyotes bolt from the brush, and the bighorns turn in flight. The hunter gives chase on foot – but he has no chance of catching these fleet-footed sheep. So he stops running, takes a breath, aims his bow, and releases.
One of the sheep’s legs buckles, and it falls to the ground – kicking feebly until the life drains out of it. The hunter claps and shouts to scare off the coyotes, before rushing over to claim his prize.
For over 10,000 years, indigenous peoples have made their home on this high volcanic plateau in modern-day Wyoming. It’s a dramatic landscape surrounded by snow-capped mountains and populated by herds of roaming bison. Native Americans call this place “the land of the burning ground”, or “the land of vapors,” on account of the geothermal springs that bubble up between fissures in the ground, and the geysers that erupt in violent explosions of steaming spray. But within the next hundred years, “the land of vapors” will become known by another name.
In the early 19th century, European fur traders will arrive here and be struck by the distinctive color of the rocky cliffs. They will call the area “Yellowstone”, and while some will try to plunder it of its natural resources, others will recognize the importance of protecting such unspoiled beauty. A novel idea will emerge, a notion to preserve Yellowstone as an area where people can come not to exploit nature, but to marvel at its wonder and majesty. That idea becomes a reality when President Ulysses S. Grant signs a bill into law, turning Yellowstone into the world’s first national park on March 1st, 1872.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 1st: Yellowstone: the World’s First National Park.
Act One: Fur Trappers and Mountain Men
It’s 1807, sixty-five years before President Grant moves to preserve Yellowstone.
A party of fur-trappers from St. Louis are sailing west along the Missouri River when a solitary canoe appears in the distance. One of the fur-trappers, a Spanish-American explorer named Manuel Lisa, raises an arm in greeting. Sitting in the canoe up ahead is a grizzled traveler, more beast than man, and unlike anyone, Manuel has ever encountered back home in St. Louis.
Manuel is the founder of the Missouri Fur Company. He established it in 1806 when two explorers, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark, returned to St. Louis after leading an exploratory expedition to the Pacific Northwest.
Lewis and Clark returned with tales of the riches of the Upper Missouri River – including an abundance of beavers. Beaver fur hats are in fashion at this time, and the material is in high demand. So Manuel Lisa, recognizing a commercial opportunity, embarked with a party of fur-trappers the following year.
Now, Manuel is searching for a route south, hoping to establish trading opportunities in the territory of Wyoming. He’s looking for the source of the Bighorn River – a waterway that runs south through Montana. But after many weeks of searching, Manuel still has not located it.
He waves down the grizzled traveler, who docks his canoe by the riverbank.
The traveler introduces himself as John Colter. Until last year, he was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. But when the explorers returned to St. Louis, Colter remained out West, exploring the terrain of this wild, uncharted region. Manuel asks if Colter knows where they can find the source of the Bighorn River, Colter says he can, offering to guide Manuel and his party for a reasonable fee.
Colter then leads the party across the high plains of Montana and onto a tributary of the Missouri called the Yellowstone River. This river was discovered recently by French fur-trappers, who named it after the color of the rocky cliffs that rise from its banks. Eventually, the party comes to a fork in the Yellowstone; and this is the source of the Bighorn River.
The trappers disembark and begin constructing a trading outpost for the Fur Company. They name it Fort Raymond, and by October, the construction is done. Now Manuel needs to drum up trade. He asks John Colter to travel south, to establish trade with the Crow nation – a Native American tribe which inhabits the plains to the south.
Colter sets off on foot with nothing but a rifle and a pack. He crosses the windswept prairies of central Wyoming, where he meets with the Crow nation Indians and alerts them to the presence of Fort Raymond. After that, he continues West, enduring a harsh winter in the Rocky Mountains and traveling the jagged peaks of the Teton Range, before eventually emerging onto an outcrop overlooking a vast mountain plateau.
Exhausted, Colter stops to rest. He drops his pack, then climbs up to a vantage point to survey his surroundings.
Down in the valley below, red-ringed pools of luminescent green liquid emit plumes of billowing steam. Bubbling mud pots belch and simmer, while in the distance, a torrent of white water erupts like lava from the earth. Surrounding all this heat and activity, evergreen forests tumble away into dramatic ravines, where turquoise rivers and thundering waterfalls crash and roil.
John Colter rubs his eyes in disbelief. Of all the wondrous places he’s encountered, nothing compares to this. He begins the grueling trek back to Fort Raymond, bursting with tales of all the things he’s seen.
When he reaches the trading outpost, Colter excitedly shares reports of steaming thermal pools, fiery red earth, and explosive volcanic geysers. But his stories are met with skepticism and derision. The seemingly imaginary land described by Colter is nicknamed “Colter’s Hell”, and for the next forty years, Yellowstone will be dismissed as a fantastical myth.
But as the 1800s progress, Westward expansion will continue, and the federal government will seek to understand the geography and geology of the newly acquired Western territories. In the 1860s, the first official surveys of the West will commence, and the federal employees conducting these surveys will report back to Washington about a remarkable, hydrothermal landscape in northwest Wyoming, abundant with mineral resources and untouched by humanity.
But Yellowstone is not untouched by humanity. And as the federally funded geological surveys continue, the fate of Yellowstone and of the indigenous people who live there will be taken out of nature’s hands for the first time in history – and left in the hands of the United States government.
Act Two: Capitalists and Conservationists
It’s September 6th, 1869, four years before Yellowstone becomes a National Park.
On the outskirts of Diamond City, Montana, three frontiersmen load up a small boat with exploration equipment and camping supplies. One of the men, a gold prospector, and surveyor named David E. Folsom, glances with trepidation at the Missouri River, as it wends its way through the scrubby flats toward the mountains.
Folsom and his two companions, Charles Cook and William Peterson, are setting off to investigate rumors that have been circulating about an uncharted region down the Yellowstone River; a land of “fire and brimstone”, simmering with sulfurous fumaroles and explosive geysers. Hearing these rumors, Folsom knew that he had to see Yellowstone with his own eyes. So he assembled a small team of like-minded explorers to voyage into the wilderness.
After sailing the Missouri river south to Bozeman, Montana, Folsom and his companions find the Yellowstone river and follow it through a narrow gorge. Eventually, they emerge into a wide canyon of monumental grandeur. Hot springs and mud volcanoes simmer and boil as they journey further south, exploring the body of water known today as Yellowstone Lake.
The three men return to Montana in October, and excitedly share tales about Yellowstone’s natural marvels. But like John Colter before them, Folsom and his companions are met with disbelief. When Folsom writes an article about Yellowstone for Lippincott’s magazine, the editor thanks him for his submission but informs him that, regrettably, they don’t publish fiction.
But word of their expedition does spread around Montana Territory. And in August 1870, a group of ten local politicians and businessmen set out to investigate Folsom’s seemingly outlandish reports. Among them is Henry D. Washburn, the Surveyor-General of the Montana Territory, and Nathaniel P. Langford, a prominent politician and businessman.
Venturing even further than Folsom’s expedition, Washburn and Langford lead their party to Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin, where they are captivated by the beauty and strangeness of the landscape. Among the geothermal features, one particular geyser catches the eye of the explorers, for it erupts with tremendous power every seventy-four minutes. They decide to name it “Old Faithful.”
Following their return to civilization, Nathaniel Langford begins touring the East Coast giving lectures about the expedition. To enraptured audiences, Langford describes the wonders of Yellowstone’s landscape and insists that rather than being sold to private developers, it must be protected as a conservation site and reserved for the enjoyment of the public.
By this time in 1871, there is only one precedent for such a measure. Only a few years prior, in 1864, Abraham Lincoln assigned special conservation status to Yosemite Valley in California, reserving it for “public recreation” and stopping private developers from desecrating the landscape. Langford wants the same status assigned to Yellowstone.
During each lecture, Langford promises that Yellowstone will attract thousands of tourists every year to this remote corner of northwest Wyoming and southern Montana. He predicts that access to the park will be provided by the Northern Pacific Railroad. And hearing this, at the back of one lecture hall, a man named Jay Cooke bristles with satisfaction.
Cooke is the head of a Philadelphia investment bank, and the principal financier of the Northern Pacific Railroad, a transcontinental railway stretching from Minnesota to Washington State. Cooke also happens to be the man financing Nathaniel Langford’s lecture tour promoting Yellowstone as a public park.
Langford and Cooke are business partners. When Cooke heard about Langford’s expedition into Yellowstone, he spied a commercial opportunity. Construction on the Northern Pacific Railroad began in 1870. The track passes through southern Montana, where it comes within fifty miles of Yellowstone. If Yellowstone were to become a public park, Cooke and his railroad would have a monopoly on transport to America’s grandest natural wonder.
And Nathaniel Langford himself is campaigning to be the governor of the Montana Territory. So for him, if Yellowstone were to become a national park, Montana would receive income and publicity from tourism, helping it along the road toward achieving statehood.
Jay Cooke’s commercial interests and Nathaniel Langford’s political motives will prove powerful driving forces for Yellowstone gaining protected status. But to persuade Congress, both Cooke and Langford will need to build a stronger case. Langford’s lectures alone aren't enough. But fortunately for them, there’s another man sitting in the audience who might be able to help.
Act Three: The First National Park
It’s January 1871, just over a year before Yellowstone becomes a National Park.
Nathaniel P. Langford – the man who led the second major expedition into Yellowstone – is delivering another lecture in Washington D.C. about why Yellowstone should be saved from privatization, and instead conserved for public enjoyment.
Sitting in the audience, Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden listens attentively.
Hayden is one of America’s most respected geologists. In 1867, he was appointed head of the US Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, a federal agency tasked with surveying the uncharted land of the American West. After attending Langford’s lecture in 1871, Hayden becomes fascinated by Yellowstone’s geology and decides to ask Congress to fund an extensive survey of the region.
In March, Congress grants Hayden $40,000 to conduct an official geological survey of Yellowstone. The team embarks in June 1871. And among the fifty men on the team are geologists, topographers, botanists, and zoologists. There’s also a photographer, named William Henry Jackson; and a painter, Thomas Moran.
Thomas Moran was a late addition to the team; has to join not by Dr. Hayden, but that of Jay Cooke, the financier of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and a man who understands the value of strong publicity. Moran has been asked to paint pictures of Yellowstone for publication back east. Cooke hopes that with Moran’s artwork, and Dr. Hayden’s geological findings, Congress will agree that Yellowstone ought to be reserved for public recreation – and guarantee profit for Cooke and his railroad.
Cooke’s plan works. Dr. Hayden’s survey concludes that Yellowstone’s geothermal landscape is not suitable for mining, farming, or drilling. And toward the end of 1871, not long after his return from the expedition, Dr. Hayden receives a letter from Cooke’s office, suggesting that Congress should pass a bill preserving Yellowstone as a national park.
Hayden couldn’t agree more.
Working closely with Langford and Cooke, Hayden presents his findings to Congress. He includes Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s paintings, and the combined effect is powerful. On December 18th, 1871, a bill is proposed that would “[reserve Yellowstone] from settlement, occupancy or sale… and set [it] apart as a public park for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Three months later, President Ulysses S. Grant signs the Yellowstone Conservation Act into law on March 1st, 1872. As well as prohibiting hunting and logging inside Yellowstone National Park, the Act also installs Nathaniel P. Langford as the park’s first superintendent, responsible for enforcing the rules.
The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act also stipulates that “all persons who settle upon or occupy [Yellowstone] shall be considered trespassers.”This includes indigenous people who have inhabited the region for generations. And in the years following the creation of Yellowstone National Park, Native American rights are gradually eroded, until the last indigenous tribes are forced to leave Yellowstone for good.
And while Yellowstone is often regarded as a model for conservation efforts around the world, the park’s origins are inextricably linked with the private interests of men like Cooke and Langford, and with the systematic expulsion of indigenous peoples.
Today, Yellowstone National Park receives around four million visitors per year, as people flock from around the world to marvel at its mesmerizing geysers, hot springs, and geological formations. And though the park’s origins are complicated, the conservation of Yellowstone has preserved a landscape of astonishing beauty, and that conservation was written into law on March 1st, 1872.
Next onHistory Daily. March 2nd, 1933, the landmark monster movie King Kong, the first significant feature film to star an animated character, has its world premiere.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser