March 1, 1872: Yellowstone Becomes the First National Park and Begins America’s Park System
Our National Parks are the most visible manifestation of why America is exceptional.
America’s Parks are the physical touchstones that affirm our national identity. These historical Parks preserve our collective memory of events that shaped our nation and the natural Parks preserve the environment that shaped us.
National Parks are open for all to enjoy, learn, and contemplate. This concept of preserving a physical space for the sole purpose of public access is a uniquely American invention. It further affirms why America remains an inspiration to the world.
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law creating Yellowstone as the world’s first National Park.
AN ACT to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate, or settle upon, or occupy the same or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed there from …
The Yellowstone legislation launched a system that now encompasses 419 National Parks with over 84 million acres. Inspired by Grant’s act, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand established their own National Parks during the following years.
Yellowstone was not predestined to be the first National Park.
In 1806, John Colter, a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, joined fur trappers to explore several Missouri River tributaries. Colter entered the Yellowstone area in 1807 and later reported on a dramatic landscape of “fire and brimstone.” His description was rejected as too fanciful and labeled “Colter’s Hell.”
Over the years, other trappers and “mountain men” shared stories of fantastic landscapes of water gushing out of the ground and rainbow-colored hot springs. They were all dismissed as fantasy.
After America’s Civil War, formal expeditions were launched to explore the upper Yellowstone River system. Settlers and miners were interested in the economic potential of the region.
In 1869, Charles Cook, David Folsom, and William Peterson led a privately financed survey of the region. Their journals and personal accounts provided the first believable descriptions of Yellowstone’s natural wonders.
Reports from the Cook-Folsom Expedition encouraged the first official government survey in 1870. Henry Washburn, the Surveyor General of the Montana Territory, led a large team known as the Washburn-Langford-Doan Expedition to the Yellowstone area. Nathaniel P. Langford, who co-led the team, was a friend of Jay Cook, a major investor in the Northern Pacific Railway. Washburn was escorted by a U.S. Cavalry Unit commanded by Lt. Gustavus Doane. Their team, including Folsom, followed a similar course as the Cook-Folsom 1869 excursion, extensively documenting their observations of the Yellowstone area. They explored numerous lakes, mountains, and observed wildlife. The Expedition chronicled the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins. They named one geyser Old Faithful, as it erupted once every 74 minutes.
Upon their return, Cook combined Washburn’s and Folsom’s journals into a single version. He submitted it to the New York Tribune and Scribner’s for publication. Both rejected the manuscript as “unreliable and improbable” even with the military’s corroboration. Fortunately, another member of Washburn’s Expedition, Cornelius Hedges, submitted several articles about Yellowstone to the Helena Herald newspaper from 1870 to 1871. Hedges would become one of the original advocates for setting aside the Yellowstone area as a National Park.
Langford, who would become Yellowstone’s first park superintendent, reported to Cooke about his observations. While Cooke was primarily interested in how Yellowstone’s wonders and resources could attract railroad business, he supported Langford’s vision of establishing a National Park. Cooke financed Langford’s Yellowstone lectures in Virginia City, Helena, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
On January 19, 1871, geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden attended Langford’s speech in Washington, D.C. He was motivated to conduct his next geological survey in the Yellowstone region.
In 1871, Hayden organized the first federally funded survey of the Yellowstone region. His team included photographer William Henry Jackson, and landscape artist Thomas Moran. Hayden’s reports on the geysers, sulfur springs, waterfalls, canyons, lakes and streams of Yellowstone verified earlier reports. Jackson’s and Moran’s images provided the first visual proof of Yellowstone’s unique natural features.
The various expeditions and reports built the case for preservation instead of exploitation.
In October 1865, acting Montana Territorial Governor Thomas Francis Meagher, was the first public official recommending that the Yellowstone region should be protected. In an 1871 letter from Jay Cooke to Hayden, Cooke wrote that his friend, Congressman William D. Kelley was suggesting “Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever.”
Hayden became another leader for establishing Yellowstone as a National Park. He was concerned the area could face the same fate as the overly developed and commercialized Niagara Falls area. Yellowstone should, “be as free as the air or water.” In his report to the Committee on Public Lands, Hayden declared that if Yellowstone was not preserved, “the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.”
Langford, and a growing number of park advocates, promoted the Yellowstone bill in late 1871 and early 1872. They raised the alarm that “there were those who would come and make merchandise of these beautiful specimen.”
Their proposed legislation drew upon the precedent of the Yosemite Act of 1864, which barred settlement and entrusted preservation of the Yosemite Valley to the state of California.
Park advocates faced spirited opposition from mining and development interests who asserted that permanently banning settlement of a public domain the size of Yellowstone would depart from the established policy of transferring public lands to private ownership (in the 1980s, $1 billion of exploitable deposits of gold and silver were discovered within miles of the Park). Developers feared that the regional economy would be unable to thrive if there remained strict federal prohibitions against resource development or settlement within park boundaries. Some tried to reduce the proposed size of the park so that mining, hunting, and logging activities could be developed.
Fortunately, Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s paintings captured the imagination of Congress. These compelling images, and the credibility of the Hayden report, persuaded the United States Congress to withdraw the Yellowstone region from public auction. The Establishment legislation quickly passed both chambers and was sent to President Grant for his signature.
Grant, an early advocate of preserving America’s unique natural features, enthusiastically signed the bill into law.
On September 8, 1978, Yellowstone and Mesa Verde were the first U.S. National Parks designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Yellowstone was deemed a “resource of universal value to the world community.”
Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.
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