Yellowstone National Park: History of an American Wonderland

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:38:57 PM ET
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Perhaps one of the most famous parks in the world, Yellowstone National Park is an 11,000-year-old natural wonder. At more than 2 million acres, the region is full of lush forest, stunning rivers and waterfalls and is home to more than 100 species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles.

The park stretches across Wyoming and dips into Montana and Idaho. The diverse ecosystem and impressive geysers sprawled across the landscape are huge draws for tourists who enjoy the wonders of nature. Let’s take a look at the history of this American treasure.

Land of Native Americans

Before the land was "discovered" by European settlers, the Yellowstone area was settled by Native Americans. The park got its name from the Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Mississippi River that stretches from the Rocky Mountains all the way to southern Montana and northern Wyoming.

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Prior to being called Yellowstone by American pioneers, French trappers called the area Roche Jaune (Yellow Rock). Most historians assume the name was due to the yellow rocks found along the river. The Native Americans had various names for it, including "land of vapors" and "land of the burning ground."

Both a Home and a Hunting Ground

Native Americans utilized the land largely as a home and a hunting ground. The area was rich with wild animals, such as buffalo and fish, to help them feed their tribes. The location, climate and natural make-up of the area were the perfect place for people who lived off the land to make their home.

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Because of its vast area, warm water springs and freshwater sources, Yellowstone was very habitable. The ecosystem in the park is the largest in the United States when it comes to continuous undeveloped, untouched land, and it's considered to be the world's largest northern temperate zone ecosystem.

Obsidian to Make Tools

Native Americans excelled at learning how to work with the land to use its resources to sustain their tribes — without causing permanent damage. Because of the volcanic activity in Yellowstone National Park — home to a very large supervolcano, after all — the park is full of obsidian deposits.

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The earliest example of human life in the park was established by the discovery of a Native American obsidian arrowhead. The large amounts of obsidian in the park gave Native Americans the perfect material for creating useful tools and weaponry.

Three Native American Tribes

Three Native American tribes called Yellowstone National Park home in the past. Archaeologists have found evidence of the Nez Perce, Crow and Shoshone tribes, each of which left their unique footprint on the land during the time they lived there.

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Since the first discovery of Native American tools in the 1950s, archaeologists have continued to unearth fascinating pieces of the land's rich historical roots and Native American influences. Evidence of an obsidian tool trade has even been found based on the scattered remains of various weaponry across the vast area of Yellowstone.

Lewis and Clark Expedition and a Missed Opportunity

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first formal group of American explorers to navigate the western U.S. to see what they could find. When they stumbled upon Yellowstone, they encountered the three Native American tribes that were living and hunting there.

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They didn't fully explore the territory, however. They passed through without paying much attention because they thought the area wasn’t worth a second look. Their huge mistake allowed other future expeditions to gain attention for discovering the beauty of Yellowstone.

John Colter’s Observation

Instead of sticking with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter decided to team up with some fur trappers to explore Yellowstone further. During the winter of 1807, Colter and the trappers wandered the lands of Yellowstone National Park and documented the natural geothermal activity within the park’s grounds.

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Photo Courtesy: Gadget 850/Wikipedia

Bravely exploring the area, Colter and the fur trappers spent close to three years scouring the land to uncover all its amazing mysteries. It wasn't until 1809 that the exploration proved to be almost deadly for Colter.

Attacked by Native Americans

Members of the Blackfoot Indian tribe attacked Colter in 1809. Although many of the exact details of the attack are shrouded in mystery, it’s believed that Colter became friends with the Crow tribe living in the area and was present when their camp was unexpectedly attacked by their rivals.

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Colter decided to join the fight and was wounded in the process. After he recovered, he returned to the area on another expedition and was captured by the Blackfoot tribe. They graciously let him run for his life — literally hunting him for fun. (He survived.)

A Land of Fire and Brimstone

After Colter survived the harrowing escape, he told his wild story everywhere he went. Because of the over-the-top nature of the story, his tales were dismissed by almost everyone, including other explorers and his superiors. No one believed that it was possible he survived in the wilderness with the Blackfoot chasing and hunting him down.

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After his ordeal, he described the land as being made of "fire and brimstone." If you’ve seen the park with your own eyes, you know it’s an entirely accurate description of some parts of it due to the magma and rocky terrain.

Classified as Unbelievable Tall Tales

Much to Colter's dismay, the majority of people he told about his ordeal refused to believe him at all. They didn't believe the place existed at all, chalking it up to pure mythology and giving it the name "Colter's Hell." They found his explanation to be unbelievable, particularly his story of being hunted.

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Colter wasn’t the last person to describe the park in such a way, however. Over the course of the next 40 years, more adventurers traveled to Yellowstone and came back with the same stories of boiling rivers and mud — only to have their stories discounted as exaggeration as well.

Finding the Rivers and Mountains

Jim Bridger was an American mountain man, trapper, wilderness expert and Army scout. It has been argued that he was the first American to stumble upon the great mountains and rivers found in Yellowstone. He attended the great treaty council and created maps for several stream systems in and around the park.

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The maps he created — specifically the ones for Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit priest — were used to update important map systems of the region. They also helped confirm rumors about what exactly could be found in Yellowstone and how large the area actually was.

Continuing to Ignore the Obvious Truth

Much like his predecessor, John Colter, Bridger wasn't taken seriously when he described what he saw in Yellowstone. Before he and his map skills were given the credit they truly deserved, Bridger's account of the area was widely dismissed by other explorers and his fellow countrymen.

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They saw him as a simple yarn spinner and not an advanced-level wilderness explorer and map expert. He ultimately proved his worth as a map designer and went on to be recruited to take new travelers with him to the area to further the American exploration of Yellowstone.

Captain William F. Raynolds’ Expedition

In 1859, military surveyor Captain William F. Raynolds explored the northern Rockies and decided to also explore the Yellowstone National Park area. Because Jim Bridger had gained a reputation as a map master, Raynolds enlisted him to escort him on his wild journey.

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The two men headed to the Continental Divide in Wyoming to see what else they could find spread across the majestic lands. Their goal was to discover all that they could during their time with the skills they had, and they were confident they could achieve what they set out to do.

Stopped by a Huge Snowfall

The adverse climate across Yellowstone ultimately prevented Bridger and Raynolds from completing the expedition. In the blink of an eye, the land was covered in a very thick layer of heavy snow. They had to turn back because they couldn't get across the divide.

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Had they made it through the brutal snowfall and into the Yellowstone region, the two men would have been the first official team to successfully explore the full Yellowstone region. Unfortunately for them, that title went to other explorers after the fact.

The Civil War and a Cease Fire on Exploration

In the 1860s, the American Civil War became the main focus of political attention and effort. With the northern states viciously fighting their southern neighbors, leaders focused on determining the future of the United States and worried less about the Wild West. Fear for the country’s survival took the place of actively seeking out new areas to expand America's territory.

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Due to the war, expeditions to Yellowstone National Park came to a complete halt. Not only were the country's leaders’ attention focused elsewhere, but many men who would have joined explorer teams opted to enlist in the fight instead.

Surviving the Yellowstone Wilderness

After the war was over, exploration of the area resumed, and a Montana official named Truman Everts joined an expedition party that was focused on Yellowstone. In an unfortunate turn of events, he was separated from his group and forced to survive in the wilderness of the park alone.

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His party thought he was long dead, but he spent 37 days living off the land by eating thistles. He was finally found, suffering from frostbite and weighing only 90 pounds. His survival was considered nothing short of miraculous due to the snowfall that occurred while he was stranded.

A Book Detailing the Ordeal

Shortly after he recovered from the injuries he sustained when he was on his own, Everts decided to write a book to tell his story. In his autobiographical book, Thirty-Seven Days of Peril, he detailed what it was like being alone with no supplies and no way out of the wilderness.

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The book later helped Yellowstone gain national park status. It details a true story of someone surviving a long time in the wilderness without anything but their mental acuity and perseverance to help them stay alive in such harsh conditions.

Rigorous Searches and Increasing Popularity

The Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition was the first officially documented organized expedition to explore Yellowstone National Park. After the men came across the Yellowstone River, they followed it down to Yellowstone Lake, with each one keeping a heavily detailed record of the journey and what they saw in the park.

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Shortly after that expedition, more and more explorers headed to the region to examine it further. The Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition lasted 30 days, and details of the journey began to appear in the media, turning the country’s attention to the previously unknown natural wonder.

Making the News

One of the explorers on the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition team, Cornelius Hedges, began to write stories about his experiences during his exploration of Yellowstone National Park. The detailed and interesting stories gained national attention after they were published in the Helena Herald, a Montana daily newspaper.

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Following the widespread popularity of Hedges' stories in the paper, they started being noticed by regional scholars. After that, the scholars began talking to both Congress and the state government, trying to convince them to give Yellowstone national park status in order to protect it.

Gaining National Park Status

After a lot of advocacy and promotion from the regional scholars who followed the details of the expeditions, Congressman William D. Kelley helped push the law through to have the park declared as a "public park forever." He understood the importance of conservation and proper resource management efforts at Yellowstone, even then.

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Finally, in 1872, the country's leaders could no longer ignore the park's need for national park status. After a great deal of convincing from scholars and explorers, President Ulysses S. Grant officially declared Yellowstone a national park on March 1, 1872.

The Earliest Effort to Preserve the Area

Without Yellowstone's status as a national park all those years ago, the geysers, landmarks, wildlife and flora of the park might not exist today. At the very least, they wouldn't be present in the same way we know them today. The designation placed an added focus on conservation, and exploring, studying and preserving the area became even more important.

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Additionally, the protection of the park brought it to the attention of those who hadn’t followed the stories before. The region's rivers, waterfalls, lakes, mountains, valleys and geothermal anomalies finally got the full attention they deserved, with stories published in all the major newspapers and periodicals throughout the United States.

Unexpected Waning Interest

However, following a burst of initial public excitement for the park, the allure of Yellowstone unexpectedly died down. In the decade after the park gained protected status, interest dropped, and park visitation steeply declined. Fewer people seemed interested in experiencing the area's geothermal features, wildlife and landscape. (Keep in mind, it was still uncommon for people to travel for "fun" in the late 1800s.)

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Because it was no longer the focus of the country's attention, the resources in the park were also largely ignored. Yellowstone remained heavily unexplored, and the nature found within its boundaries was left almost entirely on its own — without human interference.

Park Protection and the U.S. Army

In 1886, the U.S. Army took over management of the park. They built multiple military structures, including Fort Yellowstone at the Mammoth Hot Springs location. Even with this federal presence, resource protection for the park was limited, and it was harder for explorers to scan the area.

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Photo Courtesy: Yellowstone Park Service National Photo Collection

From 1869 to 1890, several expeditions took place in Yellowstone National Park, which helped develop the area. During the same time period, public understanding of the park grew. As a result, Congress adopted stronger laws for resource and park protection in 1894.

Passing It Off to the National Park Service

The United States National Park Service was founded in 2016, and the service took over management of the park's resources and responsibility for the area's wildlife in 1917. They also managed public education about the entire district.

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Since that time, the National Park Service has maintained Yellowstone National Park's natural integrity, protecting its vast land, wildlife, flora and ecosystems. It also allowed further exploration of the park, which led to the discovery of more than 1,000 promising archaeological sites and other historical finds on the grounds.

An Archaeological Playground

The park is home to so many different types of ecosystems and rock formations that archaeologists highly value opportunities to deeply explore the area. Teams of archaeologists have unearthed burial sites and prehistoric artifacts, including numerous Native American weapons and tools used more than 11,000 years ago.

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Interested visitors with little or no formal training can participate in archaeological digs. Participation is arranged through the park's Expedition Yellowstone program, a five-day event that allows teachers and students to gain hands-on experience with the archaeological finds within the park.

Multiple National Historic Landmarks

Yellowstone National Park is home to some of the most historically valued sites in North America. The park's treasures include several sites that have been formally designated as national historic landmarks. One of the most well-known landmarks is the district that includes Old Faithful Lodge, which sits next to the iconic Old Faithful Geyser.

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Other formally designated national historic landmarks include Fort Yellowstone near the Mammoth Hot Springs area and the Norris Museum/Norris Comfort Station. In addition, Obsidian Cliff, a giant cliff that was formed from cooling lava, has landmark status.

An International Biosphere Reserve

A biosphere reserve is an internationally recognized area that is protected and used for natural resources while simultaneously being conserved by those who manage it. Because of its abundant natural treasures, the United Nations formally designated Yellowstone as a biosphere reserve in 1976.

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The park received this designation partially because of the number of global ecosystems found in a single concentrated area. The United Nations viewed the area as valuable to "research in the service of man."

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Yellowstone National Park has experienced many changes in its 11,000-year life span. It continues to remain nearly pristine, despite enduring everything from changing ecosystems to wars. As a result, the park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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As part of the World Heritage Convention international treaty, the park was acknowledged as an important part of the country's historic cultural and natural resources. In an effort to call attention to threats to the park's ecosystem, it was put on UNESCO's watch list in the mid-1990s, but it was removed in 2003.

A Tourist Hot Zone for Generations

As people moved into the 20th century, the number of visitors traveling to Yellowstone steadily increased. This trend picked up speed as greater numbers of Americans gained access to automobiles and started traveling to enjoy vacations. In recent years, the park has become a huge attraction, with more than 4 million people visiting in 2018 alone.

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Park visitations take place during all four seasons, and there are multiple tour packages available. Adding to its appeal for visitors, a number of in-park options feature interesting, comfortable accommodations, ranging from campsites to historic hotels.

Protection for Stunning Beauty

With a wide range of treasures within its boundaries, Yellowstone is one of the most valued natural areas on the globe. Decades of balanced management practices are responsible for the current state of the area, and the results showcase how beautiful mother nature can be when effective conservation efforts are put into place.

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These efforts are ongoing in the park, and a number of discussions frequently take place between conservation-minded park supporters and those who believe the area's natural resources are vital to the region's economy. Discussions can be difficult at times, but they are important.

Potential Future Volcanic Activity

Since the earliest days of park exploration, Yellowstone has been known as a volcanic hot spot. The volcanic area is part of the Snake River Plain, and, according to some reports, the zone experiences ongoing activity. As a result, it’s considered one of the largest active volcanoes in the world.

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The entire Yellowstone area was formed by large, explosive eruptions under the surface of the land. At around 60 kilometers long, the potentially active magma chamber causes some reasonable concern. It’s frightening to consider how large an eruption could be if the area exploded again, but it remains docile — for now.