Yellowstone National Park: History of an American Wonderland
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.