Yellowstone National Park: A Fascinating History

Bison grazing in Yellowstone.

The history of Yellowstone National Park is a fascinating one. If you've always dreamed of visiting or you're a frequent Yellowstone camper or lodge guest, you'll love reading about its history as well.

Becoming a National Park

Yellowstone National Park is the United States' first national park. According to Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures, the area that the park encompasses was the topic of many incredible stories in the mid-19th century. She stated, "People began to hear and read stories about a fabulous place in the Rocky Mountains where hot water spouted out of the ground and petrified trees were standing around, and there was a deep and colorful canyon with wonderful waterfalls."

Thanks to these stories, at least three groups of explorers who decided to see these sights for themselves from 1869 through 1871: the Folsom, Washburn and Barlow parties. They wrote about what they saw for the popular magazines of the time and an official report for the government was created.

Eventually, members of Congress decided it might be a good idea to set aside land that couldn't be used for agriculture or mining as a place "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the bill which created the world's first national park, Yellowstone National Park. Today it is forever preserved for our enjoyment.

Early Exploration

American Indians

The earliest explorers of the park were several tribes of American Indians. They found many great resources within Yellowstone, such as the Yellowstone obsidian rock which was used to make arrowheads. Due to the severe winters that Yellowstone experiences, very few Indian tribes lived there all year round. Anthropologists believe that most tribes only visited the area to hunt and gather obsidian for arrowhead making.

Early Explorers

Later, from 1805 to 1814, explorers came into the park to document it's many wonders. John Colter was the first white American to discover the region and he shared his discovery with famed explorer William Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. Lewis and Clark crudely mapped the areas they explored, and as other explorers followed, the maps gradually became more detailed.

The Fur Trade

The fur trade is the next part of Yellowstone history, from 1818 to 1842. Trappers made reports of "boiling springs," "boiling lakes" and a rich bounty of furs. For some, the Indians provided them with furs from elk, sheep, panther and others.

Trappers and fur hunters were also known for their tall tales and exaggerations of the many unique features found in Yellowstone. Each time a story was told, it became more and more incredulous until it because obvious many years later that these stories, while based of fact to some degree, were primarily told for entertainment purposes or to make the story teller into a hero of sorts.

One example of the exaggerated stories is that of the petrified forests. Trapper James Clyman told of petrified trees complete with birds of stone singing in the branches. This tale grew as it was retold, to include petrified sage hen, rabbits and other animals with petrified bushes bearing diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

There's Way More to Learn

For more information on the history of Yellowstone National Park, visit the online history book Yellowstone National Park, Its Exploration and Establishment by Aubrey L. Haines.

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Yellowstone National Park: A Fascinating History