Exploring Yellowstone


by Josh Kelly

After the Civil War Americans renewed their interest in exploring parts of the West that were not mapped. Yellowstone's geography and wonders were hardly known to the government and general public in the 1860s. A group of prominent Montanans stopped at a Jesuit mission near Great Falls, Montana in October 1865 to take shelter from a blizzard that slowed their trip to Fort Benton. While they were taking shelter at the mission, Father Francis Kuppens confirmed what rumors the Montanans had heard about the Yellowstone region and increased their interest in the area. Kuppens had traveled into Yellowstone with Piegans on a buffalo hunt and had seen the wonders there.

For the next few summers, Montanans planned several expeditions to the core of Yellowstone, but none of them materialized until 1869. The expedition of 1869 started a four year phase of exploration in Yellowstone’s history that historian Aubrey Haines described as giving Americans "definitive knowledge" of this primary western watershed. Until 1869 and even after it, many of the wonders contained at the sources of the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers were just rumors surrounded by fantastic tales and perpetuated by imaginative trappers and a few prospectors.

The expedition of 1869 began on a large scale. But like the plans for other expeditions before it, its members failed to follow through with their commitment to the expedition. More than twenty men had planned to accompany the party to Yellowstone, but a week before it was scheduled to depart from Helena, "business matters" detained most of the participants. Three of the men, however, resolved to proceed with the original plan. Charles Cook, David Folsom and William Petersen left Helena on September 6 despite farewells of "Good-bye boys, look out for your hair!" and "If you get into a scrap, remember I warned you." Montanans were clearly apprehensive about traveling in Yellowstone for fear of Indian hostilities. Cook, Folsom and Peterson, however, proved those fears to be unreasonable. They did encounter Indians on their journey, but none were hostile.

With six weeks of provisions packed on two horses, the trio left from Bozeman--the last place to acquire provisions--and crossed the Gallatin Range into the Yellowstone Valley. They followed the Yellowstone River upstream to where it joined the Gardner River. This became the standard approach to Yellowstone in the years that followed and the main entrance to the park once tourists began to arrive. Cook, Folsom and Petersen continued up the Yellowstone River to the mouth of the lake. On their way they observed the land’s peculiar features. From Yellowstone Lake they crossed west to the Firehole Basin and witnessed the geysers there. They followed the Firehole to the Madison River and the Madison to the Three Forks of the Missouri where they continued to Helena in October. Thirty-six days after their departure, they still had their scalps. 
The next year Montana’s Surveyor General, Henry Washburn headed a full-scale expedition into Yellowstone.

The Washburn group included Nathaniel Langford, an aspiring Montana politician and employee of a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Other prominent Montanans were among the expedition as well. The expedition also had a military escort, despite Cook, Folsom and Petersen’s success the year before. Lieutenant Gustavus Doane commanded an escort of five soldiers from Fort Ellis near Bozeman. Two packers and two black cooks also assisted the party. Altogether nineteen men and a dog named Booby made the journey.

The Washburn party followed the same route as the previous year’s expedition to the mouth of Yellowstone Lake. From there, they followed the lake’s eastern shore to the arms on the south end of the lake. There, one of the members of the party became lost in the thick timber and was not found for thirty-seven days. Truman Everts was the oldest member of the group and his epic adventure became one of Yellowstone’s best known stories. The party left soldiers to search for the missing Everts, but they soon had to leave for lack of supplies. Another search party found him near Blacktail Deer Plateau in tattered cloths, severely famished and delirious.

On the west side of the lake, the expedition crossed the divide between Yellowstone Lake and Firehole River, where they followed the same route as Cook, Folsom and Petersen again. The Madison River forms at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers. The expedition stopped there to camp at the beginning of their return to civilization. A marker is there now, which commemorates the conception of the idea to create a national park. However, historians of Yellowstone have debated its accuracy for nearly a century. Sitting around the campfire that September night, the men in the expedition debated Yellowstone’s fate. Some suggested they should all carve out their own claims--something that was already beginning to occur--and profit from tourists once the railroad arrived a few years later. But, as the story goes, Cornelius Hedges suggested that it should be reserved for public use and private profit should be discouraged. 
The results of the Washburn Expedition gained recognition.

A group of "reputable" men had finally witnessed the wonders there and returned with "reliable" testimonies about it. They took measurements of geysers, named and calculated the elevation of peaks, measured the heights of waterfalls and found species of small mammals and plants that were not yet catalogued. They collected specimens, including petrified wood, soil, and water from springs. They even made daily records of barometric pressure and temperature.

That winter (1870-1871) Nathaniel Langford took his specimens east on a promotional speaking tour that was funded by the Northern Pacific Railroad. At one of his stops in Washington, he renewed the interest of the nation’s foremost geologist, Ferdinand Hayden. Hayden had attempted to penetrate the Yellowstone wilderness with Captain W. H. Raynolds of the United States Topographical Survey in 1860, but the party was deterred from the south by a high, sharp ridge. Raynolds’s party found itself trying to enter from the west also, but in early June the snows were still too deep. Hayden published a map of his geological discoveries with Raynolds in the West, but there was a large void where Yellowstone lay.

Hayden lobbied the House Appropriations Committee in 1872 and secured $40,000 dollars that year for the sole purpose of exploring Yellowstone. The survey included: Hayden and his assistant, one "agricultural statistician and entomologist," two topographers, two photographers, one meteorologist, two botanists, one mineralogist, one physician, one zoologist, a secretary, two "general assistants," and the son of Senator Henry Dawes from Massachusetts who was also supposed to act as an assistant. One artist, Thomas Moran also accompanied the survey. A crew of fifteen "teamsters, laborers, cooks, or hunters" also supported Hayden’s expedition. In addition to Hayden’s survey crew, he discovered that General Sheridan had commissioned a reconnaissance into Yellowstone after reading Lieutenant Doane’s report. Both the Army engineers and Hayden’s expedition were assigned a military escort from Fort Ellis. The geographic and scientific results of this survey were convincing enough to persuade Congress to pass the Yellowstone Act in March 1872, and to nearly double Hayden’s funding for another survey the next year.

There were several results of this era of exploration in Yellowstone. First, and most obvious, it created the first large preserve of public land in the world. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Act into law in 1864, but that only preserved a small piece of land mostly restricted to the Yosemite Valley. Yellowstone was so large that it generated some controversy. Politicians and entrepreneurs argued that it might be harmful to the economy if valuable natural resources were found there. Another effect of exploration was that Yellowstone was finally charted. In 1836, Warren Ferris, a fur trapper drew a map of the West--Yellowstone included--accompanying his journals from the years that he spent in the Rocky Mountains. His map revealed an intimate knowledge of Yellowstone’s topography, but publishers rejected his book and the map. Few People ever saw either. Yellowstone was not mapped as accurately until W. W. De Lacy published a map in 1870 based on information provided by Cook, Folsom and Petersen. The Washburn Expedition expanded on this knowledge and Hayden made it scientifically legitimate. Another effect that exploring Yellowstone had was that it gave natural scientists a priceless laboratory in which to work. Yellowstone’s preservation was a venue for geologists, botanist, zoologists and naturalists to become professionals. Since its creation, countless scientists have built careers on and around Yellowstone. Continue to the next page, Fur Traders in Yellowstone.

For further reading:

Ferris, Warren Angus. Life in the Rocky Mountains. Edited by Paul Phillips. Denver: The Old West Publishing Company, 1940.
Haines, Aubrey. Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment. Washington: Department of the Interior, 1974.
Langford, Nathaniel P. Diary of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870. St. Paul: F. J. Haynes Co., 1905.
Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience, 3d Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

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