Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Long before the boardwalks, hotels, and roads, Yellowstone stood on the edge of the American wilderness. Its discovery and exploration by Euro-Americans led to the founding of the world’s first National Park.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Cole Messa, Ph.D. student, and Ken Sims, Professor of Geology and Geophysics, both at the University of Wyoming.

The Yellowstone region was known for millennia by indigenous people, who would frequent the area in search of game and other resources—they had been in the area for at least 11,000 years! Obsidian from the region was an especially prized commodity, and artifacts made from obsidian taken from Yellowstone’s numerous lava flows have been found as far east as the Ohio River Valley.

Following the Louisiana Purchase by President Jefferson in 1803 and the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806, rumors began to swirl of a place where hot water screamed from the Earth. The first governor of the Louisiana Territory even spoke of a map drawn by indigenous people on a bison pelt and depicting a volcano on the Yellowstone River!

Mountain man John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, split from the group and worked as a fur trapper, eventually making his way into the Yellowstone region. In the winter of 1807, Colter encountered the majesty of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features, later describing it as a place of “fire and brimstone.” This magical place became mocked by Colter’s acquaintances as “Colter’s Hell” and was written off as the machinations of a delusional mountain man who’d spent too much time away from civilization.

Geologist Ferdinand Hayden at work with a rock hammer in 1870
Geologist Ferdinand Hayden at work with a rock hammer.  USGS photo by William Henry Jackson, 1870.

Still, the rumors of such a place continued, and more fur trappers retuned with similar tales. This included repeated visits to the area by the mountain man and notable “spinner of tall tales” Jim Bridger. Just as people were starting to take the idea of Yellowstone seriously, the Civil War broke out in the United States, sparing Yellowstone just a few more years before rigorous examination.

The first organized exploration of the Yellowstone area was the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition in 1869, a privately funded, 3-member team of gold miners from Diamond City, MT. The party witnessed the grandeur of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and followed numerous rivers, such as the Firehole and the Madison, over their 36-day adventure. Otherwise, little is preserved from this initial expedition, although it served as inspiration for the next expedition, the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of 1870.

During this subsequent journey into the Yellowstone region, Henry Washburn and Nathaniel P. Langford, guided by the U.S. Army escort of Lt. Gustavus C. Doane, carried with them the journals of the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition, even following their route south into the region from Montana. The group created numerous maps and detailed observations of the area, explored the Lower and Upper Geyser Basins, and even gave Yellowstone’s most famous attraction its one-of-a-kind name: Old Faithful.

Finally, the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, led by geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, carried a 32-member, federally funded expedition into the heart of Yellowstone territory with the goal of fully characterizing this region of geologic splendor. This group included artist Thomas Moran, whose paintings of Yellowstone’s unmatched beauty were seminal in spurring federal protection of the park the following year. In 1894, Nathaniel P. Langford wrote the following about the Hayden Expedition:

"We trace the creation of the park from the Folsom-Cook expedition of 1869 to the Washburn expedition of 1870, and thence to the Hayden expedition (U. S. Geological Survey) of 1871, Not to one of these expeditions more than to another do we owe the legislation which set apart this "pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." "

Painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by artist Thomas Moran
Painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by artist Thomas Moran, who was part of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871.  Painting from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 produced a detailed report—including a map of Yellowstone Lake!—complete with photographs from William Henry Jackson and paintings by Thomas Moran, which motivated Congress to not only stop from pursuing a public auction of the Yellowstone region, but to send The Act of Dedication to the desk of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. President Grant signed the bill into law, creating the world’s first National Park and igniting a movement in the conservation of natural resources that persists to this very day.

The legacy of these explorations is complex, given the attitude and sometimes violence displayed by some of these explorers toward the indigenous people of the region—people that had long known of Yellowstone and its wonders. And the early history of the park is one of exclusion, when the original inhabitants were removed from the park boundaries. Only by understanding this history and its legacy can we appreciate this land as being, as President Grant put it, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.