Papers compiled by David E. Folsom after the first organized expedition to what would become Yellowstone National Park — the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition of 1869 — have been uncovered and subsequently purchased by Montana State University.
It’s always been known that portions of Folsom’s writings about Yellowstone were missing: he created different copies of his groundbreaking visit to what would later become Yellowstone National Park. Braving many perils, including weather and the perceived threat of an American Indian attack, the group ended up stimulating national interest in Yellowstone’s unique qualities while setting the stage for later expeditions.
Some background: Folsom, Charles W. Cook and William Peterson set out in 1869 from Diamond City, Mont. (near Helena) to check out the wild fables emanating from Yellowstone-area visitors. The Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition wasn’t the first exploration of the Yellowstone area; others had come back with colorful accounts of geysers and fumaroles, of exploring mountains and hellish conditions not found elsewhere. The members of the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition were not mountain men a la Jim Bridger, but rather trained professionals. Folsom, a surveyor, ended up inspiring friend Nathan Langford (later on the first Yellowstone superintendent) and employer Henry Washburn to conduct their own expedition to Yellowstone in 1870.
The members of the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition attempted to spread the word about Yellowstone and its many marvels. But their accounts were rejected by leading journals of the day like Scribner’s and the New York Tribune as being too fanciful. Later on a small Chicago publisher, Western Monthly Magazine, accepted a truncated account of their trip.
As noted, Folsom prepared three handwritten accounts of his expedition, but fires over the years eliminated versions held by Montana State and a Chicago publisher. Meanwhile, Kim Allen Scott, Montana State University archivist, had noted in Yellowstone Science there could be other Folsom papers out there, including a memo book used on the exhibit. That paper led to this amazing occurrence, per the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:
About a year and a half ago, Scott said, he was surprised to get an email from a retired David A. Folsom from San Diego, who’d read the “Missing Piece” article online. He described the three-dozen handwritten pages handed down to him, plus letters from early Yellowstone officials to his great-grandfather. As they corresponded, Scott became more excited.
“He didn’t quite realize what he had,” Scott said. “I couldn’t believe it was true –that this long lost document was coming to the surface.”
In September, David A. Folsom and his aunt, Martha Folsom Saudek, granddaughter of the mining engineer, traveled from California to Bozeman to deliver the papers to MSU. Scott said the library paid $5,000 for the documents, though they could have been sold for many times more. Scott called it “an incredible gift of generosity” from the Folsom family.
The new materials are now part of Montana State University’s Renne Library Special Collections.