Although it was not the first expedition through the region, the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey really did help Yellowstone become a national park.
It made the venture seem credible, producing evidence of the region’s wonders through its large roster of scientists and naturalists. The expedition also had two star artists in accompaniment: photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran.
The story of the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey, however, does not figure much into the current Yellowstone landscape. Traces of the survey’s endeavors endure in the naming of certain features and landmarks, but the 1870 Washburn Expedition historically endured in the public imagination as the origin for Yellowstone’s beginning, or at least the idea of it. The apocryphal campfire story, where members purportedly proposed that Yellowstone should be put aside as a “national park,” is still recounted on a plaque near the Madison Information Station. It’s a pretty, pithy story that approaches something akin to a fable, a far cry from the extensive work done by Hayden’s survey—and even from the actual Washburn expedition.
Indeed, compared to members of the Washburn expedition (raucous Indian fighter/notorious braggart Gustavus C. Doane and former vigilante/first superintendent Nathaniel Pitt Langford, painstakingly detailed in George Black’s opus Empire of Shadows) Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden (pictured below in a Jackson photo) embodied less of the rugged “Wild West” spirit: comparatively milquetoast, a Johnny-come-lately who merely popularized the Park and built on the foundation laid by previous expeditions.
To help substantiate the survey’s importance, Oberlin College historian Marlene Deahl Merrill edited and assembled a book of letters and other primary documents that serves greatly to illuminate what makes the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey so important to Yellowstone National Park’s beginnings. Published in 1999 by University of Nebraska Press, Yellowstone and the Great West: Journals, Letters, and Images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition is a serious, detailed look into the expedition through the eyes of some of its participants.
According to Merrill’s introduction in Yellowstone and the Great West, Hayden was not superfluous to the expedition:
It is in his role as popularizer and promoter that Hayden has been characterized (by some scientists and historians) as a businessman’s geologist and a scientific entrepreneur. Hayden undoubtedly was both, but he was also much more. Because there has been such a paucity of primary evidence regarding his actual day-to-day survey fieldwork, it has been relatively easy to write him off as only a superficial scientist. The journals and letters that follow [in the book] point to his active involvement in all scientific aspects of the survey, from collecting huge amounts of detailed empirical data to speculating on broad theoretical issues. These same documents also reveal how three articulate scientists responded to the dramatic western landscapes along their expedition route and within the country’s soon-to-be first national park.
Keep in mind, these gentlemen did not expect their writings to be read or studied by anyone other than their superiors. As such, Merrill has made some corrections to spelling and has spelled out ampersands and such. Thankfully, Merrill includes a chapter on her “Editorial Method” in Yellowstone and the Great West.
Further, the expedition’s success did not hinge on the (admittedly brilliant) work of Jackson and Moran. The diaries, letters, and other documents included in Yellowstone and the Great West solidify the party’s credentials and go great lengths to situate their presence in the vast scene of Western expedition, alongside the likes of future director of the U.S Geological Survey and aridity prophet John Wesley Powell. Indeed, the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey did not just travel through Yellowstone; they started north from Ogden, Utah, locales described extensively in Yellowstone and the Great West.
Merrill has been a great boon to the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey, bringing her first-rate scholarly acumen in organizing/presenting the project.