Old Yellowstone: Birth of a National Park

March 1, 1872birthday of Yellowstone National Park.

It’s a date well known to Yellowstone and history buffs alike. March 1, 1872: President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that would establish America’s first National Park. Although what would become Yosemite National Park was originally granted to the state of California in 1864, the passage of “An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park” was the first articulation of the National Park idea: that certain spaces would be safeguarded from development/exploitation “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Indeed, although the ways in which people see and think about Yellowstone have changed over the years, the original intent has stayed true, by and large.

But how did this bill come about? When looking at Yellowstone history, there’s no one answer. Although the idea of a national park was floated around by various parties (most famously/emblematically by Western painter George Catlin), the idea of Yellowstone National Park itself was a more recent invention.

Nathaniel Pitt Langford, one of the coleaders of the Washburn Expedition of 1870 (detailed, along with a number of other players in early Yellowstone history, in George Black’s Empire of Shadows) maintained his party discussed the idea around a campfire. This story was once gospel but is now seen as a legend at best. Regardless, through his work in Scribner’s Monthly, Langford did help bring Yellowstone’s wonders to the mainstream.


The 1871 Hayden Geological Survey, meanwhile, gets more of the credit for convincing Congress, as they brought home several convincing bits of evidence: photographs by William Henry Jackson and paintings (like the one shown above) by Thomas Moran. They also brought back Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden himself, who became one of the region’s most ardent defenders—and an effective proponent of the Park idea, according to Hiram Martin Chittenden.

In his nearly contemporaneous history The Yellowstone National Park (1895), Chittenden briefly goes into the circumstances behind the act eventually signed by President Grant: “The bill, being thus before Congress, was put through mainly by the efforts of three men, Dr. F.V. Hayden, N.P. Langford, and Delegate William H. Clagett [of the Montana territory]” (82). Chittenden goes on:

Through the efforts of these three gentlemen, and others less conspicuously identified with the work, this measure received perhaps the most thorough canvass of any bill that has ever passed Congress. All the members were personally visited and, with few exceptions, won to the cause. The result was a practical unanimity of opinion when the measure came to a vote (Ibid.).

Well, perhaps not “practical unanimity.” There was local opposition to the passage of a Park act, since it meant the region would be taken off the table for future development, a fact that still rankles some people and politicians to this day. Indeed, Chris J. Magoc, writing in Yellowstone: The Creation and Selling of an American Landscape, 1870-1903, detailed some contemporaneous opposition to the idea, even as Hayden asserted the region was not suitable for development:

Senator Cornelius Cole of California countered that the area might be settled and “improved” in the future, but Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois promised that the law could always be repealed later “if it is in anybody’s way.” Trumbull’s defense proved prophetic a decade later when park protectionists had to labor against railroad and mining interests who reopened the debate over the region’s scenic-versus-extractive value (18).

And, of course, even when technically under the aegis of the federal government, Yellowstone’s early history was marked by vandalism and poaching, which led to further acts from Congress to 1) put the Park under the protection of the U.S. Army and 2) ban hunting in the Park.

Regardless, the act establishing Yellowstone National Park was something of an oddity—and in terms of impact, entirely unprecedented, a view held by Chittenden in his history:

It was a notable act, not only on account of the transcendent importance of the territory it was designed to protect, but because it was a marked innovation in the traditional policy of governments. From time immemorial privileged classes have been protected by law in the withdrawal, for their exclusive enjoyment, of immense tracts for forests, parks, and game preserves. But never before was a region of such vast extent as the Yellowstone Park set apart for the use of all the people without distinction of rank or wealth (84).

Richard A. Bartlett, editor of the 1964 reprint of Chittenden’s history, echoed that assessment:

“Created by Act of Congress: March 1, 1872.” That places its passage in the days of President Grant. This is in the midst of the Robber Baron era, the era of the “Great Barbecue,” when money could buy anything in Washington and the public domain was being ruthlessly despoiled. This was an era of business titans and of political mediocrities. There were land grab and salary grabs, gold corners and whisky frauds. But as for “the people”—who ever considered them? Yet here is the Yellowstone National Park, established “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” in 1872.

Indeed, irrespective of business titans and political mediocrities past and present, and in spite of Senator Trumbell’s predicion, Yellowstone National Park has endured. And will continue to endure. Here’s to next March 1.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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