The human history of the Yellowstone region goes back more than 11,000 years. From about 11,000 years ago to the very recent past, many groups of Native Americans used the park as their homes, hunting grounds, and transportation routes. These traditional uses of Yellowstone lands continued until a little over 200 years ago when the first people of European descent found their way into the park. In 1872 a country that had not yet seen its first centennial established Yellowstone as the first national park in the world. A new concept was born and with it a new way for people to preserve and protect the best of what they had for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.
Tribal oral histories indicate extensive use of the Yellowstone area during the Little Ice Age. Kiowa stories place their ancestors here from around A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1700. Ancestors to contemporary Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d'Alene, Bannock, Nez Perce, Shoshone and Umatilla, and other tribes continued to travel the park on the already established trails. They visited geysers, conducted ceremonies, hunted, gathered plants and minerals and engaged in trade. Some tribes used the Fishing Bridge area as a rendezvous site. The Crow occupied the country generally east of the park, and the Blackfeet occupied the country to the north. The Shoshone, Bannock and other tribes of the plateaus to the west traversed the park area annually to hunt on the plains to the east. Other Shoshonean groups hunted in open areas west and south of Yellowstone.
In the early 1700s, some tribes in this region began to acquire horses. Some historians believe the horse fundamentally changed lifestyles because tribes could now travel faster and farther to hunt bison and other animals of the plains. The horse, however, does not seem to have changed the tribes' traditional use of the Yellowstone area.
Some groups of Shoshone who adapted to a mountain existence chose not to acquire the horse. These included the Sheepeaters, or Tukudika, who used their dogs to transport food, hides and other provisions.
In 1877 the Nez Perce followed much of the Bannock Trail through Yellowstone as the Nez Perce fled from government forces commanded by General Oliver O. Howard. The Nez Perce band numbering about 750 people, passed through Yellowstone National Park in thirteen days during late August 1877. They were being pursued by the U.S. Army and entered the national park about two weeks after the Battle of the Big Hole. Some of the Nez Perce were friendly to the tourists and other people they encountered in the park, some were not. Nine park visitors were briefly taken captive. Despite Joseph and other chiefs ordering that no one should be harmed, at least two people were killed and several wounded. One of the areas where encounters occurred was in Lower Geyser Basin and east along a branch of the Firehole River to Mary’s Mountain and beyond. That stream is still known as Nez Perce Creek. A group of Bannocks entered the park in 1878, alarming park Superintendent Philetus Norris. In the aftermath of the Sheepeater Indian War of 1889, Norris built a fort for preventing Native Americans from entering the national park.
The Government was determined to occupy and take possession of the non-treaty Nez Perce lands and force them onto the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. The tragic Nez Perce War erupted when Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce leaders including Chief Looking Glass were being forced onto the Nez Perce Reservation under orders from General Howard. After war broke out, the Nez Perce fought gallantly through 18 skirmishes and battles for their ancestral lands, principles, and values in a defensive war that would take them approximately 1,500 miles through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Trappers and Explorers
One of "nine young men from Kentucky" who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their explorations of Louisiana Territory, John Colter became one of the expedition's most adept hunters. He was about thirty years old when the expedition set off in 1804. Coulter made it to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark but on the way back he got sidetracked and got permission to leave the party to do some exploring and trapping on his own. Colter’s excursion that he took during the winter of 1807 is one of the most remarkable in the history of Western exploration.
Colter journeyed up the South Fork of the Stinking Water River (today's Shoshone west of Cody). He likely ventured over the Owl Creek Mountains to reach the headwaters of the Wind River, passed by Brooks Lake (north of Dubois) and then entered Jackson's Hole. It is believed he went as far west as Idaho's Teton Basin, and almost certainly ranged into today's Yellowstone National Park, passing Heart Lake, and Yellowstone Lake before fording the Yellowstone River. He described the bubbling mud pots, spouting geysers, and other natural features of the Yellowstone region, a place that, when he finally returned east, became dubbed "Colter's Hell." Talk of this strange, almost alien, landscape resisted verification. Most of the eyewitnesses, fur trappers, and traders, gave up their profession when the beaver hat went out of style around 1840, and Yellowstone was abandoned by the European Americans again and left to the American Indians so it wasn’t until the Hayden's historic expedition.
Others would follow Colter into the Yellowstone area. In 1824, Jedediah Smith & Jim Bridger began trapping around Jackson Hole up to the south boundary of Yellowstone Park. On August 10, 1836, Osborne Russell and Jim Bridger explored Two Ocean Pass. In 1860, Captain William F Raynolds attempted to explore Yellowstone from the south. In 1869, David Folsom, Charles Cook and William Peterson explored Yellowstone.
Geological Survey Expeditions
The Folsom-Cook group penetrated the Yellowstone County in 1869, followed by the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in 1870. Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane, who served as leader of the military escort of the second expedition, filed a detailed report that was published as a Congressional document and became a landmark of the Yellowstone story.
The Yellowstone area was almost the last unexplored region within the United States frontier, westward migration had passed it by, and even the discovery of gold in nearby Montana failed to stimulate the exploration of Yellowstone. Hayden's historic expedition was preceded by two expeditions that fired the imagination in that largely unknown region.
The 1871 U.S. Geological Survey expedition led by fellow Philadelphian Dr. Hayden organized his Yellowstone expedition with the support of a $40,000 appropriation from Congress. In early June 1871, a team of Thirty-four men and seven wagons set out from Ogden, Utah. Among the group were a mineralogist, a topographer, two artists, including Thomas Moran; Ferdinand V. Hayden provided the opportunity for Moran to travel to the Yellowstone region. A respected painter, engraver, and illustrator by this time and Photographer William Henry Jackson who got a last-minute invitation to join the expedition. The Jackson and Moran quickly realized how this journey would change their lives, however they had little idea how it would change American history. The artist and photographer proved to be invaluable to the expedition for their paintings and photographs served as dramatic and effective testimonials for establishing the park.
The Yellowstone Basin proved to be an ideal laboratory because it is foremost a geological area, containing an extraordinary variety of natural features including important clues to mountain-making and volcanic processes. Each of the scientists accompanying the expedition found unique opportunities for observation and study.
Hayden and his party examined several geysers and "boiling springs" and gave them names such as Thud Geyser, Mud Puff, Architectural Fountain, Catfish, the Bathtub, Dental Cup, Punch Bowl No. two, and Beehive. Examining the mud springs, and geysers was hazardous and could be a painful experience, as Hayden discovered: "The entire surface is perfectly bare of vegetation and hot, yielding in many places to slight pressure. I attempted to walk about among these simmering vents, and broke through to my knees, covering myself with hot mud, to my great pain, and subsequent inconvenience."
The most important product of the expedition, in addition the paintings and photographs, was a 500-page report by Hayden detailing the findings of his party. Hayden presented this report, the photos, sketches, and paintings to Senators, Congressmen, and his superiors in the Department of the Interior, and nearly everyone else who could possibly influence the founding of a park. He also published articles in magazines with national circulation and spent much personal time and effort trying to convince Congress to establish the park.
An act to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming ... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate, or settle upon, or occupy the same or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed there from. Approved March 1, 1872.
Nathaniel Langford was appointed as the park's first superintendent in 1872. He served for five years but was denied a salary, funding, and staff. Langford lacked the means to improve the land or properly protect the park, and without formal policy, or regulations, he had few legal methods to enforce such protection. This left Yellowstone vulnerable to poachers, vandals, and others seeking to raid its resources. He addressed the practical problems park administrators faced in the 1872 Report to the Secretary of the Interior and correctly predicted that Yellowstone will become a major international attraction deserving the continuing stewardship of the government. In 1875, Colonel William Ludlow, who had previously explored areas of Montana under the command of George Armstrong Custer, was assigned to organize and lead an expedition to Montana and the newly established Yellowstone Park. Observations about the lawlessness and exploitation of park resources were in Ludlow's Report of a Reconnaissance to the Yellowstone Nation Park. The report included letters and attachments by other expedition members, including naturalist and mineralogist George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell documented the poaching of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope for hides. "It is estimated that during the winter of 1874–1875, not less than 3,000 buffalo and mule deer suffer even more severely than the elk, and the antelope nearly as much."
Therefore, Langford was forced to step down in 1877. Having traveled through Yellowstone and witnessed land management problems first hand, Philetus Norris volunteered for the position following Langford's exit. Congress finally saw fit to implement a salary for the position, as well as to provide a minimal funding to operate the park. Norris used these funds to expand access to the park, building numerous crude roads and facilities.
In 1880, Harry Yount was appointed as "gamekeeper" to control poaching and vandalism in the park. Yount had previously spent a number of years exploring the mountain country of present-day Wyoming, including the Grand Tetons, after joining Dr. Hayden’s Geological Survey in 1873. Today, he is considered the first national park ranger, and Younts Peak, at the head of the Yellowstone River, was named in his honor. However, these measures still proved to be insufficient in protecting the park, as neither Norris, nor the three superintendents who followed, were given sufficient manpower or resources.
Fort Yellowstone, formerly a U.S. Army post, now serves as park headquarters. The Northern Pacific Railroad built a train station in Livingston, Montana, connecting to the northern entrance in the early 1880s, which helped to increase visitation from 300 in 1872 to 5,000 in 1883. Visitors in these early years were faced with poor roads and limited services, and most access into the park was on horseback or via stagecoach. Because of the slow mode of transportation there were many more small lodges in Yellowstone than there are today.
By 1908 visitation increased enough to also attract a Union Pacific Railroad connection to West Yellowstone, though rail visitation fell off considerably by World War II and ceased around the 1960s.
During the 1870s and 1880s Native American tribes were effectively excluded from the national park. A number of tribes had made seasonal use of the Yellowstone area, but the only year-round residents were small bands of Western Shoshone known as "Sheepeaters". They left the area under the assurances of a treaty negotiated in 1868, under which the Sheepeaters ceded their lands but retained the right to hunt in Yellowstone. The United States never ratified the treaty and refused to recognize the claims of the Sheepeaters or any other tribe that had made use of Yellowstone.
Poaching and destruction of natural resources continued unabated until the U.S. Army arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs in 1886 and built Camp Sheridan. Over the next 22 years the army constructed permanent structures, and Camp Sheridan was renamed Fort Yellowstone. With the funding and manpower necessary to keep a diligent watch, the army developed their own policies and regulations that permitted public access while protecting park wildlife and natural resources. When the National Park Service was created in 1916, many management principles developed by the army were adopted by the new agency. The army turned control over to the National Park Service on October 31, 1918. Later history
By 1915, 1,000 automobiles per year were entering the park, resulting in conflicts with horses and horse driven transportation. In subsequent years, horse travel on roads was eventually prohibited. Between 1933 and 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps built most the early visitor centers, campgrounds and the current system of park roads. During World War II, staffing and visitation both decreased, and many facilities fell into disrepair. By the 1950s, visitation increased tremendously in Yellowstone and other national parks. To accommodate the increased visitation, park officials implemented Mission 66, an effort to modernize and expand park service facilities. Planned to be completed by 1966, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service, Mission 66 construction diverged from the traditional log cabin style with design features of a modern style. During the late 1980s construction styles in Yellowstone reverted to the more traditional designs. After the enormous forest fires of 1988 damaged much of Grant Village, structures there were rebuilt in the traditional style. The visitor center at Canyon Village, which opened in 2006, incorporates a more traditional design as well.
The Roosevelt Arch is located in Montana at the North Entrance of Yellowstone and the arch's cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt. The placard reads "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People."
The 1959 Yellowstone earthquake just west of Yellowstone at Hebgen Lake damaged roads and some structures in the park. In the northwest section of the park, new geysers were found, and many existing hot springs became turbid. It was the most powerful earthquake to hit the region in recorded history. In 1963, after several years of public controversy regarding the forced reduction of the elk population in Yellowstone, United States Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall appointed an advisory board to collect scientific data to inform future wildlife management of the national parks. In a paper known as the Leopold Report, the committee observed that culling programs at other national parks had been ineffective, and recommended management of Yellowstone's elk population.
The wildfires during the summer of 1988 were the largest in the history of the park. The fires, leading to a systematic reevaluation of fire management policies, impacted approximately 793,880 acres or 36% of the Yellowstone. The fire season of 1988 was considered normal until a combination of drought and heat by mid-July contributed to an extreme fire danger. On "Black Saturday," August 20, 1988, strong winds expanded the fires rapidly, and more than 150,000 acres burned.
The 1,000 archeological sites that have been discovered have documented the expansive cultural history of the park. The park has 1,106 historic structures and features, and of these Obsidian Cliff and five buildings have been designated National Historic Landmarks. Yellowstone was designated an International Biosphere Reserve on October 26, 1976, and a United Nations World Heritage Site on September 8, 1978.