How It All Started: Yellowstone’s Early History

Looking back on the history of America's first national park

By LEW FREEDMAN, Cody Enterprise

CODY, Wyo. — Nathaniel Pitt Langford wore a thick, dark beard, had wavy hair, a high forehead and seemed as comfortable in a suit as in less formal wilderness clothes.

The initials of his conveniently bestowed first two names helped earn him the nickname “National Park Langford,” the Cody Enterprise reported.

So did his resume as the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park once it was established by Congress and signed into reality by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

Langford’s was the quirkiest of all Yellowstone administrations. While Langford held the title as boss of the first-in-the-world national park for five years, he set foot within its 2.2 million-acre boundaries just twice during that time span.

That is because Congress did not appropriate either a budget to operate this Park bursting with natural wonders, nor money for a Langford salary.

While he may have fulfilled an historic role, Langford’s title at the inception probably carried less weight than that of “Kentucky Colonel.”

It was a long road, including the building of roads, from Yellowstone of 1872, through military supervision, to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

Yet without the foresight of the visionaries describing the splendor of Yellowstone in sufficiently flowery yet believable language, it is speculative how the entire universe of American national parks would have played out.

Langford was a member of the 1870 Yellowstone expedition led by Henry Washburn, Montana’s surveyor-general.

There is little doubt from his writings that Langford was smitten, if not nearly overcome, by the Yellowstone beauty he saw, from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to geysers.

Langford’s description of the waterfalls at the end of the canyon is practically a love letter.

“The two grand falls of the Yellowstone form a fitting completion to this stupdendous climax of wonders,” he wrote. “They impart life, power, light and majesty to an assemblage of elements, which without them would be the most gloomy and horrible solitude in nature. Their eternal anthem, echoing from canon, mountain, rock and woodland, thrills you with delight and you gaze with rapture at the iris-crowned curtains of fleecy foam as they plunge into gulfs enveloped in mist and spray.”

Langford, born in 1832, did not publish his Yellowstone diary until 1905. Historians take issue with one specific aspect of it.

Langford details a Sept. 20, 1870, spirited conversation around a campfire among members of the expedition that few believe occurred.

In Langford’s telling, some members of the party wanted to divvy up the land inside Yellowstone into “sections,” one square mile being a section in surveying terms, for development.

Langford said Judge Cornelius Hedges of Montana led vocal opposition and said Yellowstone should be set aside as a park.

When Ken Burns and his partner Dayton Duncan were filming their epic 2009 documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” they likened Langford’s assertion to the long-ago-disproved credit given Abner Doubleday for inventing baseball.

“… The whole of it ought to be set apart as a great national park,” Langford quoted Hedges.

Skeptics say no other member of the group ever spoke of this Eureka discussion about turning Yellowstone into a national park and most were dead by the time Langford’s diary appeared.

. . .

The notion that Yellowstone was something special had been percolating in the national consciousness for decades, although the existence of such a fantastical place was not readily accepted for a long time.

Mountain man John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was the first wilderness guy to report to the United States at large about thermal features. Practically nobody believed him, jokes routinely appearing about “Colter’s Hell.”

Other mountain men, Joe Meek and Jim Bridger, later provided similar descriptions.

In 1869, Montana gold miners David Folsom, Charles Cook and William Peterson decided to check out the area. That begat the Washburn journey the next year.

The Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, a party of 34 led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, was larger than the others and better funded.

Photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran were in the mix and the images brought back East were put on display in the U.S. Capitol to influence Congressional approval of the Park legislation that established Yellowstone.

Langford noted his passionate descriptions of Yellowstone’s scenery provoked “many of my auditors (to) believe I have ‘drawn a long bow,'” meaning they thought he was lying about the geysers and such.

Ironically, Langford was telling the truth about Yellowstone’s eye-catching natural features and only much later others thought he was lying about the campfire tale.

While Buffalo Bill Cody was gallivanting around the West and the world with his Wild West exhibition he became enamored of Yellowstone.

The most famous American of his time, Cody banded together with some other well-to-do men to found the city of Cody in 1896 because of its proximity, 53 miles from the east side of Yellowstone. Cody saw the commercial opportunities and campaigned for construction of a road to the Park.

That highway is now called the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway and the community became that gateway to Yellowstone Buffalo Bill envisioned.

. . .

For all of its renown as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone was actually not the first government-set-aside park.

That honor went to Yosemite, with a swipe of Abraham Lincoln’s pen in 1864, when he was generally occupied by the Civil War.

The United States did not really want to get into the parks business so the federal government gave Yosemite to California with the reservation that it never be placed under private ownership.

Sen. John Conness of California became the first person in the nation’s history to suggest setting aside scenic land motivated to preserve it simply because of what it was.

Still, Yosemite needed as many friends as it could accumulate, from Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York’s Central Park and likened Yosemite to Switzerland’s scenic bounty, to an increasingly renowned conservationist (who virtually invented the word) in John Muir.

Muir, born in 1838 in Scotland, considered Yosemite a paradise on earth and when it came under siege from developers he became its passionate protector.

Also an advocate for Sequoia National Park, home to Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states and the monstrously wide 275-foot tall General Sherman Tree, Muir wielded his expanding clout to organize public support and convince the government to approve Sequoia and Yosemite as the second and third National Parks in 1890.

Muir was a walking man who explored large swaths of land on foot, mostly traveling alone with a minimum of supplies.

“The mountains are calling and I must go,” Muir said.

He revered nature. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks,” he said. “Keep close to nature’s heart … and break clear away once in a while and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

In 1892, Muir founded the Sierra Club and was its first president. Later he was called “The Father of the National Parks.”

So many years later the Sierra Club thrives in Oakland, California. The organization is proud of its connection to John Muir and considers its modern-day mission much as Muir saw it nearly 125 years ago.

“We’re trying to make sure there are nearby wilderness experiences, not just backcountry ones,” said Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club’s national deputy executive director.

“We’re very proud of our role in establishing, expanding and defending the National Parks.”

Muir was a tireless advocate for the parks because everywhere he looked land speculators, loggers, purveyors of tourism schemes, sheep ranchers and others he viewed as invaders seemed anxious to bite off hunks of land or exploit it.

In 1903, on a camping trip that really did take place, Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt, the first conservation president, spent three days together in the Mariposa Grove at Yosemite.

Muir and Roosevelt were simpatico.

During his 1901 to 1909 presidency, Roosevelt established 230 million acres of public land, 150 million of them as national forests, developed the Antiquities Act, which led to the declaration of National Monuments, the first one in 1906 being Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and launched the National Wildlife Refuge system.

“Here is your country,” Roosevelt said. “Cherish these natural wonders. Cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage for your children and your children’s children.”

Given the 19th century and early 20th century overview of America’s manifest destiny, this did not include the children of Native Americans.

As they promulgated westward expansion, driving Native tribes off land from Kansas to North Dakota, from Yellowstone to California, government officials claimed ownership and in some cases established National Parks where others resided.

Future American conservationists regretted this treatment and acknowledge the mishandling of “indigenous people with the military wiping out Native Americans,” Hamilton said.

The first time U.S. authorities genuinely recognized Native American land rights, Hamilton said, was in 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that granted land titles to Alaska Native regional corporations and villages.

That was decades in the future, however, as Muir and Roosevelt chatted in front of the fire and under the stars.

. . .

As Muir and Roosevelt communed, the older man was troubled by the reality on the ground at Yosemite, in particular, and other Parks.

Muir felt that even National Parks were still vulnerable to developers’ whims and poachers’ designs.

He was most disturbed that Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove remained in state hands and felt they were at risk. Muir urged Roosevelt to take those areas back from California. It took three years, but Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to do so.

Muir believed the parks needed a police force of sorts, a National Park Service, to protect them.

When Muir died at 76 in 1914 such an agency was not yet created. It took until 1916 for the Park Service’s establishment.

By then Langford, too, had died, passing away in 1911. But as someone with no resources at his command as superintendent, but with a love for Yellowstone, he well understood what needed protecting.

“How can I sum up its wonderful attractions?” Langford wrote. “It is dotted with great beauty as yet unvisited by man.”

He gloried in Yellowstone’s vistas, forests, landscape, and its thermal features.

Langford’s party named many features on its tour. He was with Henry Washburn when they gazed spellbound at a geyser spurting 100 feet in the air – and as it did so again and again, almost like clockwork.

That’s when Washburn named it “Old Faithful.”