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Imagination and Image: The Establishment of Yellowstone National Park

Page history last edited by Russell Schindler 9 years, 7 months ago


Imagination and Image: The Establishment of Yellowstone National Park

by Russell Schindler


Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin; Thomas Moran; No date

Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin; Thomas Moran


     When considering the vast complexity of America’s landscape, one region comes to mind that was so shrouded in mystery and intrigue that it drove thousands to see its wonders, and millions more to thirst for tales of its magic. That region is Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was not always the famed attraction it is today; its beginnings were rooted in disbelief, myth and fable. In the early 19th century as explorers pushed west, many stumbled upon Yellowstone, discovering its magnificent might and intrinsic allure. The region had sights never before seen – deep canyons, violent geysers, and scalding springs. However, before the advent of photography, people who did not witness it with their own eyes could not fathom that such a place existed on United States soil. Adventurers returned home with legends of the area, each more unbelievable than the last. The tale of how Yellowstone came to be the first national park in the United States is one that combines the literary with the pictorial, the imagination with the image. The stories of Yellowstone’s fantastic power and beauty captured the nation’s imagination, and the visual evidence provided by Jackson and Moran channeled that energy into action – the preservation of the region forever as sacred ground.


Yellowstone in the Imagination


     Until the late 19th century, Yellowstone existed merely in the myths of those few travelers who had seen it. They spoke of its marvelous landscape, but some of the stories were so farfetched, so outlandish, that it seemed impossible that this place lay on American soil. Explorer Nathaniel Pitt Langford visited Yellowstone numerous times, documenting its magnificence. After hiking six miles up a mountain, he discovered a spectacular view. He writes, “the valley stretched out before us—the river fringed with cotton trees—the foot-hills covered with luxuriant, many-tinted herbage, and over all the snow-crowned summits of the mountains” (8).


     Not only was the Yellowstone’s landscape strikingly picturesque, but it was also formidable. Trappers, mountain men, and explorers returned from the region with accounts of massive rock structures, springs that shot steam from the ground, and natural phenomena so astonishingly massive they appeared prehistoric. Langford writes of a canyon with “two parallels vertical walls of rock” each 125 feet high, “traversing the mountain from base to summit, a distance of 1,500 feet” (8). The magnificence of the landscape was bewildering – as if reality and fantasy collided there – and people soon became captivated by the stories that emerged from the distant territory.


     White explorers could only explain these sights as supernatural. According to many travelers’ accounts, the Indians believed evil spirits dwelled among the hot springs and geysers. As these white men witnessed the thunderous rumbling of the subterranean activity, they turned to fable to understand them. Trapper Warren Ferris toured the Yellowstone region in 1834 guided by two Pend d’Oreille Indians. He recounts the awesome power one of the springs. As he put his hand near the basin, he writes “the heat of the water in this immense cauldron, was altogether too great for comfort… and the hollow unearthly rumbling under the rock on which I stood, so ill accorded with notions of personal safety” that he retreated immediately (10).


     In his book "A Trip to America," William Hardman attempts to explain the same scene that Ferris had witnessed years earlier. To Hardman, the basin closely resembles a cauldron, perhaps belonging to a witch or magician. He writes, “I am compelled to compare the Hot Springs Lake to a huge cauldron, perhaps a quarter of a mile in diameter, resembling nothing so much as poaching eggs on a gigantic scale” (4). Again, Hardman can only describe the region’s colossal nature using mythological language, suggesting the land a home to giants, who cook their morning eggs in a quarter mile cauldron. 


Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Christopher Zimmer


     These published accounts were so compelling and fascinating, so vivid yet unbelievable, that the American public was hooked. There were reports of waterfalls that rose instead of fell, thunderous rumblings that never ceased, even some accounts of fire erupting from the earth. For instance, US Scout Jim Bridger describes the region’s spectacular thermal characteristics, “Geysers spout up seventy feet high, with a terrific hissing noise, at regular intervals” (14). All these descriptions seemed to depict the setting as hell, perpetuating the concept that Indians believed evil spirits existed there.


     To one traveler, however, Yellowstone’s mighty presence did bring a certain kind of suffering. Truman Everts was a member of the 1870 Washburn expedition. Along the way, he lost sight of his comrades and fell behind in the fleet. He continued on the path he believed they had taken but as he recounts, “the falling foliage of the pines had obliterated every trace of travel” (2). A seasoned adventurer, he pitched camp for the night to meet up with his party in the morning. As he dismounted his horse and began to search for suitable campground, the horse fled, taking with it his “blankets, gun, pistols, fishing tackle, matches,” leaving him with nothing but “the clothing on [his] person, a couple of knives, and a small opera-glass attached to the saddle” (2).  


     Alone in the wilderness, without a horse or any supplies, Everts’ situation seemed hopeless. In his fear and anxiety, his mind raced, fixating on the stories of the foreboding presence in Yellowstone. He writes, “The forest seemed alive with the screeching of night birds, the angry barking of coyotes, and the prolonged, dismal howl of the gray wolf” (2).  During his thirty-seven day ordeal in Yellowstone, Everts scorched his hip on a boiling spring, hid from a mountain lion in a tree, hallucinated countless times and finally succumbed to his own solitary hell. Later that year, he published “Thirty Seven Days in Peril” in Scribner’s Monthly, in which he recounted his story. It became an instant hit, circulating widely back East. If the American people were at all skeptical that hell existed in the Yellowstone region, they now were sold.     


Thirty-Seven Days of Peril; Scribner's Monthly Nov 1871


Indian Accounts of Yellowstone


     To fully understand Yellowstone’s transformation from fable to reality, one must recognize that the region was not actually a source of fear for the local Indians. Rather, they revered its splendor, deeming it a sacred ground. This concept, however, was lost in translation, perpetuated by the likeness that Yellowstone shared with the white man’s imagining of the underworld. After putting his hand near a hot spring, trapper Warren Ferris writes that the Indians believed the region’s intense characteristics “to be the production of the Evil Spirit. One of them remarked that hell, of which he had heard from the whites, must be in the vicinity” (10). Here, it becomes clear that whites introduced the concept of hell to Indians; they had only used the term because whites had taught it to them. Nowhere in their cosmology is there any notion of an evil underworld; rather they use this term because whites believed the region to resemble hell.


     Similarly, Pierre-Jean DeSmet drafted a map of the Yellowstone region, and his description is laden with white cultural embellishments. He writes that the “Indians speak of it with a superstitious fear, that is to say, a kind of hell” (10). DeSmet never toured Yellowstone; rather he relied on the account of Jim Bridger to create a map of the region. DeSmet combined his knowledge of the region’s intense thermal characteristics with a misunderstanding of the Indians’ spiritual connection with it to conclude that they viewed Yellowstone as home to evil spirits. He continues, “They declare the subterranean eruption noises proceed from the forging of warlike weapons” (10). Indians were not familiar with metalworking technology at this time; therefore, they could not conceive the sound of forging weapons. Rather, it is clear that this description is not one created by Indians, but rather by DeSmet himself.


Crater of Castle Geyser; William H Jackson; 1872


     In truth, Yellowstone was sacred to the native Indians - a land possessing awesome power - they respected and revered the place. Kevin Locke, a modern Lakota Baha’i, explains that to the Indians who inhabited the region, Yellowstone was not a place of evil but rather one of Divine might. He writes, “The pre-eminence of the Yellowstone basin as a site of particular spiritual potency invoking awe, wonderment, and spiritual upliftment for thousands of years is indisputable” (10). His words are in direct contrast with the accounts of the white trappers and explorers. Rather than the region being the gateway to hell, the Indians respected it as a holy place, one of “spiritual potency” and “upliftment.”


     DeSmet, however, does properly describe the way Indians acted in relation to the place, he simply misunderstands their motive. He writes, “Indians seldom approach it without offering some sacrifice, or at least presenting the calumet of peace” (10). White accounts confuse fear with respect. Indians did not fear the spirits that resided in the region; rather, Indians worshipped Yellowstone’s extremes. Whites mistook their piety for fear, likely due to white culture associating the region’s thermal characteristics with those of the underworld.




     With such outlandish accounts of the area, a great degree of mystery surrounded the public’s imagining of Yellowstone. In a time dominated by fads, the stories of Yellowstone were difficult to believe, causing intrigue among citizens, explorers and writers. To the adventurous, Yellowstone had a certain attraction that drove many to its tallest peaks and deepest canyons. Langford writes of this appeal, “The stories told by trappers and mountaineers of the natural phenomena of that region were so marvelous and strange that… I first contemplated an expedition for the express purpose of exploring it” (8). Indeed, many of the journeys through Yellowstone were solely to marvel at its wonders.


     However, those who could not see the region with their own eyes were often hesitant to believe the accounts of those who had explored it. In May 1871, Overland Monthly writes, “Trappers and half-breeds have dilated, in glowing terms, of impassable cañons, water-falls thousands of feet in height, and "steamboat springs" of remarkable magnitude. Heretofore, these reports have been generally believed to be gross exaggerations” (9). There was a great deal of skepticism to the fables of Yellowstone. The nation was thirsting for proof that the place actually existed.


     In the late 1860s, more newspapers reported on Yellowstone, creating a media frenzy and a public obsession with the region. In a piece entitled "The New Wonderland," the New York Times writes that the area is “enveloped in a certain mystery” and the “natural phenomena are so unusual, so startlingly different from any known elsewhere, that the interest and curiosity excited are not less universal and decided” (6). This article reveals America’s fixation on Yellowstone’s mystique, the public pining for more accounts, more stories, anything that could paint a fuller picture of the region shrouded in mystery. In another article, the New York Times states, “Expedition must be deemed needful before we can altogether accept stories of wonder hardly short of fairy tales in the astounding phenomena they describe" (11).


Yellowstone in the Image


     With the nation anxiously waiting for visual proof of the existence of Yellowstone’s marvels, the government finally answered. On March 4, 1871, Congress ordered Ferdinand V. Hayden, an adventurous geologist, to survey the region. In its order, Congress spelled out that the purpose of the expedition was to make “instrumental observations, astronomical and barometrical, as are necessary for the construction of an accurate geographical map of the district explored.” Furthermore, the government not only wanted geographical surveys, but it sought to appease the public, to once-and-for-all discover the truth behind the myths and fables of the Yellowstone region. Thus, it ordered Hayden to “collect ample material as possible for the illustration of your final reports, such as sketches, sections, photographs, etc” (15).


     Hayden compiled a team of 31 assistants – scientists, geologists, cartographers, geographers, and most notably, William Henry Jackson, a photographer who had accompanied Hayden on the 1870 Washburn party exploration of northwestern Wyoming. The team was ready to move when Hayden received a letter from Jay Cooke, a wealthy financier from Philadelphia, recommending that the party take along Thomas Moran, a young artist. He describes Moran as an artist “of rare genius,” one who “will be a very desirable addition to your expedition” (12). When Cooke and Scribner’s magazine combined to offer Hayden’s expedition $1,000 to secure Moran a place on the expedition, Moran was invited to join.


  On the journey, Moran and Jackson complimented each other’s work marvelously. Moran’s artistic intuition helped Jackson find the perfect shots thatMoran later used as a reference for his paintings. Jackson’s photographs granted the eye irrefutable proof of the natural marvels of Yellowstone, and Moran’s illustrations added vivid color to the scenes. Moran’s journal continually mentions aiding Jackson in composing his photographs. On an undated entry, he writes, “sketched but little but worked hard with the photographer selecting points to be taken & e” (13) Furthermore, on Moran’s entry from July 17, he writes that he “did some photography in the Lower Canon” (13). Most of his entries consist of “sketching and photographing,” suggesting that he worked closely with Jackson, perhaps showing Jackson what to capture, then briefly sketching the scene for himself.


     Moran and Jackson finally convinced the American people of the compelling nature of Yellowstone. While the explorers’ tales gained the attention of the public, the photographs and paintings allowed the people to experience the beauty of Yellowstone’s scenery. Their work was published in countless magazines and publications, such as Scribner’s Monthly and Harper’s Weekly. Furthermore, Moran and Jackson opened the door for artists, photographers and writers to chronicle Yellowstone’s glory. On December 23, 1871, Virginia City’s newspaper, Daily Territorial Enterprise, called for artists  “with pen, pencil, tongue and camera [to] publish [Yellowstone’s] marvels to the enlightened realms” (3). It continued, calling the magnificence of Yellowstone “esto perpetua,” Latin for “let it be eternal.”


     Hayden’s survey created waves back east. In late 1871, following Hayden’s return, he received a letter from A.B. Nettleton, a prominent politician who had served with Hayden in the Civil War. Nettleton wrote that Judge Kelley, a Philadelphia Congressman with a large stake in the railroad business, suggested, “Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever” (12). Many others at the time felt Kelley’s sentiment. On October 30, 1871, Jay Cooke wrote a letter to W. Milner Roberts, a Northern Pacific engineer, proposing the idea and asking if it would “conflict with our land grant, or interfere with us in any way” (12). Cooke, however, did not wait for a response before he took action. Rather, this letter served as more of a warning to the railroad that he would pursue the campaign to make Yellowstone a public park.


     Cooke pressed Hayden to present his case before Congress and in 1872 Hayden finally budged. Being a geologist, he “brought with him a large number of specimens from different parts of the Park… while Congress was in session” (16). However, to truly win their vote, Hayden had to win the public. This was not achieved with scientific evidence; rather, it was with the visual masterpieces of Jackson and Moran.


     According to Corps of Engineers Captain Hiram M. Chittenden, Moran’s paintings and Jackson’s photographs “did a work which no other agency could do and doubtless convinced everyone… the regions should be preserved to the people forever” (17). Jackson writes that the watercolors and photos brought before Congress "were the most important exhibits brought before the [Congressional] Committee." The "wonderful coloring" of Moran's sketches, he adds, made all the difference (17). Congress was amazed by the art created by the pair and purchased Moran’s panoramic “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” for display in the Senate Lobby. This piece shares a striking similarity to Jackson’s “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” suggesting that Moran used Jackson’s photograph as a reference for his painting.  

     Yellowstone was so captivating that there was competition for who could claim ownership of its preservation. For example, Congressman William Horace Clagett originally claimed to be main proprietor of the national park idea. He notes that when presented with the photographs, paintings, and descriptions of the area, “I stated that… the whole region should be made into a National Park and no private proprietorship be allowed” (5). Later, perhaps from their insistence, he credits his partners in the movement – Nathaniel P. Langford and Cornelius Hedges (5). Furthermore, there was even competition among states and the national government for which could claim the land. One Montana newspaper article’s title tells it all: “The Cataracts and Geysers of the Upper Yellowstone—Why They Should Be Given in Perpetuity to Montana.” In it, the newspaper argues that while the region is situated “within the jurisdiction of Wyoming,” it should “be included within the boundaries of Montana Territory… for the convenience of protective local legislation,” (1). This competition is a testament to the wonder that Yellowstone held. Everyone wanted a piece of the action; to be credited with the discovery of nature’s greatest marvels would surely write one into history.


Returning Yellowstone to its Sacred Status 


     On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Act, establishing the world’s first national park. This land was dedicated for the sole purpose of acting “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” (Yellowstone Act). Never before had any site been created like this – it was not for any material gain, nor for exploitation of resources, but rather as a sanctuary for Yellowstone’s natural beauty that people could forever cherish.


     Whereas Yellowstone had once only existed to the public in the stories and fables of its visitors, the artistic work of Jackson and Moran brought the marvelous landscape to the eyes of the American people. This visual proof was so captivating that many rushed to action, pressing for the preservation of the land. In the years that followed, Yellowstone set a precedent to protect America’s natural wonders. The establishment of Yellowstone National Park had a domino effect, leading to Yosemite National Park in 1890, Mount Rainer in 1899, Crater Lake in 1902, and 54 others in the years that followed.


     While the local Indians lost their sacred land to United States’ control, their loss was not in vain. The springs, geysers, canyons, and caverns they worshipped then still exist today, protected and forever sanctified as America’s sacred land.



White Mountain Hot Springs; Thomas Moran


Works Cited

1. "The Cataracts and Geysers of the Upper Yellowstone—Why They Should Be Given in Perpetuity to Montana." Bozeman Avant Courier 7 Dec. 1871: n. pag. Print.

2. Everts, Truman C. Thirty-Seven Days of Peril: A Narrative of the Early Days of the Yellowstone. San Francisco: E. & R. Grabhorn & James McDonald, 1923. Print.

3. "Geyser Land." Daily Territorial Enterprise [Virginia City, Nevada] 23 Dec. 1871: n. pag. Print.

4. Hardman, William. A Trip to America. London: T.V. Wood, 1884. Print.

5. "Hon. Win. H. Clagett, Delegate." New North-West [Oregon] 9 Sept. 1871: n. pag. Print.

6. "The New Wonderland." The New York Times 23 Oct. 1871: n. pag. Print.

7. Potts, Daniel T. Philadelphia Gazette and Daily Advertiser 27 Sept. 1827: n. pag. Print.

8. Richardson, James. Wonders of the Yellowstone. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, 1873. Print.

9. "THE WASHBURN YELLOWSTONE EXPEDITION." Overland Monthly May 1871: 431. Print.

10. Weixelman, Joseph O. "Fear or Reverence? Native Americans and the Geysers of Yellowstone." Yellowstone Science 9.4 (n.d.): n. pag. National Parks Service. Web

11. "The Yellowstone Expedition." The New York Times 18 Sept. 1871: n. pag. Print.

12. Nettleton, A. B., to F. V. Hayden. June 7, June 16, Oct. 27, 1871 (M623, roll 2, frames 120-2, 127-8, 155).

13. United States. National Park Service. "Thomas Moran's Diary." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web.

14. Gunnison, J.W., A History of the Mormons. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo  & Co., 1852.  p. 151

15. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano to Hayden, May 1, 1871. RG 48, L.S., Patents & Misc. Division, vol. 6, pp. 176-177, NA.

16. Langford, "Diary," p. xxii.

17. United States. National Park Service. "Moran the Lobbyist." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web.

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