A discussion of the history of Yellowstone National Park would not be complete without considering the area’s dramatic geology. The park lies over a hotspot in the earth’s crust, where hot molten rock rises to the surface. This feature accounts for Yellowstone’s preponderance of thermals, including Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring, which are fed by water that’s heated to boiling temperatures by the intense heat given off by the magma.
Over the past 18 million years, the area’s volcanism has shaped the surrounding landscape through a series of eruptions. While many of these have been less destructive basaltic lava floods, at least a dozen cataclysmic supereruptions have occurred in the area’s history. During such violent incidents, magma bursts from the ground so rapidly that the overlying land collapses into the empty magma chamber, forming a depression called a caldera. The Yellowstone region sits on top of three overlapping calderas, the latest of which was formed during an eruption more than 600,000 years ago.
Human settlement of Yellowstone dates back at least 11,000 years, when paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer societies fashioned projectile weapons and tools out of obsidian in the region. To date, little information exists about the prehistoric inhabitants of the park, due in park to a myth that native peoples avoided the region out of fear of — or reverence for — its numerous geysers. Archeological digs are helping to dispel this misconception, but the process is slow and ongoing. To date, only two percent of the park has been surveyed.
More is known about the tribes that lived in and around Yellowstone during historic times. Among them are the Shoshone, who some researchers suggest are the descendants of people that inhabited the mountainous region for thousands of years. Other tribes such as the Nez Perce, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Bannock, Blackfeet and Crow used the lands of “Yellow Rock Water” as hunting grounds. Evidence of temporary habitation that remain today, such as stone circles (possibly supports for teepees) and lean-tos, speak to the tribes’ presence in the area.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition, aided by Northern Shoshone Sacajawea, passed north of the Yellowstone region in the early 19th century, which was the extent of organized exploration that the area saw until the late 1860s. The Raynolds Expedition of 1860 came close, encircling the region that would become known as the park, but failing to uncover any of the sites that would make it famous. Included in the party were geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden and guide Jim Bridger, who would both make important contributions to the history of the park in the coming decades.
For years after the Raynolds Expedition, Yellowstone was predominantly visited by trappers and mountain men, some of which would become instrumental in popularizing the region to outsiders. Jim Bridger’s tall tales in particular mentioned Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs. Bridger would join an 1869 expedition (with Charles Cook and David Folsom) that would be “the first to collect and record accurate information of the region,” including a written account of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of 1870 provided accounts of the area with an eye towards scientific detail.
But it was F. V. Hayden’s second journey to Yellowstone that would prove most influential. In addition to a mineralogist and a topographer, Hayden brought along two artists — Thomas Moran, who would become famous for his Western landscape paintings, was one of them — and a photographer. It was their pictures and renderings that brought Hayden’s 500-page report on the Yellowstone region to life, and helped instill the call for its preservation in the American conscience.
The First National Park
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill into law that proclaimed Yellowstone be “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale… and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The first national park became a reality, albeit one that was continually under threat for most of its early days. The newly drafted park saw conflict with various tribes who called the region home, as well as persistant poaching and exploitation of natural resources within the park.
To manage these challenges, the U.S. Army established a camp near Mammoth Hot Springs in 1886. Originally called Camp Sheridan, the base would develop over time into the park’s administrative nerve center, and be renamed Fort Yellowstone. The Army turned over control of the park to the National Parks Service in 1918.