Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, June 26, 2011

History of Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park became America's first National Park by an act of Congress in 1872. Everyone in the U.S. and many people worldwide have heard of the natural beauty found at Yellowstone. This natural beauty is what made this area of Wyoming a tourist mecca ever since.The park attracts several million visitors a year particularly during the summer months of June, July and August. A Yellowstone vacation has been a mainstay for American families for many decades. It finds it's way into many trip planners. The geyser Old Faithful has been thrilling vacationers for years and is one of the main attractions of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone's Early Years

yellowstone national park sign
As was the case with much public land during the time of massive westward expansion, commercial interests entered the picture. In the case of Yellowstone National Park, the encroachment onto public lands included hunters who were responsible for forest fires and for driving the wild game out of the park. Also fishermen using many hooks and lines, cattlemen bringing their herds onto park land for grazing and miners digging up the landscape.

This was a time before strict park rules were in effect and the policing of such a large area was next to impossible, at least not until the U.S. military was brought in. Forest rangers were not even established until the Theodore Roosevelt administration after the turn of the century.

There were several people responsible for the creation of Yellowstone National Park but one who stood out prominently was General Philip Sheridan. Sheridan certainly didn't have to ask the question of where is Yellowstone National Park? Sheridan was very familiar with the area. Being the commander of the Army of the Missouri since 1869, Sheridan was involved in most all of the exploration and military campaigns in the Wyoming/Montana region. It was Sheridan who was George Armstrong Custer's ultimate superior at the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of 1876. That battle took place about 100 miles northeast of the park's boundaries in southern Montana.

Policing the New Park

Sheridan was a proponent of using the army to police Yellowstone and put a stop to the large amount of poaching going on. The War Department was not as enthusiastic as Sheridan but they didn't put up strong resistance. Many people assume that the cavalry was on the frontier to fight Indians and protect traveling immigrants on the Oregon Trail. This they did, but they also had a history of being involved in civil policing for a long time. Catching criminals was not on their official list of duties but they did run across that from time to time. They also were involved in quelling civil disturbances which again was not their top priority for being there.

Sheridan knew the area well and realized it's cultural potential and starting in 1886 designated army troops to assume the policing duties. The photo to the right is of Philip Sheridan taken during the Civil War. The First Cavalry officially entered Yellowstone on August 20, 1886 headed by a Captain Moses Harris. Their Yellowstone lodging were simply pitched tents. After settling in their work was cut out for them since

conditions deterioratedgeneral philip sheridan rapidly over the previous decade. The first duty of his troops were to stop illegal hunters from driving wild game out of the park. The hunters were doing this by starting raging fires.

Exact rules to be enforced by park protectors were not put into legislation until 1894 but Captain Harris and his successors simply used common sense to protect Yellowstone. Troops patrolled the park land which with some additions grew to an area of 5,350 square miles of very rugged terrain. Violators arrested were generally locked up in guardhouses for a time and then usually simply freed.

In regards to tourists to Yellowstone, the army troops were instructed to be courteous, inform them about safety requirements and explain a bit about environment protection. Pretty similar to what park rangers do today. During the tourist season they patrolled the hiking trails but always kept a keen eye out for poachers. It goes without saying how rough this duty was for the soldiers. In addition to policing an area so vast, the troops stationed there had to withstand winters that could see temperatures as low as minus 40. During the winter months usually four privates under the command of a non commissioned officer resided in each of the log structured substations. There were no hotel accommodations in Yellowstone National Park during those times. Some troops died from exposure during winter duty and some other were frostbitten. 

Formal National Park Laws

Long overdue formal laws finally went in effect in 1900 when President McKinley signed the Lacey Act into law. This Act was sponsored by Iowa congressman John F. Lacey pictured below left. These new laws for public lands were really the starting point for more regulation to follow in the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

The Lacey Act was first signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894 but it lacked the teeth to be really effective. It allowed lawbreakers to be sent outside the park for civil prosecution but many times the prisoner was turned loose after reaching the park boundary. The law enacted in 1900 allowed for two year jail sentences and up to $2,000 in fines for violations. When visitors take a Yellowstone vacation today they are subject to hundreds of regulations in effect to protect our public lands. Today it's hard to imagine a National Park without formal regulations. In the 1800's it was one thing to proclaim an area a National Park yet quite another thing to keep it that way. The U.S. Cavalry rose to the occasion.

lacey act national parks
Finally there were laws on the books that the military could strictly enforce regarding the protection of wildlife, plants, geology and the public lands in general. After a few years the army sent more troops into Yellowstone and they were able to establish posts at all the major parts of the park.


The War Department changed it's earlier view of military involvement in the parks when in 1891 they ordered some troops of the Fourth Cavalry at San Francisco's Presidio into adjoining parks. Since Yellowstone, additional areas were designated as National Parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia.

With the California National Parks, the cavalry were present during the summer months but returned to the Presidio in winter because the lodging in Yosemite and Sequoia wasn't to the standards of Yellowstone. This military arrangement stayed fairly well intact until the year 1912 when the National Park Service was founded.  From that point on the parks were overseen by the Interior Department with park rangers like we see today.

Yellowstone's Old Faithful



old faithful at yellowstone
The image to the right is of Old Faithful Geyser in 1881. Old Faithful remains one of the most popular attractions in Yellowstone.

When you and your family have the chance to stay in a comfortable hotel in Yellowstone National Park, please look back in time and thank the U.S. Cavalry for it's sacrifices decades ago in helping to keep Yellowstone a beautiful place where we and future generations can visit.

A very good side trip near Yellowstone is Guernsey Lake State Historic Park Wyoming where excellent remains of Oregon Trail wagon wheel ruts can be seen.

Another very historic monument just northeast of Yellowstone, Pompeys Pillar, which features the etched signature of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. These make a great companion visits while touring the Yellowstone region.

Another Western Trips article you'll enjoy regards the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway which should be a part of any trip to Yellowstone National Park. 

The Wyoming and Montana areas are great summer western trips destinations showcasing plenty of early western frontier history.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)


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