The Establishment of Yellowstone National Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The document shown here is a piece of legislation that defines and explains how Yellowstone National Park, which covers nearly 3,500 square miles of northwestern Wyoming and adjacent areas of Montana and Idaho, was formed by the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. Although the text does not reveal the importance of this event, Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States, designed to protect numerous wild animal and plant species. The first paragraph, Section 1, lays out the boundaries of the park. The second paragraph, or Section 2, explains the role of the secretary of the interior and the Interior Department's control over the activities that occur inside the park boundaries. This document was signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president of the United States, on March 1, 1872. The action came to fruition thanks to the work of Ferdinand V. Hayden and the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, which explored the area and made detailed reports of its natural wonders.

Summary Overview

The document shown here is a piece of legislation that defines and explains how Yellowstone National Park, which covers nearly 3,500 square miles of northwestern Wyoming and adjacent areas of Montana and Idaho, was formed by the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. Although the text does not reveal the importance of this event, Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States, designed to protect numerous wild animal and plant species. The first paragraph, Section 1, lays out the boundaries of the park. The second paragraph, or Section 2, explains the role of the secretary of the interior and the Interior Department's control over the activities that occur inside the park boundaries. This document was signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president of the United States, on March 1, 1872. The action came to fruition thanks to the work of Ferdinand V. Hayden and the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, which explored the area and made detailed reports of its natural wonders.

Defining Moment

Before the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the idea of a nationally protected piece of land, open for the public to enjoy at their leisure, seemed a foreign concept. While many people appreciated the beauty of many different areas, the idea that the government would pay to keep such areas pristine struck some as a waste of resources. Because of the tenacity of advocates like Ferdinand V. Hayden, however, the importance of preserving national treasures, such as Yellowstone and other parks, like California's Yosemite, became a government priority and was placed under the purview of the Department and the Interior, a governmental entity that continues to oversee national parks today. While the creation of Yellowstone as a national site was not without its problems, including a lack of funding and proper management, the importance of it and other such sites continued to grow. Sites such as Old Faithful, Yellowstone's most famous geyser, continue to draw visitors from around the country and the world, showing that while problems may have existed in the beginning, the push for governmental support of national parks was an idea with lasting benefits.

On the other side, however, there was at the time local resistance to the idea of restricting development within such a large expanse. As Section 2 of the legislation states, the types of buildings that can be erected and their placement within protected lands are subject to regulation—a matter that lawmakers, Interior Department officials, and local residents had to wrestle with as the park came into being. Overall, however, the formation of this first national park set a precedent, allowing and even encouraging the formation of fifty-eight other parks in the decades to come. Many of these parks were originally protected national monuments, but Congress has increased their status over the years and extended their protection, while also allowing closely regulated access and limited resource use in some cases. While there are many beautiful areas in the United States, national parks are set apart, owing to their unique attributes. These attributes, which include natural beauty as well as geological formations of rare or exceptional character and unusual ecosystems, provide park visitors with a unique experience and encourage the public's enjoyment of these areas. Without the push to protect them, it is entirely possible that many of these areas would have ceased to exist in their natural state a long time ago.

Author Biography

The United States Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, passed this piece of legislation, allowing it to then go to the Executive Office, where it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was the eighteenth president and the former commanding general who led the Union to victory against the Confederacy in the Civil War. Born on April 27, 1822, Grant attended the US Military Academy at West Point, fought in several wars, and played a major role in Reconstruction after the Civil War. He then served two terms as president, having been elected in 1868 and 1872.

Although not technically an author of the legislation, Ferdinand V. Hayden led scientific explorations of the region that contributed to Yellowstone's being created as the first US national park. Hayden was born in 1887 and studied natural history and medicine—serving as a surgeon in the Civil War—before taking up geological field research. He was appointed head of a US geological survey of western territories in 1867, landing at Yellowstone in 1871. With him on the Yellowstone expedition were, among others, the photographer William Henry Jackson and the painter Thomas Moran. Hayden's report on the region, along with Jackson's large-format prints and Moran's artwork, proved instrumental in convincing Congress to preserve the area for public enjoyment.

Historical Document

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, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, and described as follows, to wit, commencing at the junction of Gardiner's river with the Yellowstone river, and running east to the meridian passing ten miles to the eastward of the most eastern point of Yellowstone lake; thence south along said meridian to the parallel of latitude passing ten miles south of the most southern point of Yellowstone lake; thence west along said parallel to the meridian passing fifteen miles west of the most western point of Madison lake; thence north along said meridian to the latitude of the junction of Yellowstone and Gardiner's rivers; thence east to the place of beginning, 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 therefrom.

SEC 2. That said public park shall be under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior, whose duty it shall be, as soon as practicable, to make and publish such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or proper for the care and management of the same. Such regulations shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition. The Secretary may in his discretion, grant leases for building purposes for terms not exceeding ten years, of small parcels of ground, at such places in said park as shall require the erection of buildings for the accommodation of visitors; all of the proceeds of said leases, and all other revenues that may be derived from any source connected with said park, to be expended under his direction in the management of the same, and the construction of roads and bridle-paths therein. He shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit. He shall also cause all persons trespassing upon the same after the passage of this act to be removed therefrom, and generally shall be authorized to take all such measures as shall be necessary or proper to fully carry out the objects and purposes of this act.

Glossary

bridle-path: a wide pathway for riding horses; a bridle is the harness placed on a horse's head

meridian: a circle of the earth passing through the poles and any given point on the earth's surface

pleasuring-ground: an early term for a public or national park

thence: from that place

to wit: that is to say; namely

tract: an expanse of land

wanton: deliberate and without motive or provocation

Document Analysis

The first part of the document and its second section are quite different in their purposes, although their styles both reflect the official tone and nature of government legislation. While the first section details the expanse of the park and the uses for which it is designed, the second section deals exclusively with who holds the responsibility for protecting and managing the space. An understanding of both parts is necessary to appreciate the way in which an official government charter is arranged and the language that is used in its construction.

While it might seem easier simply to state that Yellowstone National Park would cover a certain amount of miles, starting in one place and ending at another, considerable detail is needed to identify official boundaries. Because the government funds the protection and upkeep of this land, officials need specific lines of demarcation to show where responsibility starts and ends. Also, public and private lands are subject to different laws, so the specifics laid out in the first section (which is, in fact, a single sentence), are necessary. The description might seem excessively wordy, or even confusing, but for someone working with a map, this type of explanation provides a clear outline of the park.

Such dense factual and legal wording continues in the second section, but here are laid out the duties of the secretary of the interior. Basically this section gives this secretary, one of fourteen in US Cabinet members, complete control over how Yellowstone is preserved—from care of the trees and wildlife to actions taken against trespassers (including what constitutes trespassing on the land). Because national parks were created to maintain the natural beauty of the United States, as well as to make these rarities open for the public to enjoy, every aspect of their care falls to the secretary of the interior and those who work in this area in the Interior Department. The document empowers the secretary of the interior, but it is then up to those in his or her department to conserve the lands on behalf of the American public.

Essential Themes

The most important short-term effect of this legislation was, of course, the creation of the Yellowstone National Park. The bill managed to pass through the House of Representative and the Senate and be signed into law by the president. This was, moreover, a ground-breaking piece of legislation, one that also had considerable long-term impact. The longer-term result was, by means of the precedent it set, the eventual creation of numerous other national parks. If a push had not been made to find an official way to preserve lands, it is possible that some of the most beautiful places in the nation would have been destroyed in the course of accessing the natural resources they possessed. Eighteen years after the creation of Yellowstone, two other parks (Yosemite; Sequoia) were created, and then two more (Mt. Rainier; Crater Lake) after that, and so on down the line. Over the subsequent century and a half, a total of fifty-eight additional parks would follow in the footsteps of Yellowstone as places in which the public could experience the joy and the beauty of nature. Such areas are protected from mining, deforestation, overhunting, and other uses that threaten local ecology and wildlife populations.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Magoc, Chris J. Yellowstone: The Creation and Selling of an American Landscape, 1870–1903. Albuquerque, NM: U of New Mexico P, 1999. Print.
  • Meringolo, Denise D. Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 2012. Print.
  • Schullery, Paul, & Lee Whittlesey. Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2003. Print.
  • US National Park Service. “Yellowstone National Park.” National Parks Service. US Department of the Interior, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.
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