Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition explored the watershed of the Yellowstone River and documented and mapped the area’s natural wonders in 1870, its recommendations led to a congressional act of dedication, creating the first national park in the United States and initiating policies for the preservation and conservation of such parks.

Summary of Event

Accounts by mountain men of strange phenomena in the Yellowstone area of the Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains led to scientific exploration and documentation of the natural wonders of the area. Expedition team reports from the area led conservationists to join the scientists in petitioning the U.S. Congress to place the lands in the public domain in order to preserve the wilderness and prevent hunters, sightseers, and developers from destroying the scenic environment and habitat of fish and wildlife. This led to an act of Congress in 1872, creating Yellowstone National Park—two million acres in the Yellowstone watershed area of the Wyoming and Montana Territories—as the first U.S. national park. Yellowstone National Park National parks, U.S. National parks, U.S.;Yellowstone Langford, Nathaniel P. Montana;Yellowstone National Park Wyoming;Yellowstone National Park [kw]Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National Park (Mar. 1, 1872) [kw]First U.S. National Park, Yellowstone Becomes the (Mar. 1, 1872) [kw]U.S. National Park, Yellowstone Becomes the First (Mar. 1, 1872) [kw]National Park, Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. (Mar. 1, 1872) [kw]Park, Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National (Mar. 1, 1872) Yellowstone National Park National parks, U.S. National parks, U.S.;Yellowstone Langford, Nathaniel P. Montana;Yellowstone National Park Wyoming;Yellowstone National Park [g]United States;Mar. 1, 1872: Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National Park[4610] [c]Environment and ecology;Mar. 1, 1872: Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National Park[4610] [c]Exploration and discovery;Mar. 1, 1872: Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National Park[4610] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 1, 1872: Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National Park[4610] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 1, 1872: Yellowstone Becomes the First U.S. National Park[4610] Washburn, Henry D. Doane, Gustavus C. Hayden, Ferdinand Vandeveer Moran, Thomas Colter, John

The creation of Yellowstone National Park in turn established a pattern for setting aside areas of natural wonders and ancient archaeological sites, protecting them from private ownership and commercial development. Congress vested authority in the secretary of the interior to develop policies and procedures to carry out its mandate to preserve and conserve national forests, prehistoric civilization sites, and natural wonders. These conservation efforts led to the founding of the National Park Service in 1916 as the agency for identifying, establishing, maintaining, and protecting from destruction dedicated lands and wildlife.

During the early nineteenth century, mountain men trapping and trading furs in the Yellowstone area reported fire pits, shooting geysers, boiling springs, and other strange phenomena in the northwest corner of the Louisiana Purchase territory (located in the present-day states of Montana and Wyoming). John Colter Colter, John , who left the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1810 to venture on his own, described the unusual landscape of what historians now believe was the Firehole area east of Yellowstone Lake. Journalists, reacting with disbelief and ridicule to his reports, labeled the area “Colter’s Hell.” In September, 1869, Charles W. Cook Cook, Charles W. , David E. Folsom Folsom, David E. , and William Peterson Peterson, William , who were involved in mining operations in the area, launched the first organized expedition into the Gallatin River Valley. Their published reports spurred public and scientific interest.

In the summer of 1870, the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition set forth to survey and document the Yellowstone area. The party was led by Henry D. Washburn, Washburn, Henry D. surveyor-general of Montana Territory, and Nathaniel P. Langford, Montana bank examiner and avid Yellowstone enthusiast. U.S. Army lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane Doane, Gustavus C. led the six-man military escort for the expedition. In September, 1870, as they prepared to leave Yellowstone, the team discussed the area’s potential as a huge tourist attraction and foresaw the environmental damage that would be caused if large-scale development occurred. They agreed that the federal government should be asked to remove the entire area from private ownership and commercial development and to preserve it in its original condition for the people of the United States.

Yellowstone National Park





Upon the expedition’s return to Helena, Montana, Langford went east to visit influential officials in Minneapolis, New York, and Washington, D.C. He made public speeches and gave interviews to members of the news media, advocating that Yellowstone be set apart as a national park for the enjoyment of the people. Langford’s efforts resulted in a government-sponsored exploration of Yellowstone in 1871 conducted by the Geological Survey of the Territories. One of the officials approached by Langford was Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden Hayden, Ferdinand Vandeveer , a geologist, who agreed to conduct the official survey of Yellowstone if Congress voted to finance the expedition.

In 1871, Congress appropriated the funds for the U.S. Geological Survey Geological Survey, U.S. and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey the region and document it with maps, drawings, and photographs. In addition to Hayden, the team included two botanists, a zoologist, an entomologist, a mineralogist, a meteorologist, and a topographer, as well as two photographers and artist Thomas Moran Moran, Thomas . Moran’s sketches and paintings of the area became important in publicizing the scenic wonders of the American West.

On July 15, 1871, the Hayden-Moran expedition got under way. The scientists identified and classified plants and animals, noted the geologic features of the area, mapped and sketched its topography, and named the geysers and other natural wonders they encountered. Upon their return, team members’ individual accounts, photographs, and maps were widely published and inspired additional explorations, as well as public interest.

The Hayden-Moran Hayden, Ferdinand Vandeveer expedition team joined forces with the earlier Washburn-Langford-Doane team in a formal proposal that Congress create a system of national parks, beginning with the Yellowstone area, to protect the nation’s natural wonders and ancient archaeological sites from commercial development and private profit-making schemes. Legislation to create Yellowstone National Park was introduced in Congress in December, 1871, and endorsed by the secretary of the interior on January 29, 1872. On March 1, 1872, the U.S. Congress passed the Act of Dedication Act of Dedication of 1872 , Yellowstone National Park, setting aside 2.2 million acres (3,400 square miles) of the Montana and Wyoming Territories as the first U.S. national park.

The law gave authority to the secretary of the interior to draw up policies and procedures to effect the preservation of forests, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, and scenic wonders in a natural, undisturbed condition and to protect the lands and wildlife from destruction for commercial purposes. However, Congress created a severe problem, in that it provided no money to operate the park, nor did it provide a means for enforcing the conservation regulations. Langford became the first superintendent of Yellowstone, and he served for several years without pay. The revenues collected on-site, comprising public utility fees and taxes on concessions operated for public benefit, did not begin to cover the park’s operating budget. No revenue could be gained from hunting and fishing licenses, leases, or permits, because local cattlemen, timber men, and hunters were barred from grazing, removing timber, hunting, or fishing on park lands.

Without enforcement authority, the superintendent could not stop the poaching of fish and game. Nor could he prevent the wild animals either from attacking human intruders into their habitat or from fleeing beyond the park’s boundaries to escape them. Thousands of human visitors crossing the lands each year made it impossible to preserve the park in its natural state. The superintendent’s annual report of February 4, 1873, stated that without funds to hire personnel or authority to prosecute offenders, he could not comply with the congressional mandates of conservation and facilitation of public enjoyment of the park.

After its creation in 1872, the park was visited by rapidly increasing numbers of expeditions and sightseers. Sightseers took five-day guided tours, traveling over dirt roads by horseback, wagon, or stagecoach. In 1881, 200 miles of roads and 150 miles of bridle paths were completed, but visitors complained of the dust and stumps in the roads. In March, 1883, Congress responded to complaints by authorizing a paid superintendent and ten part-time assistants. Road and bridge construction was assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the secretary of the interior was instructed to request troops from the secretary of war to protect the park and its visitors. This action left the secretary of the interior in charge of managing a park partially funded and staffed through the War Department. Conservation was neglected.

In 1886, because of budget concerns, Congress eliminated all civilian jobs and turned Yellowstone over to the War Department. In 1890, Congress appropriated fifty thousand dollars to build Fort Yellowstone and empowered the military park authorities to enforce its conservation regulations and prosecute violators of poaching and vandalism laws. Although a civilian superintendent was authorized again in 1901, members of the U.S. Cavalry served as both park rangers and law enforcement officers until the National Park Service was founded in 1916.


The establishment of Yellowstone National Park led to conservation efforts to save and preserve the nation’s wilderness areas, archaeological sites, and forests. Expeditions to such sites have increased knowledge and contributed to the conservation of historic sites, natural habitats, and wildlife. The Antiquities Act of 1906 Antiquities Act of 1906 set aside additional national parks and historic areas for preservation. In 1916, the National Park Service was created to preserve, conserve, and manage the national parks and other significant historic sites and landmarks. The Department of Interior was charged with developing selection criteria, management policies, and conservation practices. Artist Thomas Moran’s Moran, Thomas paintings of Yellowstone not only helped persuade Congress to preserve Yellowstone but also helped establish a global image of the American West.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fishbein, Seymour L. Yellowstone Country: The Enduring Wonder. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1989. A photographic overview of Yellowstone National Park and its environs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frantz, Joe B. Aspects of the American West. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1976. Explores the philosophical idea of preserving wilderness areas and the practical effects of this idea.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haines, Aubrey L. Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1974. Provides a detailed history of the early explorations and creation of Yellowstone National Park.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirk, Ruth. Exploring Yellowstone. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972. Discusses issues of public access to and conservation of the first national park in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Thomas D. Three Wonderlands of the American West. Boston: Page, 1919. Features maps and photographs of Hayden’s expedition and Thomas Moran’s influential paintings of Yellowstone National Park.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nabokov, Peter, and Lawrence Loendorf. Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Explores the claims to ownership of Yellowstone lands by Native Americans and the consequences of those claims to conservation and preservation of the park, as well as to tribal culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saunders, Richard L., ed. A Yellowstone Reader: The National Park in Popular Fiction, Folklore, and Verse. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2003. A collection of stories and poems about Yellowstone National Park.

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