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A Brief History of the Founding of Yellowstone National Park

Scientists believe that human history in Yellowstone National Park dates back approximately 11,000 years based on evidence at archeological sites, trails, paleoindian artifacts, etc. Early Native American tribes, such as the Crow and Sioux, arrived sometime during the 1500’s and 1700’s, respectively. Other tribes, some dating prior to this time, are known to have lived in and passed through the park as it was a place where they hunted, fished, gathered plants, quarried obsidian, and used thermal features for religious and medicinal purposes. One such group, known as the Sheep Eaters were Shoshone Indians who adapted to mountain existence. Their name has its origin from the bighorn sheep whose migrations they followed. The sheep provided meat for their diet, hides for clothing, and other parts for crafting tools. More than 1,800 archeological sites have been documented in Yellowstone National Park, with the majority from the Archaic period (1,500 to 7,000 years ago).

In the late 1700s fur traders traveled the Yellowstone River in search of Native Americans with whom to trade goods. The French called this river “Roche Jaune”, which means yellow rock from which the park derives its name. In 1804 the Lewis and Clark Expedition, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase, bypassed Yellowstone in their route to the Pacific. However, a member of that party, John Colter, upon the expedition’s return in 1806, opted to leave the party, with an honorable discharge, and return to explore the Yellowstone area that he had heard about from trappers. As such, John Colter became the first EuroAmerican to bring back reports of Yellowstone, especially the geothermal areas. His reports and descriptions of what he witnessed were met by a very sceptic audience back east. Colter’s descriptions of “boiling mud”, “spouting water”, “steam coming from the ground” and “beautiful colored pools” were beyond imagination to the uninformed and his descriptions were labeled as fictional entertainment of mad hallucinations, and the ravings of a deranged man. People laughed and scoffed at Colter and labeled the park area “Colter’s Hell”.


During the next 40 years other explorers, trappers, and mountain men who visited the Yellowstone area also returned with stories similar to those that Colter reported. A growing amount of similar reporting began to stir talk of efforts for official validation of the claims. The US government considered sponsoring expeditions to the area to validate the claims, but the Civil War stalled these efforts.


In 1869 the Folsom-Cook-Peterson Expedition, three members of a would-be expedition set out on their own. They succeeded in exploring part of Yellowstone including Tower Fall, the Grand Canyon area of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, and then south to West Thumb. From there they visited Shoshone Lake and the geyser basins of the Firehole River. Upon their return back east they wrote an article for the Western Monthy magazine and described their experience with phrases like “the beautiful places we had found fashioned by the practiced hand of nature, that man had not desecrated.” Despite the lingering skepticism, their report refueled the interest of scientists and others to see for themselves the wonders described.


In 1870, a second expedition set out for Yellowstone, led by Surveyor-General Henry D. Washburn, and the politician and businessman Nathaniel P. Langford, and attorney Cornelius Hedges. Their travels took them to Tower Fall, Canyon, and Yellowstone Lake. They continued on to explore the Lower Midway, and Upper geyser basins (where they named Old Faithful), and explored several peaks and descended the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.


The 1871 Hayden Expedition provided an improved map of Yellowstone and brought back scientific evidence that corroborated with earlier tales of thermal activity and other natural wonders. Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the US Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, led this expedition team which included two botanists, a meteorologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, a mineralogist, a topographer, and an agricultural statistician/entomologist. The photographs by William Henry Jackson and the art of Thomas Moran and Henry W. Elliot provided visual proof of the stories of Yellowstone by Colter and other earlier explorers. This visual evidence showed the wonders of Yellowstone to a skeptical world. Upon his return, Hayden petitioned Congress to set aside land near the headwaters of Yellowstone as a public park. Capturing the imagination of members of Congress, the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The world’s first national park was established. (Source: U.S. National Park Service)

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