The Act of Dedication
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 …. is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and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 there from… Approved March 1, 1872.
I love Yellowstone - it’s beauty, diversity, and history. There is just no place like it on earth. It’s what inspired me to write the Yellowstone Romance Series. Book 3, Yellowstone Awakening, is my fictional account of events that would have prevented the national park from becoming a reality. I spent hours reading the congressional transcripts of the debates about the park. While my story is fictional, the names of the prominent men who had a hand in the creation of the park, as well as the senators who are mentioned in the story, and their opinions (not taken verbatim) are historically accurate.
At the end of this post, I have an excerpt from the soon-to-be released audiobook of Yellowstone Awakening. Listen in on a snippet of the congressional hearings (I promise, it's much more entertaining than reading the actual transcripts), as they happened in my story.
If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone, and sat at one of the Ranger campfire programs at Madison Junction, the ranger will almost always point behind him or her, to a tall mountain across the valley. The mountain is named National Park Mountain, and legend has it that this is where the national park idea was born. It is said that Henry Washburn, Nathaniel Langford, and Cornelius Hedges camped in the valley just beneath the mountain during their expedition through the area in 1870, and came up with the grand idea of preserving the wonders they saw – the geysers, hot springs, canyons, rivers and lakes – for everyone to enjoy for generations to come. They wanted the area set aside as a nation’s park.
Whether this conversation actually occurred, and in that precise location, is up for debate, but it makes for a nice campfire story. So what did lead to the birth of the national park idea?
Lewis and Clark, during their expedition in 1805, missed the area that is now the park. In 1806, John Colter, who was part of the expedition, set out with a group of fur trappers, and some historical accounts say he is the first white man to have seen the area and its geysers. He described a place of “hell and brimstone” that most people dismissed as delirium. Those who heard of his tales called this imaginary place “Colter’s Hell.”
Over the years, more fur trappers entered the Rocky Mountains, and more and more reports found their way back to civilization of a place with boiling mud, steaming rivers, and petrified trees. These fantastical stories were believed to be just that – men’s tall tales who had been in the wilderness too long.
In 1856, mountain man Jim Bridger reported observing boiling springs, spouting water, and a mountain of glass and yellow rock. But since Bridger had a reputation as a “spinner of yarn,” his reports were also ignored.
The first detailed exploration of the Yellowstone area came in 1869, when three privately funded explorers trekked through what is now the park. The members of the Folsom party kept detailed records and journals, and based on their information, a group of Montana residents organized the Washburn/Langford/Doane Expedition of 1870. Henry Washburn was surveyor-general of Montana at the time.
The group included Nathaniel Langford, who later would be known as “National Park Langford.” They spent a month exploring the region, collecting specimens, and naming sites of interest (Old Faithful, anyone?) Another member of the group, lawyer Cornelius Hedges, proposed that the region should be set aside and protected as a national park. Other prominent men also made similar suggestions that “Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever.”
In 1871, Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, a geologist, organized the first government-sponsored exploration of the region. The Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 included numerous scientists, as well as photographer William Henry Jackson, and artist Thomas Moran. Together, they compiled a comprehensive report on Yellowstone, which helped convince Congress to withdraw the region from public auction. The Act of Dedication Law was signed by the President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1st, 1872.