First National Park Resulted From the Yellowstone Expedition

Magnificent Wilderness Was Set Aside to Be Protected and Preserved

Photograph of horsemen on the Yellowstone Expedition
Photograph taken of the Yellowstone Expedition. Getty Images

The First National Park, not only in the United States but anywhere in the world, was Yellowstone, which the US Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant designated in 1872.

The law establishing Yellowstone as the first National Park declared the area would be preserved "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." All "timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders" would be kept "in their natural condition."

The idea of setting aside a pristine area to be preserved was an unusual idea in the 19th century. And the idea of preserving the Yellowstone region was the result of an unusual expedition.

The story of how Yellowstone came to be protected, and how it led to the National Parks system in the United States, involves scientists, mapmakers, artists, and photographers. The diverse cast of characters was brought together by a physician and geologist who loved the American wilderness.

Stories of Yellowstone Fascinated People in the East

In the early decades of the 19th century, pioneers and settlers crossed the continent along routes such as the Oregon Trail, but vast stretches of the American west were unmapped and virtually unknown.

Trappers and hunters sometimes brought back stories about beautiful and exotic landscapes, but many people scoffed at their accounts. Stories about majestic waterfalls and geysers that shot steam out of the ground were considered yarns created by mountain men with wild imaginations.

In the mid-1800s expeditions began to travel into the various territories of the West, and eventually, an expedition led by Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden would prove the existence of the area which would become Yellowstone National Park.

Dr. Ferdinand Hayden Explored the West

The creation of the first National Park is tied to the career of Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, a geologist and medical doctor who was born in Massachusetts in 1829. Hayden grew up near Rochester, New York, and attended Oberlin College in Ohio, from which he graduated in 1850. He then studied medicine in New York.

Hayden first ventured westward in 1853 as a member of an expedition looking for fossils in present-day South Dakota. For the rest of the 1850s, Hayden participated in a number of expeditions, going as far west as Montana.

After serving in the Civil War as a battlefield surgeon with the Union Army, Hayden took a teaching position in Philadelphia but hoped to return to the West.

The Civil War Prompts Interest in the West

The economic stresses of the Civil War had impressed upon people in the U.S. government the importance of developing natural resources. And after the war, there was a renewed interest in finding out what lay in the western territories, and specifically what natural resources could be discovered.

In the spring of 1867, Congress allocated funds to send an expedition to determine what natural resources were located along the route of the transcontinental railroad, which was being constructed.

Dr. Ferdinand Hayden was recruited to join that effort. At the age of 38, Hayden was made the head of the U.S. Geological Survey.

From 1867 to 1870 Hayden embarked upon several expeditions in the west, traveling through the present-day states of Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana.

Hayden and the Yellowstone Expedition

Ferdinand Hayden’s most significant expedition occurred in 1871 when Congress allocated $40,000 for an expedition to explore the area known as Yellowstone.

Military expeditions had already penetrated the Yellowstone region and had reported some findings to Congress. Hayden wanted to extensively document what was to be found, so he carefully assembled a team of experts.

Accompanying Hayden on the Yellowstone expedition were 34 men including a geologist, a mineralogist, and a topographical artist. The painter Thomas Moran came along as the expedition’s official artist. And perhaps most significantly, Hayden had recruited a talented photographer, William Henry Jackson.

Hayden realized that written reports about the Yellowstone region could be disputed back in the East, but photographs would settle everything.

And Hayden had a particular interest in stereographic imagery, a 19th-century fad in which special cameras took a pair of images which appeared three-dimensional when seen through a special viewer. Jackson’s stereographic images could show the scale and grandeur of the scenery the expedition discovered.

Hayden’s Yellowstone expedition left Ogden, Utah in seven wagons in the spring of 1871. For several months the expedition traveled through parts of present-day Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The painter Thomas Moran sketched and painted landscapes of the region, and William Henry Jackson took a number of striking photographs.

Hayden Submitted a Report on Yellowstone to the U.S. Congress

At the end of the expedition, Hayden, Jackson, and others returned to Washington, D.C. Hayden began work on what became a 500-page report to Congress about what the expedition found. Thomas Moran worked on paintings of Yellowstone scenery, and also made public appearances, speaking to audiences about the need to preserve the magnificent wilderness the men had trekked through.

The idea of protecting wilderness areas dated back to the 1830s, when artist George Catlin, who became renowned for his portraits of Native Americans, proposed the idea of a "Nation's park." Catlin's idea was prescient, and no one with any political power took it seriously.

The reports about Yellowstone, and especially the stereographic photographs, were inspiring, and the effort to preserve wilderness areas began to gain traction in Congress.

Federal Protection of Wilderness Actually Started with Yosemite

There was a precedent for the Congress setting aside lands for preservation. Several years earlier, in 1864, Abraham Lincoln had signed into law the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, which preserved parts of what is today Yosemite National Park.

The law protecting Yosemite was the first legislation protecting a wilderness area in the United States. But Yosemite would not become a National Park until 1890, after advocacy by John Muir and others.

Yellowstone Declared the First National Park in 1872

In the winter of 1871-72 Congress, energized by Hayden's report, which included photographs taken by William Henry Jackson, took up the issue of preserving Yellowstone. And on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the act declaring the region as the nation’s first National Park.

Mackinac National Park in Michigan was established as the second National Park in 1875, but in 1895 it was turned over to the state of Michigan and became a state park.

Yosemite was designated as a National Park 18 years after Yellowstone, in 1890, and other parks were added over time. In 1916 the National Park Service was created to manage the system of parks, and the U.S. National Parks are visited by tens of millions of visitors annually.

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McNamara, Robert. "First National Park Resulted From the Yellowstone Expedition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). First National Park Resulted From the Yellowstone Expedition. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "First National Park Resulted From the Yellowstone Expedition." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).