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How Yellowstone got its name and its beginnings as America’s first national park

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IDAHO FALLS – It had been 66 years since Lewis and Clark traveled to the Yellowstone River when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill officially declaring the surrounding area as Yellowstone National Park.

It was March 1, 1872 and Congress had passed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which designated 2.2 million acres of land as America’s first national park, according to History.com.

“The headwaters of the Yellowstone River … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” the bill said, according to the National Park Service.

It would be another 18 years before Idaho, Montana and Wyoming became states and sections of the park would be divided among them.

Today, Yellowstone is the eighth largest national park in the U.S. and is visited by millions of people throughout the world. The busiest year on record was 2021 when the National Park Service reported an all-time high of 4.8 million visitors.

RELATED | Yellowstone visits hit record high in 2021, straining staff

This year marks 150 years since the park was created and the National Park Service had multiple activities planned throughout the year. Massive flooding in June may have canceled or delayed some of those festivities.

RELATED | GALLERY: Here are the latest flood photos from Yellowstone Park

In commemoration of this historic milestone, EastIdahoNews.com thought it was worth taking a look back at the park’s history and how it became one of the most popular destinations for tourists across the globe.

Yellowstone expedition
Photo taken during a Yellowstone expedition in the 1800s. | Courtesy photo

Yellowstone’s early history and founding

The first known human activity in Yellowstone dates back about 11,000 years ago. A timeline on the National Park Service website indicates multiple tools used for hunting have been recovered near Yellowstone Lake over the years.

Many Native American tribes occupied the territory during the 1600s and 1700s. And in the late 1700s, fur traders began traveling through the area.

Lewis and Clark were some of the first Yellowstone explorers between 1804 and 1806. Joining them on the trail was John Colter.

“After journeying with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, Colter joined a party of fur trappers to explore the wilderness. In 1807, he explored part of the Yellowstone plateau and returned with fantastic stories of steaming geysers and bubbling cauldrons. Some doubters accused the mountain man of telling tall tales and jokingly dubbed the area ‘Colter’s Hell,'” according to History.com.

Multiple Yellowstone expeditions occurred throughout the 1800s. Old Faithful got its name during the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition in 1870. But it was the expedition of Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 that historians say was responsible for the formation of Yellowstone as a public park.

RELATED | Happy birthday, Yellowstone! Here are 10 of our most memorable stories from the park

Hayden was a geologist for the U.S. government and the purpose of his trip was to capture “the first visual proof of Yellowstone’s wonders.” Accompanying him were landscape artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Jackson.

Their efforts got the attention of Congress and prompted the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act.

“Thanks to their reports, the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park just six months after the Hayden Expedition,” reports the National Park Service.

In 1872, the area was not only dedicated as a national park, it was forever protected from private development and “from injury or spoilation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.”

moran painting
A painting from Thomas Moran depicting the wonders of Yellowstone. | NPS

The park’s name and early years

Yellowstone gets its name primarily from the Yellowstone River, which runs through it. But one site points out that a group of trappers traveled through the area in the 1800s and came across a French-speaking tribe who said the river’s name was “Mi tse a-da-zi,” which translates to “Rock Yellow River.”

Nathaniel Langford was appointed as the park’s first superintendent, which was an unpaid position.

“He entered the park at least twice during five years in office — as part of the 1872 Hayden Expedition and to evict a squatter in 1874. Langford did what he could without laws protecting wildlife and other natural features, and without money to build basic structures and hire law enforcement rangers,” the NPS writes.

Philetus W. Norris succeeded Langford as superintendent in 1877. He played a more active role in exploring and managing the park. He built roads and a headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs.

“Much of the primitive road system he laid out remains as the Grand Loop Road. Through constant exploration, Norris also added immensely to geographical knowledge of the park,” NPS officials say.

Conflicts with the Native American tribes were an ongoing issue during Norris’ time as superintendent. His efforts to resolve it were unsuccessful and ultimately led to his demise in 1882.

Several superintendents came and went over the next four years as “poachers, squatters, woodcutters, and vandals ravaged Yellowstone.”

The U.S. Army took control of Yellowstone in August 1886 and managed it until 1916, when the National Park Service was created. Horace Albright was instrumental in the creation of the park service and he became the first superintendent under NPS management.

Philetus Norris
Philetus Norris was Yellowstone’s second superintendent | NPS

Defining boundaries

When boundaries were being determined for Idaho statehood, Teton Valley News reports Idahoans originally wanted the Continental Divide — which runs through Yellowstone — to serve as the Idaho-Montana boundary.

“Montana’s proposal to establish the Bitterroot Mountains as the boundary was approved by Congress before Idaho could even communicate its objection,” the newspaper reported in 2017.

Yellowstone’s boundaries were an ongoing debate for more than 50 years after the park was established. The conversation reached a conclusion in 1929 when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill changing the park’s boundaries to include an area of petrified trees in the northwest corner.

Pebble Creek served as the northeast boundary and the headwaters of the Lamar River and parts of the Yellowstone River made up the eastern boundary.

“In 1932, President Hoover issued an executive order that added more than 7,000 acres between the north boundary and the Yellowstone River, west of Gardiner. These lands provided winter range for elk and other ungulates,” the NPS says on its website.

Yellowstone struggled during World War II due to a shortage of visitors and funding. Park visitation reached one million for the first time in 1948.

yellowstone boundaries
A map showing Yellowstone Park’s boundaries today. | Courtesy photo

A history of natural disasters

Recent flooding in Yellowstone is the not the first time disaster has struck inside the park. Two other calamities have occurred in the last 63 years.

The first one happened on August 17, 1959, when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Hebgen Lake along the Madison River near West Yellowstone. Though it didn’t directly impact the park, the U.S. Geological Survey says it was one of the largest earthquakes in the intermountain west.

It also created one of the largest landslides in North America.

“The old riverbed of the Madison is now underneath the waters of Quake Lake. The area was filled in with 80 million tons of debris that came from a nearby mountain. The rocks, the size of houses, came down with the slide landing on the far side of the canyon, in just a matter of seconds,” CBS affiliate KBZK in Bozeman, Montana reported in 2019.

In the end, 28 people were killed.

Nearly 30 years later, in the summer of 1988, a series of lightning and human-caused wildfires burned 36% or 793,880 acres of Yellowstone’s landscape during the most severe drought in the park’s history.

NPS officials say it was the largest firefighting effort in the U.S. at that time, which involved 10,000 personnel and cost $120 million.

“About 300 large mammals perished as a direct result of the fires,” the NPS says. “The effort saved human life and property, but had little impact on the fires themselves.”

A heavy rain and snowstorm that September is what finally allowed firefighters to get control of the blaze.

RELATED | West Yellowstone, Island Park feeling ripple effects weeks after record flooding

Park officials have a lot of cleaning up to do following record flooding in June. Full recovery could take years and cost upwards of $1 billion.

Yellowstone today

Regardless of its turbulent history, Yellowstone, with its abundance of geysers and hydrothermal features, remains one of the most visited places in the world. Among the most popular sites are the Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful on the west end and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Old Faithful erupting
A photo of Old Faithful erupting in August 2022. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

After low attendance at the park this year following record-breaking years in 2021 and 2020, park officials anticipate an uptick in tourism for 2023.

And they’re proud to be celebrating 150 years of history at Yellowstone National Park.

“Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary is an important moment in time for the world,” Park superintendent Cam Sholly says in a January news release. “It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the lessons of the past while focusing our efforts to strengthen Yellowstone and our many partnerships for the future.”

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