The first division of the vast region embraced in the original Uinta County was made in 1872, when the Congress of the United States set apart the Yellowstone National Park. It contains three thousand three hundred forty-eight square miles, all of which, except a small boundary to the east, north and west, comprising less than three hundred square miles, lay within the original Uinta County. This is the largest park in the world.
It is not the purpose of this history to enter into a description of the wonders that have been the inspiration of some of the most beautiful word pictures in the language. To no two people does it make the same appeal, and accounts vary with the witnesses. Nothing, however, can excel the impressions recorded by Kipling on his visit to the Grand Canyon in the early ’90s.
As to the history of the region we find no reference to it for many years after Colter’s discovery. Hemmed in on all sides by mountains, the approach is difficult. On the east the Absoroka range separates the waters of the Yellowstone River from those of the Big Horn. Some of these mountains rise to the height of 11,000 feet. The Gallatin range extends into the park about twenty miles on the northwest. On the south are the Red Mountains, the highest peak of which is Mount Sheridan, with an altitude of 10,385 feet.
The Indians seem to have been strangely reticent as to the wonders within these mountain barriers, although some of the outside tribes must have known of them. This may have been the result of superstition, or more probably because they hesitated to describe phenomena so foreign to their usual experiences. When we remember that even the white men, speaking in their native tongue, could not gain a respectful hearing on the subject, it is no wonder that “poor Lo” shunned it.
A humble branch of the Shoshone Indians made their home within these mountain walls. They had no horses and no weapons, other than the bow and arrow, and they seem to have been utterly unfit for competition with outside tribes. Their chief source of food and clothing was the mountain sheep, from whence they were given the name “sheep eaters.”1 The remnants of this small tube are now cared for on the government reservations.
In 1880 there was discovered about a quarter of a mile above the upper falls of the Yellowstone, a tree on which were carved the letters, J O R, and under them the date, 1819. The work bore evidence of great age, and is undoubtedly the oldest record we have within the limits of the park of the presence of white men, but the identity of the person who cut the letters into the bark has never been traced.2
The oldest written description of the park appeared in October, 1827, in a weekly journal published in Baltimore and called Niles Register.3 It bears the date July 8 of that year, and was unsigned, but was probably written by one of Ashley’s men, who, according to Dale, were in that part of the Rockies that season. The party, evidently consisting of four or more, came in from the west. There is an account of their arrival at a fresh-water lake about forty by one hundred miles in size, on the south shore of which they found boiling springs, “some of water and others of fine clay.” They did not reach the main geyser basin, though they heard explosions resembling thunder and felt the trembling of the earth. They left the lake by a winding route to the northwest.4
In the year 1832 there appeared in the August number of “The Wasp”, a paper published by the Mormons at Navvy, the first description written by an eye witness. The name of the author is not given, but he was plainly a man of ability both as observer and writer. He tells of hearing at the rendezvous of 1830 accounts of a wonderful region across the mountains, which so aroused his curiosity that he induced two Indians to accompany him on a tour of inspection. They set out one evening after supper and slept that night beside a spring whose waters flowed into Kamus Creek. The next day they rode about forty miles east and camped that night within sound of the roaring springs. A wonderful spectacle greeted their eyes the next morning. The Indians were overcome with awe, and wondered at the white. man’s presumption in approaching the basin of a large geyser after having seen it erupt three times at intervals of about two hours. He describes it as “projecting a column of boiling water several feet in diameter to the height of one hundred fifty feet, accompanied with a tremendous noise.” He states that a trapper named Alverez, of whom he had gained some of this information, declared that it was four times that height. Other geysers were in operation, but none so large. He describes the location as “near the center of a small valley, surrounded by pine-crowned hills, through which a small fork of the Madison flows.” Discovering new wonders at each turn, the trio made their way to a lake, probably the Shoshone, and came out at the west .5
In 1829 Joseph Meek, one of Captain Sublette’s trappers, was cut off from his companions by the Blackfoot Indians. For several days he wandered alone, without food or shelter. When he rejoined his company he was half crazed by hunger and fear, but his accounts of steaming hills and valleys so impressed his friends that one of them took down in writing a description. Meek’s first view of the rising steam brought to his mind the memory of “the city of Pittsburg, as he had beheld it on a winter morning a couple of years before.” He described the rolling country where cone-shaped mounds exuded steam and water. This description was not published until the year I87I, when it appeared in a book entitled “The River of the West.” Meek was well known among the trappers and later joined Bonneville’s men.
The year of Bridger’s first trip into the geyser region was probably 1830. His stories so interested a young man named Robert Meldrum, a Kentuckian who was employed by the American Fur Company as blacksmith whom Bridger met on the Yellowstone, that they crossed the mountains together to view the wonders of the enclosure. Bonneville did not visit the region, but in a letter to N. P. Langford he states that at least one of his men did. This was Alvarez, who has already been mentioned.
In the fall of 1849 a prospecting party, guided by Bridger, arrived on one of the upper forks of Green River, and as the season was too far advanced for prospecting, they spent the winter with a band of Bannock Indians. In the early spring they passed to the head of Green River and entered the park from the east. They saw the falls and the lake, and crossed the divide to Madison River. Kit Carson was one of the number. During the next few years several bands of prospectors entered the park, but none of them contributed much to what was already known.
It was not until 1859 that the government was roused to explore the park country, and the first attempt resulted in failure, owing to the fact that too much work had been assigned to the party. Captain W. F. Reynolds of the Corps of Topographical Engineers was instructed to “explore the sources of the Rocky Mountain rivers,” but did not have time to approach nearer to the headwaters of the Yellowstone than the east slope of Two Ocean Pass. This was a source of great regret to him, and in his report, published in 1868, he says : “I regard the valley of the upper Yellowstone as the most interesting unexplored district in our widely expanded country.” With this company was a young man by the name of Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who later became active in western exploration.
During the ’60s war and reconstruction problems so occupied the thoughts of our government that all else was pushed into the background, and it was not until a party headed by a man named DeLacy, in 1869, returned from the park with accounts so inspiring as to arouse public enthusiasm, that it was again taken up. David E. Folsom, W. C. Cook and William Peterson, all citizens of Montana, spent over a month in the park and their reports were printed in various papers and widely circulated.
The following year the United States Geological Survey sent out the two expeditions, one under Dr. Hayden, the other under Barlow & Heap. They worked together and made many new discoveries, and they took photographs that were of great value in disseminating knowledge.
In December, 1871, a bill was introduced into Congress to set aside and dedicate the region now known as the Yellowstone National Park. It was approved March 1, 1872.
From this date the government of the park passed from the county of Uinta to the Department of Interior of the United States. It is therefore with some surprise that we read of a justice of the peace being elected in Uinta County some years later to enforce the laws of Wyoming within its boundaries. This grew out of the failure of Congress to enact needed legislation, but as it proved highly unsatisfactory, it was not long before a change was made. Civilian superintendents have been replaced by military, and a garrison has been built at Mammoth Hot Springs.
J. W. Meldrum has long held the office of park commissioner, with authority to enforce laws. He makes his home at Mammoth Hot Springs. At the time of his appointment there was no suitable dwelling for the family and a request for money to build one brought out the fact that United States funds were not available for the building of residences. A second request for money to build a jail met with success, and resulted in the erection of a pretty brick cottage, which Mr. Meldrum has occcupied ever since. In the far corner of the basement a brick cell was constructed, which at last accounts sheltered the family washing machine, the only object ever incarcerated as far as known. Thus can the government at times be made to serve the needs of the people !
The management of the Yellowstone Park leaves little to be desired. The number of visitors is fast nearing 200,000 a year, and, at the close of the season, roads, camp grounds and hotels are in as perfect condition as at the opening. For years the main entrance was at the north. Later an extension of the Utah Northern permitted access from the west. There is now an approach on the east by way of the magnificent highway called the Shoshone Canyon Road leading to to Cody. The road leading from Jackson’s Hole is constantly growing in favor, because of the wonderful scenery and the fine hunting and fishing along the way.
- Chittenden, “Yellowstone National Park.”
- Smith-Ashley Explorations.
- Coutant, History Of Wyoming.