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Five myths about Yellowstone

No, Theodore Roosevelt didn’t create the park

Tourists line the boardwalk of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park in 2014. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Now one of the most iconic landscapes in the United States, Yellowstone was long a place of myth and rumor for most Americans. This changed in the summer of 1871, when the geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden took a team of scientists into the area for the first time, determined to, as he put it, “strip that region of all romance.” Eight months later, Congress preserved Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. Despite this, and although 4 million people visit every year, misperceptions about its founding and its features persist.

Myth No. 1
Theodore Roosevelt created Yellowstone National Park

Visitors to Yellowstone might be forgiven for associating the park with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, after all, is the most well-known conservationist to hold the nation’s highest office. An entire region of the park bears his name, encompassing the bison-rich Lamar Valley, Mount Washburn and Tower Fall, as well as the Roosevelt Lodge. The Roosevelt Arch, constructed at Yellowstone’s northern entrance to give the boundary a sense of grandeur, was dedicated by the president during his two-week trip to the area in 1903.

But Roosevelt did not create Yellowstone. More than 30 years before his visit, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, establishing the first national park in the world. He did so at a pivotal moment in the Reconstruction era, when the federal government was testing its power and reach in both the South and the West. The legislation had a precedent in the 1864 Yosemite Valley Grant Act, which gave lands to the state of California to manage. That the federal government could and would preserve lands “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was a new idea in 1872, one rooted in post-Civil War beliefs in unifying national projects and a federal government striving for higher ideals.

Myth No. 2
A group of Montana adventurers came up with the idea for national parks

In the 1890s, Nathaniel Langford, the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, told a story that went like this: In the fall of 1870, Langford and several other civic leaders from Montana gathered around a fire near the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon rivers, a spot known as Madison Junction. They discussed the future of the region, and at one point, Cornelius Hedges, the U.S. attorney for the Montana Territory, suggested that “there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great national park.” After Langford published this account again in 1905, the campfire story became the official origin story of Yellowstone. In 1910, a sign was placed at Madison Junction announcing, “Here was first suggested the idea of setting apart this region as a National Park.” The National Park Service’s first annual report in 1917 embraced the story, lauding the “broad, unselfish, public-spirited” conversation that brought the “splendid patriotic national park plan to the attention of Congress.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that Yellowstone’s historians decided to investigate that account. They found no written references to it before Langford’s late-19th-century writings. Instead, they found an 1871 letter from A.B. Nettleton, a public relations man for the Northern Pacific Railroad, that attributed the idea for the park to a Pennsylvania congressman who was a booster for the railroad. The Northern Pacific’s tracks would run north of Yellowstone, and the company stood to gain cachet and increased ridership if the park came to pass.

Myth No. 3
Indigenous peoples were afraid of Yellowstone

When Hayden and his scientific team entered Yellowstone in the summer of 1871, he was relieved that his cohort had no run-ins with any Indigenous parties. Hayden’s subsequent accounts of his expedition made no mention of any Indigenous inhabitants, which probably led many Americans to believe that native people had vanished from Yellowstone. “Owing to the isolation of the park,” Yellowstone’s second superintendent, Philetus Norris, wrote in 1877, “… and the superstitious awe of the roaring cataracts, sulphur pools, and spouting geysers over the surrounding pagan Indians, they seldom visit it.” The idea that Indigenous peoples were afraid of Yellowstone persisted for more than a century.

But Hayden and his team followed trails pounded out by native peoples and their ponies throughout Yellowstone. They found signs of Shoshone, Bannock, Crow and other Indigenous camps in every part of the basin. These native peoples used Yellowstone as a hunting ground and a thoroughfare that would bring them to the bison herds of the Great Plains. They continued to do so after Congress passed the Yellowstone Act in 1872.

Yellowstone park officials have recently begun to acknowledge this fact, and this year they plan to begin integrating Indigenous histories into their tourist literature and park infrastructure.

Myth No. 4

The Yellowstone Act was not contentious

In most histories of Yellowstone and the West, as well as on National Park Service websites, the passage of the Yellowstone Act is relayed with a matter-of-factness that obscures the debates that swirled around it. In “West From Appomattox,” historian Heather Cox Richardson argues that “the establishment of Yellowstone National Park reflected the new accord in American politics,” while journalist George Black, in “Empire of Shadows,” notes that while the act required some lobbying, “the speed of its passage and the idealism that drove it … were nothing short of astonishing.”

The passage of the law was bipartisan, but it was not close to unanimous. In the early 1870s, most Americans believed in the sanctity of the preemption and homestead laws, and the right of White men to take whatever lands they wanted and put them into production. “I do not know why settlers should be excluded from a tract of land,” Sen. Cornelius Cole (R-Calif.) protested during debate over the act, “in the Rocky Mountains or any other place.”

In the end, the Yellowstone Act passed because the GOP held a large majority in both houses. And back then, Republicans’ belief in the reach and power of the federal government extended to the preservation of public lands.

Myth No. 5
Yellowstone’s wildlife is completely wild

Many visitors are drawn to Yellowstone’s geothermal features, but they also aim to see the park’s charismatic animals: bison, elk, moose, bears and wolves. Many assume that these creatures are “wild,” a term that suggests an untouched and uncultivated state. An article on the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website claims, “Each season, birds and mammals pulse in and out of Yellowstone’s critical wildlife habitat in an annual cycle of movement that is as old as the land itself.” Yellowstonepark.com holds that it is “the right national park” to see “real wildlife … in their natural habitat.”

In truth, they are managed populations, tracked and culled and bred to keep Yellowstone’s ecosystem in balance. White and Indigenous hunters killed thousands of bison, elk and moose within the park’s boundaries. By 1877, these animal populations had declined so precipitously that Norris, the park’s second superintendent, suggested a program of captive breeding and display that would render its animals “permanently attractive and profitable to the park.”

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