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A Tour Through Yellowstone: Tracing the Park’s Legislative History on Its 150th Anniversary

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Today marks Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary. On March 1, 1872, President Grant signed into law a statute creating Yellowstone, making it America’s first national park. To celebrate this occasion, we have compiled legislative materials related to the park, including 19th century survey reports of the Wyoming Territory, bill texts, debates and votes on the floors of Congress, and more.

An illustrated poster of a geyser erupting with an enscription at the bottom, "Yellowstone National Park, U.S. Department of the Internior, National Park Service"
Yellowstone National Park, Ranger Naturalist Service. Designed by C. Don Powell (ca. 1938). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //

To understand the motivation behind establishing Yellowstone National Park, it’s helpful to have a little historical context. By the time Yellowstone was created, America had been pursuing the idea of “manifest destiny” for many decades. This push for westward expansion led to the Lewis and Clark expedition, homestead and land preemption rights, and the founding of western territories. Explorations west, however, had largely bypassed the Yellowstone region in the Rocky Mountains until the late 1860s. Stories from the few who had seen Yellowstone, about this region’s natural wonders, including geysers, hot springs, and rugged terrain, spurred more treks to the Rockies.

In 1871, geologist and physician F. V. Hayden led an expedition to survey this area, including parts of present-day Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Hayden organized a team of 34 men, which included artists, a botanist, a mineralogist, a photographer, an agricultural statistician, and a meteorologist, among other subject matter experts and assistants. According to Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden and the Founding of the Yellowstone National Park (p. 8), the work of accompanying artist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson was “invaluable to the expedition, for their paintings and photographs served as dramatic and effective testimonials in favor of establishing the park.” In addition to the visual depictions of the region, Hayden wrote prolifically about the area; his reports were submitted to the Department of the Interior and to Congress, and total several hundred pages apiece, including text, diagrams, maps, and illustrations.

Photocrom image of scenic vista with blue pools in foreground and mountainous terrain in the background
Summit Basin, Mammoth Hot Spring, Yellowstone National Park. Image by Photochrom Co. (c1898). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //

After one of Hayden’s reports was delivered to Congress, bills to establish a national park at Yellowstone, H.R. 764 and S. 392, were introduced on December 18, 1871. While H.R. 764 was introduced and referred to the Committee on the Public Lands without further discussion, when introducing S. 392, Senator Pomeroy provided a brief background on the bill, summarized its aims, and referenced Hayden’s report to Congress from his expedition. Senator Pomeroy stated,

Professor Hayden has made a very elaborate report on the subject. This bill is to set apart that whole tract, about forty miles by fifty, as a public park, and put it under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, keep it from preemption and homestead entries and from sale, and reserve it from any grants that may be made, to be disposed of hereafter as Congress may direct.

On January 23, 1872, S. 392 was reported from the Senate Committee on Public Lands. After a brief exchange on the floor, Senator Pomeroy urged the chamber to pass the bill to prevent people from claiming private property rights in the region. He likely was referring to conflicts involving land claims that had arisen when Congress, only a few years earlier, set aside land in trust for California in what is now Yosemite National Park. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled on this dispute in Hutchings v. Low, which is a helpful case to read if you are interested in learning about Yosemite’s history and legal claims involving public lands.

The Senate took up the bill again on January 30. A brief debate transpired, primarily between Senators Cole and Trumbull, about the propriety of passing S. 392. Senator Cole asserted that if the land was uninhabitable, there was no need to exclude settlers from it. Senator Trumbull responded that if Congress did not take action,

it is possible that some person may go there and plant himself right across the only path that leads to these wonders, and charge every man that passes along between the gorges of these mountains a fee of a dollar or five dollars. He may place an obstruction there, and toll may be gathered from every person who goes to see these natural wonders.

The Senate then passed S. 392 and delivered the bill to the House later that day.

Photochrom image of blue pool in foreground, with erupting geyser in background, and evergreen trees
Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. Image by Photochrom Co. (c1898). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //

On February 27, 1872, the House Committee on the Public Lands issued a report in favor of supporting H.R. 764, the House’s bill to establish a national park. The report emphasized the region’s natural beauty and warned that failure to pass the bill would prevent the general public from enjoying the scenery.

This whole region was in comparatively modern geological times the scene of the most wonderful volcanic activity of any portion of our country. The hot springs and the geysers represent the last stages – the vents or escape-pipes – of these remarkable volcanic decorations more beautiful than human art ever conceived, and which have required thousands of years for the cunning hand of nature to form. Persons are now waiting for the spring to open to enter in and take possession of these remarkable curiosities, to make merchandise of these beautiful specimens, to fence in these rare wonders so as to charge visitors a fee, as is now done at Niagara Falls, for the sight of which ought to be as free as the air or water.

Later that day, the House briefly debated S. 392, which had been delivered from the Senate one month earlier. Several topics were discussed on the House floor, including the risk of infringing on American Indian treaty rights and the Department of the Interior’s role in managing the park. The House then voted on S. 392 and it passed with 115 yeas, 65 nays, and 60 members not voting. A few days later, the act was delivered to the White House and signed into law by President Grant on March 1, 1872.

Hayden was later notified of the law establishing Yellowstone, which he applauded in chapter X of his report on Montana. He asserted:

That our legislators, at a time when the public opinion is so strong against appropriating the public domain for any purpose however laudable, should reserve, for the benefit and instruction of the people, a track of 3,578 square miles, is an act that should cause universal joy throughout the land. This noble deed may be regarded as a tribute from our legislators to science, and the gratitude of the nation and of men of science in all parts of the world is due them for this munificent donation.

For information about Yellowstone, national parks, and environmental topics, see the following In Custodia Legis posts:

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