The Wild West of Yester-Year

Yellowstone National Park

By Rachel Kovaciny


We took our kids to Yellowstone National Park last summer. My husband and I both had fond memories of visiting Yellowstone when we were young, and wanted our kids to experience it for themselves.


The history of our country’s first National Park begins in the 1700s, with the mountain men and fur trappers that explored the area. They told others about the strange natural wonders they found there, such as the geysers, but others scoffed at them for telling “tall tales.” The only ones who knew about it, other than them, were the various American Indian tribes who visited the area to quarry obsidian, which they used to make sharp stone objects like knives and arrowheads. A Shoshone band, the Tukudika, lived in the area year-round, but the Crow and Sioux regularly visited along with other tribes from time to time.


John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, explored the area in 1807 and 1808, and corroborated the mountain men’s reports. Colter’s reputation as a reliable explorer led people to believe what he had to say. But it wasn’t until 1869, after the American Civil War, that people from the East Coast began traveling out to visit this fabled area filled with awe-inspiring colorful geysers.


Thanks to the travel accounts of such visitors, other Americans grew interested in seeing Yellowstone. The railroad boom made this long-range tourism possible. The head of the Northern Pacific Railroad hoped by touting Yellowstone as a tourism destination, he could gain support for extending his railroad lines through Montana.


In 1871, a geologist named Ferdinand V. Hayden took photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran on an expedition to Yellowstone. Congress commissioned Hayden to bring back a report about the area’s suitability for being set aside as a nature preserve. The photographs and artwork Jackson and Moran brought back were key in convincing senators that Yellowstone was a very special place worth spending government money to care for.


   On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which stated that this land was “hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” While this was not the first national park in the world (that honor goes to a Mongolian park set aside in 1783), it was the first in the United States. It established an important precedent for preserving parts of our land in their natural state for present and future generations to enjoy.


Yellowstone National Park covers two million acres of land in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Its creation was not popular with the people who lived in and around the new park—American Indians were now forbidden to hunt or gather materials within its boundaries, and the entire Tukudika tribe was removed from the park and resettled on a new reservation. White settlers in the area could no longer hunt game in the park, either.


Early visitors to the new National Park were the hardy sort of adventurers who would have explored it, anyway. The West was still quite wild at the time—the Battle of Little Bighorn took place only 150 miles away from Yellowstone in 1876. A year later, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and his followers sought refuge in Yellowstone while evading the U. S. military, and even took some tourists hostage for a brief time.


By the 1880s, the West was getting pretty well tamed. The Mammoth Hotel opened inside the park in 1883. Railroads built special spur lines to the park, and by 1915, motorcars were being used to explore Yellowstone. The U.S. Army managed and maintained the park until 1916, when the National Park Service was created and took over the job. By 1923, over 100,000 people were visiting the park each year. The number of visitors hit the one million mark in 1948, then doubled in 1965. In 2023, over 4.5 million people visited Yellowstone National Park... and five of them were named Kovaciny and rode in a blue minivan all the way from Virginia to get there. We spent more time driving there than we did inside the park, but the experience and our memories of it were well worth it. ♦