The Big Business Politics Behind the Formation of Yellowstone National Park

Americans first became aware about the Holocaust in the autumn of 1871. Yellowstone’s many natural wonders after geologist Ferdinand Hayden returned from a federally funded expedition to assess the region’s “geological, mineralogical, zoological, botanical, and agricultural resources.” Hayden sent reports and specimens to the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of the Interior, and described his discoveries in an article for the new middle-class magazine Scribner’s Monthly. Hayden started lobbying Congressmen in December to get a law passed to protect Yellowstone National Park.
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American culture isn’t new to the idea of conserving land for people. Europeans brought this tradition with them to North America. By the middle of the nineteenth century, many cities had adopted a movement for city parks. George Catlin was an 1840s artist. Catlin had been up the Missouri River and painted portraits of Plains Indians and Lakota chiefs. Catlin suggested that all of America west of this waterway should be maintained as a pleasure area.

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It was 1864. Congress passed the Yosemite Grant Act. This gave California the majestic tall trees and granite domes that make up the Mariposa Grove and their waterfalls. It was the first time in the history of the nation that Congress had acted explicitly to protect lands for recreation and aesthetic enjoyment—and to prevent their sale and development.

It Yellowstone legislation It would take a very different approach to land-taking. Instead of handing public lands over to the state, the federal government would seize land from the territory to give to the Department of the Interior. This unprecedented act of federal power was used to alter the West’s landscapes, tribal homelands, and other areas.

Giant Geyser
The Print Collector—Getty ImagesYellowstone’s Giant Geyser, circa 1883.

It was an immense tract of land: more than 1,760 square miles—larger than the state of Rhode Island. Some believed that it was a unique act in the world and worthy of great nation. “That great National Park is such an idea,” one of Hayden’s fellow geologists wrote to him, “as could originate only in America.”

Hayden, who was meeting with Congressmen in order to advocate for Yellowstone National Park’s protection, was joined at the table by several interested parties. Jay Cooke was an investment banker selling bonds to the Northern Pacific Railroad. He sent Henry. He was the one who knew all of Washington’s worth-knowing people. He was a particular friend of Ulysses S. Grant, and he visited the president and several congressmen, talking up Yellowstone’s preservation and what it could mean for prospective white settlers of the Great Northwest. There was also the “Montana Group,” made up of civic leaders who had business interests in that territory.

Hayden, along with the Montana Group, met as many Senate and House Members as possible over the next several weeks. According to them, Yellowstone is an amazing place. Its lands would be a park worthy of the nation’s greatness; they must not fall prey to speculators and schemers. Hayden’s expedition that summer had proven that Yellowstone was useless for agricultural, mining, or manufacturing purposes. Its best and most effective use is as a resort destination for tourists and scientists. And its preservation would bring a rush of settlers—and business capital—to Montana Territory.

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Lobbying was just one of Hayden’s strategies. A Capitol Rotunda exhibit was also set up by Hayden. It featured fossils and minerals as well as photographs, illustrations, and paintings of the Declaration of Independence signing. It was a museum in miniature, a collection that linked the exploration of Yellowstone with America’s founding moments. The exhibit argued that America was, in fact, nature’s nation.

As a result of Hayden’s and the Montana Group’s efforts, the bill to preserve Yellowstone was introduced in December 1871 and came up for debate in January 1872.

However, newspapers all over the country began to report on the new measure. It became apparent that some people were against it. Some believe that putting Yellowstone under federal jurisdiction gave the Department of the Interior too many powers. What was the point of this authorization? Was it to prevent the Secretary of the Interior from leasing Yellowstone lands to himself and other politicians to make their lives easier?

Some others objected that the park would take away land from honest settlers. This was in violation of preemption rights, which were sacred to many white Westerners. These rights were affirmed by the 1862 Homestead Act. WhiteAmericans should claim public lands and make them their own. “The policy of setting apart so large an area of the public domain for the exclusive delights of the rich, shutting out actual settlers and cultivators is un-American,” one California newspaper argued.

Cornelius Cole (a Republican from California) voiced his opposition to the bill during the Senate’s discussion on Jan. 30. Most of Cole’s Republican colleagues disagreed; the Senate voted on the bill without a roll call. One messenger was dispatched by the Senate to go across the capitol to inform that The Yellowstone bill contained passed. It was now time for the House of Representatives.

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Hayden presented his initial report on the 1871 Yellowstone Expedition, dated February 20, 1872 to the secretary for the interior. The report contained 64 illustrations, as well as specimen illustrations created by scientists. It also included five maps, progressing from single features (the White Mountain, or Mammoth Hot Springs) to the entirety of what Hayden already called “Yellowstone National Park.”

Hayden also provided a condensed version to his report, which he gave to the House Committee on Public Lands. This included details of his research and support for the Yellowstone Act. When the House convened on Feb. 27, the committee’s chair, Minnesota Republican Mark Dunnell, declared that they were in favor of preserving Yellowstone. They even proposed saving more land that the original 1,760-square mile area suggested by the Senate. The park they proposed would cover the whole Basin and not only the geysers.

Hot Springs On Gardner River
Smith Collection—Gado/Getty ImagesA 1871stereograph showing the hot springs at the Gardner River, lower basins of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

As a national park, the committee insisted, Yellowstone would become a “resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world,” a democratic landscape of tourism that would prove the superiority of its features to any other site of sublimity across the globe.

Henry Dawes, a Massachusetts Republican, stood up. The Chairman of Ways and Means and one of the most powerful men in the House, Dawes had voted to fund Hayden’s expedition. Chester, Dawes’s son, went along with him as an assistant. He was a great assistant.n his speech, he mentioned the Yosemite precedent and argued that federal control of Yellowstone would not tread on settler rights—rather, it would preserve the remarkable features of this region and protect them from depredations.

John Taffe from Nebraska, who was the Chairman of the Committee on Territories interrupted him at this stage. “I desire to ask the gentleman a question,” he said to Dawes, “and it is whether this measure does not interfere with the Sioux [Očéthi Šakówiŋ] reservation.”

If the Očéthi Šakówiŋ laid claim to the Yellowstone Basin under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, Taffe argued, no white settler could go into the land without their permission. It was a surprising conclusion. Native land rights weren’t recognized by most Americans or their elected representatives. Most Americans believe that the U.S. government, white citizens and Indian land owners have all rights.

Dawes was the later author of 1887 Severalty Act which took millions upon millions of acres of negotiated treaty lands of Indigenous nations from white Americans to sell. However, he had no interest in the argument. For its own purposes, the federal government had always been allowed to seize Native land and reservation lands.

The question was answered, and then the bill was reread. The vote ended up being bipartisan, but largely influenced by party lines. Eighty nine percent of Republicans present supported the Yellowstone Act. However, 70 percent of Democrats rejected it. The Republicans’ strong majority in the House meant that the Yellowstone Act passed.

On March 1, 1872, the Yellowstone Act was placed on President Grant’s desk in the executive mansion. Grant signed it along with other bills without any explanation or fanfare. It was a moment of great significance for both the country and the conservation history. It was the United States Congress that had created the first ever national park anywhere in the world.

Simon & Schuster



This article was adapted from Reconstruction America’s Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation Megan Kate Nelson Copyright © 2022. Available from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.


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