President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that created Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872. The act put the federal government in the business of managing public land for recreation and marked the culmination of the national park idea that had been percolating for some time.
There were several rationales for setting aside the area surrounding the headwaters of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers “for the benefit and instruction of the people.”
First was the determination that the area wasn’t good for anything else. The U.S. Geological Survey lead by Ferdinand V. Hayden in the summer of 1871 had determined that the area was not fit for agriculture and it was not likely that there were any mineral deposits worth mining there. Setting the area aside, proponents of the bill said, “would take nothing from the value of the public domain.”
Second, it was feared that the beautiful and delicate formations created by hot springs across thousands of years would be destroyed unless they were protected. The reports of the Hayden Expedition of 1871 and the Washburn Expedition of 1870 had thrust wonders of the remote and inaccessible region onto the public consciousness. The bills supporters said collectors had already begun gathering specimens for sale and plans were under way to lay claim to key sights and charge fees for visiting them. Indeed, entrepreneurs had already made homestead claim to key sights near Mammoth Hot Springs.
Finally, proponents said that, if preserved, the area would become “a resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world. They said establishing Yellowstone National Park would be “regarded by the entire civilized world as a step of progress and an honor to the Congress …. ” Indeed, that prediction has proved to be true.
• • •
On the 18th of December, 1871, a bill was introduced into the Senate of the United States by Hon. S. C. Pomeroy, to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public park. About the same time a similar bill was offered in the House of Representatives by Hon. William H. Claggett, Delegate from Montana. After due consideration in the Committees on Public Lands in both Houses, the bill was reported favorably. In the Senate it was ably advocated by Messrs. Pomeroy, Edmunds, Trumbull, Anthony, and others. In the House the remarks of Hon. H. L. Dawes were so clear and forcible that the bill passed at once without opposition.
I have thus presented a brief history of the passage of this bill because I believe it will mark an era in the popular advancement of scientific thought, not only in this country, but throughout the civilized world.
That our legislators, at a time when 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 tract 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.
Mr. Dunnell, from the Committee on the Public Lands, made the following report:
The Committee on the Public Lands, having had under consideration bill H. R.764, would report as follows:
The bill now before Congress has for its object the withdrawal from settlement, occupancy, or sale, under the laws of the United States, a tract of land fifty-five by sixty-five miles, about the sources of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, and dedicates and sets it apart as a great national park or pleasure-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The entire area comprised within the limits of the reservation contemplated in this bill is not susceptible of cultivation with any degree of certainty, and the winters would be too severe for stock-raising.
Whenever the altitude of the mountain districts exceeds 6,000 feet above tide-water, their settlement becomes problematical unless there are valuable mines to attract people. The entire area within the limits of the proposed reservation is over 6,000 feet in altitude, and the Yellowstone Lake, which occupies an area fifteen by twenty-two miles, or three hundred and thirty square miles, is 7,427 feet. The ranges of mountains that hem the valleys in on every side rise to the height of 10,000 and 12,000 feet, and are covered with snow all the year. These mountains are all of volcanic origin, and it is not probable that any mines or minerals of value will ever be found there. During the months of June, July, and August the climate is pure and most invigorating, with scarcely any rain or storms of any kind, but the thermometer frequently sinks as low as 26°. There is frost every mouth of the year.
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 manifestations of the internal forces. All these springs are adorned with 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 beantiful 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 that which ought to be as free as the air or water.
In a few years this region will be a place of resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world. The geysers of Iceland, which have been objects of interest for the scientific men and travelers of the entire world, sink into insignificance in comparison with the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole Basins. As a place of resort for invalids, it will not be excelled by any portion of the world. If this bill fails to become a law this session, the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land will, in a single season, despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.
We have already shown that no portion of this tract can ever be made available for agricultural or mining purposes. Even if the altitude and the climate would permit the country to be made available, not over fifty square miles of the entire area could ever be settled. The valleys are all narrow, hemmed in by high volcanic mountains like gigantic walls.
The withdrawal of this tract, therefore, from sale or settlement takes nothing from the value of the public domain, and is no pecuniary loss to the Government, but will be regarded by the entire civilized world as a step of progress and an honor to Congress and the nation.
Department Of The Interior,
Washington, D. C, January 29, 1872.
Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 27th instant, relative to the bill now pending in the House of Representatives dedicating that tract of country known as the Yellowstone Valley as a national park.
I hand you herewith the report of Dr. F. V. Hayden, United States geologist, relative to said proposed reservation, and have only to add that I fully concur in his recommendations, and trust that the bill referred to may speedily become a law.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Secretary. Hon. M. H. Dunnell,
House of Representatives.
The committee, therefore, recommend the passage of the bill without amendment.
[general Nature—No. 16.]
AN ACT to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public park.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone River, and described as follows, to wit, commencing at the junction of Gardiner’s River with the Yellowstone River, and running east to the meridian passing ten miles to the eastward of the most eastern point of Yellowstone Lake; thence south along said meridian to the parallel of latitude passing ten miles south of the most southern point of Yellowstone Lake; thence west along said parallel to the meridian passing fifteen miles west of the most western point of Madison Lake; thence north along said meridian to the latitude of the junction of the Yellowstone and Gardiner’s Rivers; thence east to the place of beginning, is 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; and all persons who shall locate or settle upon or occupy the same, or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed therefrom.
Sec. 2. That said public park shall be under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior, whose duty it shall be, as soon as practicable, to make and publish such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or proper for the care and management of the same. Such regulations shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition. The Secretary may, in his discretion, grant leases for building purposes for terms not exceeding ten years, of small parcels of ground, at such places in said park as shall require the erection of buildings for the accommodation of visitors; all of the proceeds of said leases, and all other revenues that may be derived from any source connected with said park, to be expended under his direction in the management of the same, and the construction of roads and bridle-paths therein. He shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit. He shall also cause all persons trespassing upon the same after the passage of this act to be removed therefrom, and generally shall be authorized to take all such measures as shall be necessary or proper to fully carry out the objects and purposes of this act.
Approved March 1, 1872.
Excerpt from F. V. Hayden, Annual Report:Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (U.S.). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1972[pages 162-165]
Adapted with permission from the M. Mark Miller blog. Miller is the author of Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales.