The first indication of startling geothermal features on the Upper Yellowstone was a buffalo hide map that was sent to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805 by James Wilkinson, governor of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. Governor Wilkinson said of the map, “a volcano is distinctly described in the Yellowstone River.”
About 1809 John Colter told his old boss, Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, about the “Hot Spring Brimstone” he had seen along the shore of Lake Yellowstone, and Clark published a map containing that information information in 1814.
Eastern newspapers reported startling geothermal features in the area that became Yellowstone Park as early and early as 1827. Following that, there a steady stream of accounts in newspapers, government reports, journals and reminiscence.
But these reports did little to affect public awareness. In fact, William Wallace Wylie, in his guidebook published in1882, marveled that the area had been known for only a short time. Wylie, who invented the Wylie Way method of touring the park with stops permanent camps, searched Montana territorial newspapers and concluded this article published by The Montana Post in 1867 was the first one describing the area’s geothermal features.
It is indeed strange that this remarkable portion of country, now set apart by our Government as National pleasure-grounds, has been known to the world for so short a time. It may be authentically stated that the Park has been known to the general public for the short period of eleven years.
Although trappers and prospectors had at different times passed through and seen some portions of the Park, and had tried to convince others of what they beheld, yet their stories were received as characteristic lies, and the general public lived on in ignorance of the fact that the greatest natural wonders of the world existed within the borders of our republic.
The first published statement of these wonders, that the author could find, is that given below, taken from the Montana Post. The communication was dated Yellowstone City, Montana, August 18, 1867. Yellowstone City was a thriving mining village, nearer the boundary of the Park than any town at present is. The communication was written by Davis Willson, now of Bozeman, Montana. As will be seen, his information was obtained second-handed. The article is given entire for the purpose of showing how exaggerated were the ideas then obtained of what is now so well known: —
A portion of the Bear Gulch stampeders has returned. They have been to the Lake at the head of Yellowstone, and report the greatest wonder of the age. For eight days they traveled through a volcanic country emitting blue flames, living streams of molten brimstone, and almost every variety of minerals known to chemists. The appearance of the country was smooth and rolling, with long level plains intervening.
On the summits of these rolling mounds, were craters from four to eight feet in diameter; and everywhere upon the level plains, dotting them like prairie-dog holes, were smaller ones, from four to six inches and upwards.
The steam and blaze were constantly discharging from these subterranean channels, in regular evolutions or exhaustions, like the boilers of our steamboats, and gave the same roaring, whistling sound. As far as the eye could trace, this motion was observed.
They were fearful to ascend to the craters, lest the thin crust should give way and swallow them. Mr. Hubbel (one of the party), who has visited this region before, ventured to approach one of the smaller ones. As he neared its mouth, his feet broke through, and the blue flame and smoke gushed forth, enveloping him. Dropping upon his body, he crawled to within a couple of feet of the crater, and saw that the crust around its edge was thin, like a wafer.
Lighting a match, he extended it to the mouth and instantly it was on fire. The hollow ground resounded beneath their feet as they traveled on, and every moment it seemed liable to break through and bury them in its fiery vaults. The atmosphere was intensely suffocating, and they report that life could not long be sustained there.
Not a living thing—bird or beast—was seen in the vicinity. The prospectors have given it the significant name—’Hell!’ They declare they have been to that ‘bad place,’ and even seen the ‘Devil’s horns;’ but through the interposition of Providence (not to speak profanely), their ‘souls have been delivered,’ and they emphatically aver, if a ‘straight and narrow’ course, during their sojourn on the Yellowstone, will save them, they will never go there again.
This article was copied throughout the country by other papers, and doubtless served to awaken an interest concerning this unknown land; yet the general public were indebted for their first knowledge of the marvels of this region.
— Text from “Earliest Publications Concerning Yellowstone Park,” pages 74-77 in William Wallace Wylie, Yellowstone Park, or The Great American Wonderland. Kansas City, Missouri: Ramsey Millett & Hudson, 1882.
— Photo from the Yellowstone Digital Slide File.
— You might be interested in The New York Times story apparently based on this report.