My course on “Early Travel to Yellowstone Park” begins in just a week, and I’ve been working hard to get ready. It’s a reprise of one I taught in 2013 for Montana State University’s Wonderlust Series, so preparation is mostly revising notes and slides from my files. Those are in good shape, but I’m glad for the opportunity to revise and refine them — and make the class even better.
We’ll will meet for six consecutive Saturdays (Feb. 7 through March 14) from 9:30 to 11 a.m. In the Community Room of the Gallatin County Courthouse at 311 West Main, Bozeman. Admission is free for members of the Gallatin Historical Society and $5 at the door for non-members. The fee will include admission to the Gallatin History Museum at 317 West Main. Interested persons can purchase memberships at the door.
The course will cover the history of the area that is now Yellowstone Park from its discovery by Euro-Americans in the early 1800s through the Model-T Era. Park history will come alive through stories in the words of the people who lived the adventure of visiting the world’s first national park when it was new and be illustrated with historic photographs.
There will be a reception with cookies and coffee following each meeting at the Gallatin History Museum, which is next door to the Courthouse.
Each class session is self-contained, so you can choose whichever ones appeal to you. Of course, I hope you’ll attend them all. That way you’ll get a complete picture of the World’s First National Park from the time of its discovery by Euro-Americans through the Model-T Era.
February 7: Mountain Men — The Mountain Man Era of Yellowstone Park began in 1807 when John Colter became the first white man to see the wonders of the area. Beginning about 1820, after trappers and traders had harvested most of the beaver in lower elevations, mountain men penetrated the Yellowstone Plateau. Brigades of men led by entrepreneurs like Jim Bridger probably found most of the wonders of the upper Yellowstone. Although trappers left few written records of what they saw, dramatic stories remain telling about encounters with Indians (some hostile, some friendly), seeing fountains that hurl boiling water hundreds of feet into the air, and telling all tales.
February 14: Explorers — By the mid 1860s, reports of mountain men and prospectors made it apparent that the wonders near the headwaters of the Yellowstone were dramatic enough to win glory for whoever was first to document them. Several attempts were made to organize expeditions to explore the upper Yellowstone, but they fell through because of threats of Indian troubles. Finally, in 1869, three men decided a small group could get by the Indians without being noticed. This was the Folsom, Cook, Peterson expedition. The Washburn Expedition of 1870 and the Hayden Expedition of 1871 convinced everyone that the stories of Yellowstone’s wonders were true and helped persuade to the federal government to establish the park in 1872.
February 21: First Tourists — When the Washburn Expedition returned to civilization late in the summer of 1870, the news that the rumors of wonders on the upper Yellowstone were true, the new spread like wildfire. It was too late in the season for another expedition to a land that could be snowbound by September, but soon plans were made to travel to the newly discovered wonderland. The first tourist were of three types: small groups of men from Montana Territory who travelled light and planned to live off the land, dignitaries who had the time and money to cross the country on the new transcontinental railroad and then take the stage to Yellowstone and mixed groups of men and women.
February 28: Early Women — Doubtless, the first women in what is now Yellowstone Park were Indians who had lived there for centuries before Euro-Americans explored it. White women began visiting the park while the ink was still drying on President Grant’s signature on the bill that created it. Most women traveled only to the ends of the roads at Mammoth Hot Springs or the Lower Geyser. But a few braved the roadless wilderness on sidesaddle and returned to tell their stories of boat rides on Lake Yellowstone, frying doughnuts in bear grease and being caught in October Blizzards.
March 7: Nez Perce Encounters — In the summer of 1877 five bands of Nez Perce Indians decided to abandon their homeland at the intersection of the Idaho, Washington and Oregon borders and make a new life in the buffalo country of Montana. After the army attacked their sleeping camp on the banks of the Big Hole River, the Indians fled on a route that took them through Yellowstone Park. While the chiefs tried to avoid conflict, groups of enraged young men waged gun battles with tourists and took two women captive.
March 14: The Grand Tour — In 1883, the Northern Pacific completed its transcontinental railroad and immediately began building a spur from Livingston, Montana, to the northern border of the park. Gone were the days when the only Yellowstone visitors were residents of the nearby territories and well heeled dignitaries who had the time and money for elaborate trips. The railroad opened the floodgate to middle-class tourists from across America and around the world. This led to the development of touring companies that provided transportation, food, and lodging for visitors. The most expensive tours were provided by subsidiaries of the railroads that build luxury hotels at key locations and provided transportation between them. Moderately priced tours were offered by permanent camps. Of course, many tourists continued to tour the park with their own wagons, teams of horses, and camping gear. A few mobile camp companies moved their tents regularly between sights.
Photo, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.