The Discovery of Yellowstone Park

by Nathaniel Pitt Langford

[Tuesday, August 23] Last night was the first that we were on guard. The first relief was Hedges and Langford, the second Washburn and Hauser. Everything went well. At 8 a.m. to-day we broke camp. Some delay occurring in packing our horses, Lieutenant Doane and the escort went ahead, and we did not again see them until we reached our night camp.

We traveled down Trail creek and over a spur of the mountain to the valley of the Yellowstone, which we followed up eight miles to our present camp. Along on our right in passing up the valley was a vast natural pile of basaltic rock, perpendicular, a part of which had been overthrown, showing transverse seams in the rock. Away at the right in the highest range bordering the valley was Pyramid mountain, itself a snow-capped peak; and further up the range was a long range covered with deep snow. As we passed Pyramid mountain a cloud descended upon it, casting its gloomy shadow over the adjacent peaks and bursting in a grand storm. These magnificent changes in mountain scenery occasioned by light and shade during one of these terrific tempests, with all the incidental accompaniments of thunder, lightening, rain, show and hail, afford the most awe-inspiring exhibition in nature. As I write, another grand storm, which odes not extend to our camp, has broken out on Emigrant peak, which at one moment is completely obscured in darkness; at the next perhaps, brilliant with light; all its gorges, recesses, seams, and canons illuminated; these fade away into dim twilight, broken by a terrific flash, and, echoing to successive peals, the rattling crags among leaps the live thunder in innumerable reverberations.

On the left of the valley the foot hills were mottled with a carpet of beautiful, maroon-colored, delicately-tinted verdure, and towering above all rose peak on peak of the snow-capped mountains.

To-day we saw our first Indians as we descended into the valley of the Yellowstone. They came down from the east side of the valley, over the foot hills, to the edge of the plateau overlooking the bottom lands of the river, and there conspicuously displayed themselves for a time to engage our attention. As we passed be them up the valley they moved down to where their ponies were hobbled. Two of our party, Hauser and Stickney, had dropped behind and passed towards the north to get a shot at an antelope; and when they came up they reported that, while we were observing the Indians on the plateau across the river, there were one hundred or more of them watching us from behind a high butte as our pack-train passed up the valley. As soon as they observed Hauser and Stickney coming up nearly behind them, they wheeled their horses and disappeared down the other side of the butte. This early admonition of our exposure to hostile attack, and liability to be robbed of everything, and compelled on foot and without provisions to retrace our steps, has been the subject of discussion in our camp to-night. and has renewed in our party the determination to abate nothing of our vigilance, and keep in a condition of constant preparation.

With our long-range rifles and plenty of ammunition, we can stand off 200 or 300 of them, with their less efficient weapons, if we don't let them sneak up upon us in the night. If we encounter more than that number, then what? The odds will be against us that they will “rub us out,” as Jim Stuart says.

Jake Smith has sent the first demoralizing shot into the camp by announcing that he doesn't think there is any necessity for standing guard. Jake is the only one of our party who shows some sign of baldness, and he probably thinks that his own scalp is not worth the taking by the Indians.

Did we act wisely in permitting him to join our party at the last moment before leaving Helena? One careless man, no less than one who is easily discouraged by difficulties, will frequently demoralize an entire company. I think we have now taken all possible precautions for our safety, but our numbers are few; and for me to say that I am not in hourly dread of the Indians when they appear in large force, would be a braggart boast.

Mr. Everts was taken sick this afternoon. All day we have had a cool breeze and a few light showers, clearing off from time to time, revealing the mountains opposite us covered from their summit half way down with the newly fallen snow, and light clouds floating just below over the foot hills. Until we reached then open valley of the Yellowstone our route was over a narrow trail, from which the stream, Trail creek, takes its name. The mountains opposite the point where we entered the valley are rugged, grand, picturesque and immense by turns, and colored by nature with a thousand gorgeous hues. We have traveled all this day amid this stupendous variety of landscape until we have at length reached the western shore of that vast and solitary river which is to guide us to the theatre of our explorations. From the “lay of the land" I should judge that our camp to-night is thirty-five to forty miles above the point where Captain William Clark, of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, embarked with his party in July, 1806, in two cottonwood canoes bound together with buffalo thongs, on his return to the states. It was from that point also that some six hundred residents of Montana embarked for a trip to the states, in forty-two flat boats, in the autumn of 1865. We learn from Mr. Boteler that there are some twenty-five lodges of Crow Indians up in the valley.

[Sunday, September 18, 8 o'clock a.m.] There occurred a half hour ago the first serious mishap affecting the welfare of the entire party; and while the packers, Bean and Reynolds, are repairing the damage resulting therefrom, I will go back a few hours and chronicle in the order of their occurrence the events of the early morning.

Mr. Hedges and I, sleeping securely under the sheltering roof of our pine-thatched wickiup, were aroused from our sweet dreams of home about 4 oclock this morning by several members of our party, who sought shelter from the rain which came down abundantly, or, as a Westmoreland deacon used to say, “in cupious perfusion.” The rain storm broke about 3 o'clock in the morning, and all of the party except Hedges and myself were well drenched, as their only protection from the rain was their blankets. An effort had been made but some of the party to kindle a fire under the shelter of a large standing tree, but with indifferent success. Hedges and I crawled our of our dry blankets, and sat upright, so as to make as much room as possible for the others and we welcomed all our comrades to our dry shelter. General Washburn, who is suffering somewhat from a cold, was especially grateful for the protection from the storm, which continued until about 7 o'clock. The roof of our wickiup had completely protected Hedges and myself from the rain except at one spot directly over Hedges' exposed ear, where a displacement of the pine leaves allowed a small stream to trickle through the roof, filling his ear with water, much to his discomfort.

Some members of or party, at our early breakfast this morning, sitting upon logs at various distances from our camp fire in their half-dried clothing, and eating their scanty meal in silence, presented a sorry appearance. Some are disappointed that we did not, last night, reach the Firehole river, or some large branch of the Madison, which may guide us homeward, and are wondering if we are moving in the right direction. I feel so perfectly confident that we are traveling the right course that I am in the best of spirits. It may be that my cheerfulness is owning, in some degree, to my having dry clothing and a dry skin, which few of my comrades have, but I see no reason for discouragement. I think that Mr. Hauser is the best and most accurate judge of distances, of heights of mountains, and direction of travel, of any man I know, and he does not doubt that we are moving in the right direction. It is a satisfaction to have my opinion confirmed by his judgment.

We had just finished our breakfast a half hour ago when something - some wild animal, or perhaps, a snake moving in the brush near where our horses were picketed, frightening three of them, and in their violent plunging they pulled up the iron picket pins attached to their lariats, and dashed at a gallop directly through our camp, over the campfire, and upsetting and scattering hither and thither our cooking utensils. The iron picket pins flying through the air at the lariat ends narrowly missed several of our party, but became entangled with the only two sound pack saddles remaining of the entire number with which we started, and dashed them against the adjacent trees, tearing off the side pieces of the saddletrees, and rendering them useless. Our first thought was that the damage done was beyond repair. We had, however, a few thin boards, the remnants of our canned goods boxes, and from my seamless sack of personal baggage I produced two gimlets, a screwdriver, a pair of nippers, some wrought nails and two dozens of screws of various sizes. When all these things were laid out, my comrades expressed great surprise, for not one of them or the packers had any idea that there were any tools or screws in our “outfit.” On the other hand, it is a matter of surprise to me that I am the only member of our party who has a rubber coat, or pair of oil-tanned water-proof boots, or who has brought with him any medicines, tools, screws, etc,: and, except myself, there is but one member of our party (whom I will not “give away" by here recording his name) who had the foresight to bring with him a flask of whiskey. I think we will be known among those who will hereafter visit this marvelous region as “The Temperance Party,” though some of our number who lacked the foresight to provide, before leaving Helena, a needed remedy for snake bites, have not lacked the hindsight required in using it.

Bean and Reynolds have just announced that the pack saddles have been repaired, and that preparations are being made for the start, so on this hint, I suspend my record until night.

[Monday, September 19] When we left Yellowstone lake two days ago, the desire for home had superceded all thought of further explorations. Five days of rapid travel would, we believed, bring us to the upper valley of the Madison, and within twenty-five miles of Virginia City, and we indulged the remote hope that we might there find some trace of Mr. Evers. We had within a distance of fifty miles seen what we believed to be the greatest wonders on the continent. We were convinced that there was not on the globe another region where within the same limits Nature had crowded so much of grandeur and majesty with so much of novelty and wonder. Judge, then, of our astonishment on entering this basin, to see at no great distance before us an immense body of sparkling water, projected suddenly and with terrific force into the air to the height of over one hundred feet. We had found a real geyser. In the valley before us were a thousand hot springs of various sizes and character, and five hundred craters jetting forth vapor. In one place the eye followed through crevices in the crust a stream of hot water of considerable size, running at nearly right angles with the river, and in a direction, not towards, but away from the stream. We traced the course of this stream by the crevices in the surface for twenty or thirty yards. It is probable that it eventually flows into the Firehole, but there is nothing on the surface to indicate to the beholder the course of its underground passage to the river.

On the summit of a cone twenty-five feet high was a boiling spring seven feet in diameter, surrounded with beautiful incrustations, on the slope of which we gathered twigs encased in a crust a quarter of an inch in thickness. On an incrusted hill opposite our camp are four craters from three to five feet in diameter, sending forth stream jets and water to the height of four or five feet. But the marvelous features of this wonderful basin are its spouting geysers, of which during our brief stay of twenty-two hours we have seen twelve in action. Six of these threw water to the height of from fifteen to twenty feet, but in the presence of others of immense dimensions they soon ceased to attract attention.

Of the latter six, the one we saw in action on entering the basin ejected from a crevice of irregular form, and about four feet long by three wide, a column of water of corresponding magnitude to the height of one hundred feet. Around this crevice or mouth the sediment is piled in many capricious shapes, chiefly indented globules from six inches to two feet in diameter. Little hollows in the crust filled with water contained small white spheres of tufa, of the size of a nutmeg, formed as it seemed to me around some nuclei.

We gave such names to those of the geysers which we say in action as we think will best illustrate their peculiarities. The one I have just described General Washburn has named “Old Faithful,” because of the regularity of its eruptions, the intervals between which being from sixty to sixty-five minutes, the column of water being thrown at each eruption to the height of from eighty to one hundred feet.

The “Grotto,” so named from the singularity winding apertures penetrating the sinter surrounding it, was at rest when we first discovered it. Externally it presented few indications of its character as a geyser. Private Williamson, one of our escort, crawled through an aperture and looking into the discharging orifice. When afterwards, he saw it belching forth a column of boiling water two feet in diameter to the height of sixty feet, and a scalding stream of two hundred square inches flowing from the cavern he had entered a short time before, he said that he felt like one who had narrowly escaped being summarily cooked.

The “Castle" is on the summit of an incrusted elevation. This name was given because of its resemblance to the ruins of some old tower with its broken down turrets. The silicious sinter composing the formation surrounding it takes the form of small globules, resembling a ripe cauliflower, and the massive nodules indicate that at some former period the flow of water must have been much larger than at present. The jet is sixty feet high by four feet in diameter, and the vent near it, which is in angry ebullition during the eruption, constantly flows with boiling water.

One of the most wonderful of the springs in this basin is that of ultra-marine hue directly in front of the “Castle" geyser. It is nearly round, having diameters of about twenty and twenty-five feet, the sides being corrugated and funnel-shaped, and at the depth of thirty feet opening out into a cavern of unfathomable depth, the rim of the spring having beautifully escalloped edges. I does not boil over, but a very small stream of water flows from it, and it is not affected in its appearance by the spouting of the geyser in its immediate proximity. There is evidently no connection between this spring and the geyser.

The “Giant" is a rugged deposit presenting in form a miniature model of the Colosseum. It has an opening three feet in diameter. A remarkable characteristic of this geyser is the duration of its discharges, which yesterday afternoon continued for more than an hour in a steady stream about three feet in diameter and one hundred and forty feet high.

Opposite our camp, on the east side of the Firehole river, is a symmetrical cone resembling an old-fashioned straw beehive with the top cut off. It is about five feet in diameter at its base, with an irregular oval-shaped orifice having escalloped edges, and of twenty-four by thirty-six inches interior diameter. No one supposed that it was a geyser, and until this morning, among so many wonders, it had escaped a second notice. Suddenly, while we were at breakfast this morning, a column of water shot from it, which by quite accurate triangular measurement proved to be two hundred and nineteen feet in height. Our method of triangulation was as follows: A point on the surface of the group was marked, which was in a direct line with a branch of a tree near by, and of the top of the column of water when at its greatest height. Having obtained the perpendicular height of the branch of the tree from the ground, and the distance from this perpendicular to the point of observation and to the geyser cone, we were enabled to make a very accurate calculation of the height of the column of water. We named this geyser the “Bee Hive.”

Near by is situated the “Giantess,” the largest of all the geysers we saw in eruption. Ascending a gentle slope for a distance of sixty yards we came to a sink or well of an irregular oval shape, fifteen by twenty feet across, into which we could see to the depth of fifty feet or more, but could discover no water, though we could distinctly hear it gurgling and boiling at a fearful rate afar down this vertical cavern. Suddenly it commenced spluttering and rising with incredible rapidity, causing a general stampede among our company, who all moved around to the windward side of the geyser. When the water had risen within about twenty-five feet of the surface, it became stationary, and we returned to look down upon the foaming water, which occasionally emitted hot jets nearly to the mouth of the orifice. As if tired of this sport the water began to ascend at the rate of five feet in a second, and when near the top it was expelled with terrific momentum in a column the full size of the immense aperture to a height of sixty feet. The column remained at this height for the space of about a minute, when from the apex of this vast aqueous mass five lesser jets or round columns of water varying in size from six to fifteen inches in diameter shot up into the atmosphere to the amazing height of two hundred and fifty feet. This was without exception the most magnificent phenomenon I ever beheld. We were standing on the side of the geyser exposed to the sun, whose sparkling rays filled the ponderous column with what appeared to be the clippings of a thousand rainbows. These prismatic illusions disappeared, only to be succeeded by myriads of others which continually fluttered and sparkled through the spray during the twenty minutes the eruption lasted. These lesser jets, thrown so much higher than the main column and shooting through it, doubtless proceed from auxiliary pipes leading into the principle orifice near the bottom, where the explosive force is greater. The minute globules into which the spent column was diffused when falling sparkled like a shower of diamonds, and around every shadow produced by the column of steam hiding the sun was the halo so often represented in paintings as encircling the head of the Savior. We unhesitatingly agreed that this was the greatest wonder of our trip.

© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

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