Thomas Moran Grand Canyon

Wonderland: The Making of Yellowstone Park

When Congress created it in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in the world. The idea was so new, in fact, that the question of what purposes a “national park" should serve was a matter of confusion and public debate.

Artist Thomas Moran accompanied the 1871 Hayden Expedition, sent west as part of the newly created U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). His painting “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” reproduced above, helped inspire Congress to create the park. The expedition's scientific reports and photographs also helped persuade Congress to send the Army west to guard Yellowstone (“protecting” its landscape and wildlife, in part, from the native peoples who had traditionally lived there). Even more overtly promotional were the tourist brochures published by the Northern Pacific, which counted the park as part of its Western “Wonderland.” The Northern Pacific owned the rail lines that served Yellowstone and also a lavish resort hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs.

This section contains a variety of documents about the creation of Yellowstone. They include the memoir of a Crow man who grew up in the valley before it became a park; an account by Young Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, whose warriors clashed with the US Army in the Yellowstone valley as the Nez Perce sought to escape to Canada; excerpts from the published diary of Nathaniel Langford, who accompanied the 1871 Hayden Expedition; observations by naturalist John Muir; and editorials about the park from the popular magazines Frank Leslie’s Illustrated and Forest and Stream.

Note the role that hunting played in justifying the park's preservation, as well as the clash between ideals of “wilderness” and the right of Native Americans to retain access to their lands. For a superb analysis of this conflict see Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (Oxford, 1999).

Image above: Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872). The Making of Yellowstone was written by Ginny Jones and researched by Diana Hebron, Vassar College

For more on the making of Yellowstone, see:

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

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Articles & Stories

Origins of Yellowstone

New Spirits
The Making of Yellowstone
Perceptions and Realities: The Victorian Age Inventions of the era Tramps and Millionaires Yellowstone Park Journals of the era White City/1893 Worlds Fair The Civil War President McKinley