For decades, I have traveled to Yellowstone National Park several times a year to camp, watch animals, fish, and explore. I love this beautiful land that was set aside nearly 150 years ago by wise individuals who could see something special in this area and wanted to preserve it “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”. During these years I have endeavored to learn more about the animals, fish, lakes, rivers, geothermal features, conservation work, restoration efforts, and other things that interest me, such as the early characters who were instrumental in the founding of Yellowstone National Park. What I found was both interesting and somewhat sad.
While fur traders traveled the Yellowstone River in the late 1700’s in search of Native Americans with whom they traded goods, they rarely ventured beyond the river to see the other grandeurs of the area that is now Yellowstone National Park. These traders did not report their findings to the folks on the nation’s western frontier, let alone people in Washington, DC or members of Congress. The 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase, traveled near Yellowstone on their route to the Pacific Ocean. They passed through Livingston, MT, about 50 miles north of the park’s northern border. Had this famous group of explorers actually explored Yellowstone, they could have brought back information about the park that probably would have been viewed by the public and law makers as credible. As it was, the public simply did not believe the sporadic reports by these so called “mountain men”. So, without the confirmation, no laws would be written or acts passed that would preserve this unique land for future generations.
However, one member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter, having heard the tales of fur trappers from the Yellowstone area, opted to return and explore the area during the winter of 1807-1808. He alone ventured deep into Yellowstone and surrounding areas and witnessed firsthand some of the thermal features of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the park itself. As such, John Colter became the first EuroAmerican to explore and bring back reports of Yellowstone, especially the geothermal areas. Unfortunately, his reports and descriptions of what he witnessed were met by a very skeptic audience back east. Colter’s descriptions of “boiling mud”, “spouting water”, “steam coming from the ground” and “beautiful colored pools” were beyond imagination to the uninformed and his descriptions were labeled as fictional entertainment and the ravings of a deranged man. People laughed and scoffed at Colter and sarcastically labeled the area he described as “Colter’s Hell”.
During the next 40 years, other explorers, trappers, and mountain men who visited the Yellowstone area returned with stories similar to those that Colter reported. However, skepticism remained with the public back east and it wasn’t until the 1871 Hayden Expedition that visual proof in photograph and art drawings, and the credible word of the team of scientists who were a part of the expedition, that the descriptions of the grandeurs of Yellowstone presented by John Colter were finally recognized. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The world’s first national park was established.
Unfortunately, Colter died in 1812 or 1813 (conflicting reports of his death are recorded in history). He went to his grave knowing that his reports of what he witnessed in the Yellowstone area were viewed by many as the ravings of a deranged man, fictional, and beyond imagination. Time and validation have now erased the skepticism of the mockers and scoffers, and John Colter is now recognized as the first known person of European descent to enter the region which later became Yellowstone National Park and to see the Teton Mountain Range. Let’s hope he knows of his legacy now.