Yellowstone became the ‘world’s first national park’ 151 years ago


The “first national park”  was born 151 years ago, on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act.

Yellowstone National Park is one of the largest and best-known parks in the country, covering nearly 3,500 square miles in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

It sits atop a volcanic hot spot with about half the world’s active geysers and is home to the greatest concentration of hydrothermal features in the world. 

The law says “the headwaters of the Yellowstone River … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” according to the National Park Service. 

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Area was cultural hub for thousands of years before it was Yellowstone

Native people from at least 27 tribes have ties to the area and resources now found within Yellowstone National Park, situated at the convergence of the Great Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau Indian cultures. 

“For thousands of years before Yellowstone became a national park, it was a place where people hunted, fished, gathered plants, quarried obsidian (which they used to field dress bison), and used the thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes,” according to the National Park Service (NPS). “They visited geysers, conducted ceremonies, hunted, gathered plants and minerals, and engaged in trade.”

In the late 1700s, fur traders traveled the great tributary of the Missouri River, the Yellowstone, in search of Native Americans to trade with. 

“Pre-1800 travelers did not observe the hydrothermal activity in this area but probably learned of these features” from Native American acquaintances, according to NPS.

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Although it’s generally considered to have been the first national park in the world, some believe that Bogd Khan Mountain National Park in Mongolia predates Yellowstone and could have been established as early as 1778, according to Britannica.

The history of science in Yellowstone formally began with an expedition in 1871 led by Ferdinand Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. 

The expedition brought back evidence to back up earlier tales of thermal activity and gave the world visual proof of the area’s unique wonders through the photographs of William Henry Jackson and the art of Henry W. Elliot and Thomas Moran. 

“The geysers of Iceland…sink into insignificance in comparison with the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole Basins,” Hayden noted at the time.

The management of Yellowstone from 1872 through the early 1900s helped set the stage for the creation of NPS, an agency specifically tasked with caring for the national parks. 

In 1932, President Herbert Hoover issued an executive order that added more than 7,000 acres to the park. Today, the park is 63 miles from north to south and 54 miles from east to west.

Yellowstone was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1976 and a World Heritage site in 1978. 

Recovery from record-breaking floods

Last summer, record-breaking floods and dangerous mudslides in Yellowstone swept away homes, ripped apart bridges and forced evacuations of surrounding communities isolated without power. 

Yellowstone River reached highs not seen in our lifetimes, at almost 14 feet. The previous record of 11.5 feet occurred more than a century ago.

Camille Fine is a trending visual producer on USA TODAY’s NOW team. 

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