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Native History: Yellowstone National Park Created on Sacred Land

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill to create Yellowstone National Park in the Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories.

This Date in Native History: On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill to create Yellowstone National Park in the Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories.

The bill acknowledged the “natural curiosities or wonders within” the world’s first federally protected national park and set apart 2.2 million acres as a “public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Once drafted, the bill passed quickly through Congress, park historian Lee Whittlesey said.


“There wasn’t much debate on this because the place was so remote that none of the congressmen or senators had seen it,” Whittlesey said. “It was so far into the West that no one had explored it.”

Congress instead relied on eyewitness accounts stemming from three different expeditions into the geothermal park. Explorers had to take the railroad to Corinne, Utah, then hire horses and wagons to travel through Idaho and into Montana.

Wikimedia Commons

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park

The approach to Yellowstone National Park, most of which is located in Wyoming, had to be made from the north, Whittlesey said. The route was remote and difficult, and explorers returned to the east with extraordinary stories about violent and beautiful geothermal features.

“There was a tendency to disbelieve,” Whittlesey said. “Hot water spouting out of the ground 200 feet tall was not a story that was readily believed.”

Although fur trappers had explored the area in the 1820s and ‘30s, followed by gold prospectors in the 1860s, Yellowstone National Park was considered the last place in the West to be discovered by white people, Whittlesey said. It remains the only national park that was established before settlers made bids for the land.

The land long was revered by American Indians, however, said Don Shoulderblade, a Cheyenne spiritual leader and spokesman for Guardians of Our Ancestors’ Legacy, a group working to reclaim and preserve the ancestral land of Yellowstone National Park.

Indigenous people lived in Yellowstone more than 10,000 years ago, Shoulderblade said. A total of 26 tribes have ancestral connections to Yellowstone National Park, which still is considered sacred land.

Early in the park’s history, white superintendents tried to make the area “safe” for visitors by removing Natives from the park and spreading rumors that “primitive savages” did not live in the area because they were afraid of the geysers and other thermal activity, states a 2002 paper authored by Whittlesey.

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National Park Service Archive Photo/Wikimedia Commons

Morning Glory Pool is a hot spring in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park.

Those stories were fabricated, said Shoulderblade, who claims more than 1,600 tribal cultural sites exist within park boundaries.

“There is a world of difference between recognizing the sacred, the mystery and power of a place and being afraid of it,” he said. “Tribal people did not fear Yellowstone. They respected and revered it, and were they given the opportunity to be reintroduced to it, they would embrace the land once more.”

The park was the permanent home of the Sheep-eaters or Mountain Shoshone, Whittlesey said. They likely were the only people to brave the high altitudes and long, cold winters. Yellowstone National Park sits 7,500 feet above sea level.

Other tribes journeyed into the park during the summer months, chasing buffalo and other animals, Whittlesey said. They also visited Obsidian Cliff, which was one of the best places in the U.S. for arrowheads.

National Park Service

Obsidian Cliff; Photographer unknown; 1976

Tribes had different names for Yellowstone, Whittlesey wrote in his 2002 paper. The Crow called it “land of the burning ground” or “land of vapors.” They specifically referred to the geysers as bide-mahpe, which means “sacred or powerful water.”

The Blackfeet called the area “many smoke,” the Flatheads called it “smoke from the ground” and the Kiowa called it “the place of hot water.”

Congress established Yellowstone National Park as a way to protect the unique geography, Whittlesey said. Four types of geothermal features continue to draw visitors from around the world: hot springs, geysers, mud pots and steam vents. The park also includes canyons, mountains, rivers and stunning vistas.

The Yellowstone Act of 1872 cut short acts of vandalism that began even before the area was widely known, Whittlesey said.

“Very early on there were people in here tearing them up,” he said. “They were throwing tree stumps just to watch the geysers spit them out. They were chiseling and chipping at the features to get specimens. As a result of the act, Yellowstone stands tall in the history of the world.”

About 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park every year.

This story was originally published March 1, 2014.