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Yellowstone: From Uncharted Montana Territory to Preserved Natural Wonderland

Yellowstone’s Influence on American Culture and the Rise of National Parks Around the World

From its rugged cliffs and volcanic mountains to plunging canyons and thermal rainbow-hued pools, a trip to Yellowstone National Park, largely situated in Wyoming but also extending into Idaho and Montana, is an experience like no other. As the nation’s first national park, the land was set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” which is the inscription found on the iconic Roosevelt Arch erected in 1903 at the north entrance to the park.  

For centuries now, Yellowstone has attracted adventurous visitors as well as inspired numerous artists. It’s hard to imagine such magical landscapes going unprotected and unpreserved for future generations. But how did Yellowstone come to be a national park? And what role has Yellowstone and other national parks played in American culture? 

Early History of Yellowstone 

There’s evidence that human tribes existed on the land that’s now Yellowstone as far back as 11,000 years ago, but the federal government wasn’t aware of the area’s unique geographical attractions until a series of expeditions in the late 19th century. 

Arguably the most famous of these expeditions took place in 1871 when geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden rounded up a team of scientific experts as well as photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran. Known as the Hayden expedition, the trip resulted in a detailed map of Yellowstone as well as visual documentation of the landscapes’ unusual qualities. According to the National Park Service, Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s paintings played an integral role in Congress’ decision to establish Yellowstone as a national park. 

Yellowstone officially became the first national park on March 1, 1872, with the signing of the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. The move sparked both a national and international trend towards preserving natural landscapes: today, there are 423 parks across the United States (and approximately 1,200 national parks across 100 nations). 

The National Park System

After Yellowstone became the first national park, Congress went on to create several other national parks thanks to the lobbying efforts of environmentalist John Muir, among others. These parks include Mackinac National Park (now Mackinac Island State Park in Michigan) as well as Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Park, all in California. 

In an effort to unite the management of federal parklands, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service in 1916 as a new division of the Department of the Interior. Prior to the NPS, there was no single agency that oversaw the country’s parks. The first leader of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, made several industrial advancements including the introduction of concessions and promoting a highway system to make parks more accessible to visitors.

Yellowstone’s Geographic and Cultural Significance

The geysers, the extraordinary hot springs, the lakes, the mountains, the canyon, and cataracts unite to make this region something not paralleled elsewhere on the globe.

-President Theodore Roosevelt

As President Teddy Roosevelt described, Yellowstone is packed with a range of natural wonders including geysers, geothermal pools, and dazzling volcanic rock mountains. The most famous geyser is Old Faithful, named for its reliable eruption every 90 minutes, but it’s one of more than 300 geysers in the park. Mammoth Hot Springs is another popular attraction comprised of cascading white rock formations tinted with pink and beige, a product of embedded microorganisms, and graced with the unmistakable smell of sulfur. 

It’s also the only place in the United States where bison have roamed continuously since the prehistoric era. The population nearly became extinct in the late 19th century due to overhunting but has since recovered with approximately 5,500 bison roaming the land today. The park also hosts other large indigenous mammals such as elk, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, foxes, and coyotes. 

In addition to its scientific and biological importance, Yellowstone has also contributed to the country’s aesthetics. Art played a central role in the founding of Yellowstone thanks to Moran’s and Jackson’s visuals from the Hayden expedition, so it’s not surprising that Yellowstone has continued to influence a range of artists with its incomparable natural beauty. Popular 19th-century writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman were inspired by nature, and visual artists like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt made the American landscape their primary subject. These writers and artists greatly influenced the land conservation movement that resulted in many of our country’s national parks. 

More recent artists linked with Yellowstone include Russell Chatham who painted moody scenes along the Yellowstone River and contemporary Dave Hall, who depicts the area’s rivers, lakes, and streams. The longstanding tradition of artists at Yellowstone continues to this day as 2018 marked the first annual En Plein Air event where 14 of the nation’s artists painted outdoors for four days in various locations throughout the park.

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