Tales of the Yellowstone region were known long before it was officially discovered. Stories of its standing petrified trees, hot and cold water in the same stream, rock formations akin to castles in the sky, hot springs with rainbow colors, water shooting high into the air, and boiling mud reached early explorers who repeated the tales. Although the Lewis and Clark expedition passed nearby, they never actually entered what today is Yellowstone National Park. However, one of their members, John Coulter, left the Corps Of Discovery on its way back to St. Louis and set out to find these mysterious wonders.
John Coulter is credited with being the first Euro-American to enter what we know as Yellowstone National Park. Fur trappers entered the area in search of furs but also out of curiosity. The earliest Euro-American explorers to follow marveled at the abundant fish in many of the rivers, streams, and lakes, but also the lack of fish in what they perceived to be "perfect fish water." They were amazed and surprised by both the abundance and density of the various geothermal features. These explorers had no intellectual basis for comprehending the size of Yellowstone Lake, height of the waterfalls, swiftness of the rivers, density of the forests, aromas of the geyser basins, nor combination of these factors in a setting that was unique in their experience.
Soon the stories, tall tales, and myths were spreading throughout all of North America. Entrepreneurs, confidence artists, scalawags, prospectors, surveyors, scientists, and outlaws were all attracted to the thought that the unique nature of this land so full of wonder could offer them something. Finally, the "buzz" was so great that the United States Congress - with considerable prodding from railroad and business interests - sent an official expedition to search for the truth in the stories. Complete with photographs by William Henry Jackson and sketches by Thomas Moran, the expedition’s report to Congress - along with more prodding by the railroad and business interests - resulted in an act of Congress establishing a “public park and pleasuring ground” in 1872 for the “benefit and enjoyment of people.” Although the concept was raw in its formation, our first National Park was born.
Soon after, railroads began building track and planning for expansion. Bandits, outlaws, scalawags, and shady business characters arrived along with the railroad interests. The meadow at what today is Mammoth Hot Springs and its surrounding area, along with the broad valley benches near the present day town of Gardner, Montana, became the focus of much activity. People from near and far began streaming into the park to experience the "pleasuring" that could be had. They came on foot, on horseback, by wagon, and by stagecoach - it was a glorious migration. Animals could be shot and eaten, fish could be easily caught and cooked, baths in "healing waters" were taken, and the word spread. Newspapers in the little towns of Bozeman and Livingston heralded the glories of the pleasuring ground. Technology and greed spurred visitation - hotels and camps were built, trails became rough roads, and free enterprise began to rule the pleasuring ground.
Numerous unauthorized tent camps, poacher’s cabins, and transient settlements were all facilitated by the continuing development of roads. Since no money was set aside to administer the park, and since its superintendent was not on scene, law enforcement and order was nearly impossible. Rules were promulgated and immediately ignored and a magnetic attraction that paradise could be despoiled with no consequences (an attitude that persists to this day) soon developed. It was a park and pleasuring ground for any interest or pursuit that could be imagined by any person or group. It must have been a glorious chaos.
It soon became apparent that some way to administer the park needed to be formalized. After some years and some deliberation about just what they had created, the powers that be - Congress, the railroad, and the locals - decided that the U.S. Army should be utilized to “tame” the park. After all, the Army had tamed the West; surely they could tame the pleasuring ground as well.