It is a testimonial to the spectacular nature of the wonders of Yellowstone that three “discovery” expeditions were required before the American public would believe that such a place existed. Exploring parties of 1869, 1870, and 1871 each played a role in revealing Yellowstone to the world.In September of 1869, three prospectors from Diamond City (near present-day Helena), Montana Territory, headed south to investigate the persistent rumors of unbelievable curiosities near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. These men, known as the Folsom-Cook-Peterson Expedition, spent 36 days exploring and mapping the Yellowstone region. They were astounded by what they saw. Upon reaching the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Charles Cook said, “it seemed to me that it was five minutes before anyone spoke.” Returning to Diamond City, they wrote a magazine article about their experiences and made the suggestion that the area be reserved in the public interest.

Excitement about the stories of the Yellowstone area was at a fever pitch when in August 1870 a party of 19 men, 40 horses, and a dog left Helena to further explore the region. This group, the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition, was composed of prominent Montana territorial citizens, and they spent a month exploring the present park, giving names to many of its features, including Old Faithful Geyser.

Following the return of the expedition to Helena, Nathaniel P. Langford (an employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which would play a prominent role in advertising the future park) traveled to the East Coast to give speeches promoting their “discovery.” Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, then head of what would become the U.S. Geological Survey, was in one of the Washington, D.C., audiences. Hayden was intrigued by Langford’s story, and he petitioned Congress for $40,000 to outfit a government scientific party to explore the Yellowstone country.

The expedition traveled west during the summer of 1871 and spent many months in Yellowstone, confirming the Washburn party’s discoveries, taking scientific readings, and accurately mapping the area. Hayden’s party of about 30 men included an artist, Thomas Moran, and a photographer, William H. Jackson. Their artwork and photographs played an important role in convincing a skeptical nation of the wonders of Yellowstone.

In the winter of 1871, a bill was introduced into Congress to set the Yellowstone area aside. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that reserved Yellowstone as a public park, “forever free from settlement, occupancy or sale . . . for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”