THE U.S. CAVALRY ARRIVES IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

When Yellowstone National Park was established by Congress on March 1, 1872, as the world’s first national park, there was not yet a National Park Service. In fact, one of the commitments made by supporters of the park bill during the debate in Congress was that they would make no funding requests for administering the new park. However, Congress did allow for the appointment of a civilian superintendent to oversee the park. Unfortunately, during the next 14 years, the various superintendents were unable to control the rampant poaching of wildlife, the destruction of thermal features and other resources, and the general unscrupulous nature of the business operators within the park.In the early 1880s, Senator George Graham Vest of Missouri, a strong defender of Yellowstone for much of his Senate career, uncovered a scandal in which the wonders of Yellowstone were nearly leased to private parties who would have charged the public money to see Old Faithful or the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Exposing and disposing of this scandal had required action by Congress, and one result of this was that many in Congress who considered the national park idea a failure began to suggest that Yellowstone National Park be abolished. Senator Vest had to use all of his powers of persuasion and compromise to save the park’s appropriation and to garner some better protection for it (in the form of ten assistants for the superintendent). He did this by agreeing to an amendment demanded by those who saw no future in civilian administration of the park. The amendment read: “The Secretary of War, upon the request
of the Secretary of the Interior, is hereby authorized and directed to make the necessary details of troops to prevent trespassers or intruders from entering the park for the purpose of destroying the game or objects of curiosity therein, or for any other purpose prohibited by law, and to remove such person from the park if found therein.”

Both Senator Vest and Henry M. Teller, Secretary of the Interior, were hopeful that such drastic actions would be unnecessary. However, Patrick H. Conger, Yellowstone’s superintendent from 1882 until 1884, and Robert E. Carpenter, who followed him in 1884, were unsuccessful in the execution of their duties. Both men had received their appointments to the superintendency because of their political connections to eastern
Congressmen, and both were completely unsuited for the rough duty demanded of them in the protection of Yellowstone National Park. Reports, complaints, and rumors about the situation in Yellowstone continued to reach Washington.

The situation was nearly changed after the Cleveland Administration came into power in Washington in 1884. Secretary of the Interior Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar appointed Colonel David W. Wear, a retired military officer, to the office of superintendent of Yellowstone. Wear fired nearly all of the assistant superintendents and replaced them with “stalwart mountaineers” who began arresting poachers and other wrongdoers. Given time, Wear’s superintendency might have proven the turning point. But time had already
run out.

News traveled slowly in the 19th century, and word of Wear’s efforts and successes never reached the ears of an exasperated Congress. The many reports that they had received about the various inept civilian administrators of Yellowstone led Congress to cancel all funds for the salaries of the superintendent and his assistants on August 4, 1886. At this point Secretary Lamar took the only course left open to him. On August 6, he called the attention of the Secretary of War to the amendment that had been passed three years
before, and he asked for his assistance. The Secretary of War directed Lieutenant-General Philip H. Sheridan to comply with the request. Sheridan, in turn, directed: “Troop M, 1st United States Cavalry, Captain Moses Harris commanding–station Fort Custer, Montana Territory–be ordered . . . to perform the duties in the Yellowstone National Park that recently devolved upon the Superintendent of the Park and his assistants.”

The first cavalry riders entered the park on August 17, and by August 20 Captain Harris and rest of Troop M had arrived in Mammoth Hot Springs. Captain Harris relieved Superintendent Wear of his duties that day, thus beginning 30 years of administration of Yellowstone by the United States Cavalry–saving both Yellowstone and the national park idea for the American people.

The Cavalry established a temporary tent camp, Camp Sheridan, under the base of Capitol Hill (near the present day concessioner horse corrals) by the hot spring terraces. When it became apparent that the military would be in Yellowstone for a long time, construction of Fort Yellowstone began in May of 1891. The wooden structures at the southern end of the post were constructed between 1891 and 1897; the stone structures were constructed after 1908. Between 1891 and 1908 the post grew from one troop of cavalry to four (approximately 240 troopers). The fort offered the full compliment of structures necessary to accommodate four troops of cavalry, including: a commanding officer’s residence (the present park Superintendent’s home), five sets of officer’s duplexes (the one stone and four wooden duplexes along Officer’s Row), bachelor officers quarters with six apartments (the Albright Visitor Center); two single troop barracks buildings, one two-troop barracks building, a small headquarters, a guard house, quartermaster supplies buildings, stables, four sets of NCO quarters (the houses on Soap Suds Row), a chapel, and a hospital (no longer here).

By World War I, the military was needed for other, more pressing national needs, and the growth of the national parks (there were now more than 30 national parks and monuments throughout the nation) necessitated the creation of an agency to manage these special places. On August 25, 1916, Congress created the National Park Service, and soon thereafter the Cavalry left Yellowstone.