By: Peggy L Henderson
This year, on August 25th, marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks system. And it all started in Yellowstone… with the US Army.
In 1872, President U.S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Law, making Yellowstone the nation’s first national park. Protecting a large area of land was a big deal, because during that era, it was all about expansion. The new law states “…the headwaters of the Yellowstone River…is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
However, there were problems. Lawmakers didn’t think that maintaining the park would cost the government anything. The first superintendent, Nathaniel Langford, was unpaid in his position. He did what he could to protect wildlife and the natural features. Without money, he couldn’t hire anyone to enforce the laws within the park.
|Harry Yount, Gamekeeper and first "park ranger"
When the second superintendent, Philetus Norris, took over in 1877, Congress appropriated money to “protect, preserve, and improve the Park.”
Roads were constructed and a “gamekeeper” was hired to get rid of vandals and poachers. Norris was succeeded by three superintendents who were ineffective at protecting the park. Even with ten assistants, they could not properly police the park and couldn’t stop the destruction of wildlife.
|The army posing in front of the Liberty Cap at Mammoth Hot Springs where Ft Yellowstone was built
In 1886, Congress refused to appropriate money for Yellowstone. The Secretary of the Interior therefore called on the help from the Department of War. So on August 20, 1886, the US Army took control of Yellowstone. They didn’t expect to stay long, but they were so effective in keeping law and order in the park, that they remained for 30 years.
On May 11, 1891, the army received approval for a permanent base, and began constructing Fort Yellowstone inside the park. Prior to this date, the Army had operated out of Camp Sheridan, located at the base of the Mammoth Terraces.
|Mounted cavalry at Ft Yellowstone
The army, comprised of Company M of the US cavalry, enforced regulations inside the Yellowstone Park boundaries, guarded the major attractions, patrolled the interior, and got rid of troublemakers. Their main role turned out to be apprehending poachers. Poachers slaughtered deer, elk, and bison, threatening their extermination. The maximum punishment at the time for poachers was eviction and banishment from the park.
In 1894, the cavalry arrested one persistent poacher, Ed Howell for killing bison when there were only several dozen left in the park. A journalist was present at the arrest, and sent a report and photographs to his newspaper in the east. His story created a national outcry, and within two months, Congress passed the Lacey Act, giving the army greater authority for protecting animals and features in the park.
|The image that spurred the Lacey Act (soldiers with confiscated bison heads from poacher Ed Howell)
While the army was great at protecting the park, they couldn’t do much when it came to answering visitor questions about the area. Furthermore, 12 other national parks had since been established in the US, all under different administration.
Finally, on August 25, 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act, creating an agency that would manage all national parks. The first national park rangers, many of whom were veterans of the army, took over in Yellowstone in 1918.
|early NPS image, ca 1929
Peggy L Henderson
Western Historical and Time Travel Romance
“Where Adventure Awaits and Love is Timeless”
Award-Winning Author of:
Yellowstone Romance Series
Teton Romance Trilogy
Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series
Blemished Brides Western Historical Romance Series
Wilderness Brides Historical Romance Series