The complicated history of Ferdinand Hayden and the founding of Yellowstone National Park

His meticulous journal entries would prove instrumental in convincing the federal government that the region should be protected, write guest columnists Cole Messa and Ken Sims.

November 1, 2023 4:10 am
The "Earthquake camp" of the Hayden expedition in 1871

The “Earthquake camp” of the Hayden expedition in 1871, located on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake near Steamboat Point. (William H. Jackson/Yellowstone National Park)

The area now known as Yellowstone National Park — or the “land of the burning ground” — has been known to Indigenous people for at least 11,000 years.

In fact, in 1805 the governor of the Louisiana Territory described a map drawn on a bison hide by an Indigenous American showing a “volcano” on the Yellowstone River. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Euro-Americans visited the area, and the first organized expeditions to what is now Yellowstone National Park did not occur until the 1860s–1870s.

The three most well-known Euro-American early explorations of Yellowstone country included the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition (1869), the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition (1870), and finally the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, led by geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Hayden’s explorations were especially thorough, and the descriptions, paintings and photographs that resulted led directly to the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

Ferdinand V. Hayden portrait
This is a portrait of Ferdinand V. Hayden, about the time of his directorship of the Geological Survey of the Territories. The Hayden Survey was a predecessor to the U.S. Geological Survey. (Courtesy of the Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles)

Born in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1829, Ferdinand Hayden quickly took to the sciences, beginning in the field of medicine but eventually gravitating to the natural sciences. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1850 and received a medical degree from Albany Medical College in 1854, but by that time he was already conducting geological studies, including a fossil-collecting trip along the Upper Missouri River the year before.

By the mid-1850s, Hayden was conducting expeditions of the area surrounding the northern Missouri River, culminating in his Geological Report of the Exploration of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in 1859–1860. Soon after, Hayden served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a surgeon, eventually achieving the rank of chief medical office for the Army of the Shenandoah.

Following the Civil War, Hayden was selected in 1867 as the geologist-in-charge of what would eventually become known as the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. While Hayden would lead many successful surveys in the years that followed, it was in 1871 that his most famous and memorable expedition would begin — exploring the area that is now Yellowstone National Park.

Hayden and his assistant, James Stevenson, enlisted 32 men for the endeavor, including photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran, both of whom would produce artistic works that would encourage Congress to protect the Yellowstone region as a national park in 1872.

The expedition disembarked from Ogden, Utah, on June 8, 1871, reaching Fort Ellis near Bozeman, Montana, on July 10 before turning south along the banks of the Yellowstone River on July 15. The expedition members abandoned their wagons near Emigrant Gulch in Paradise Valley before heading through Yankee Jim Canyon, just north of Gardiner, Montana, on July 20.

The survey finally entered the Yellowstone region on July 21, first encountering Mammoth Hot Springs before heading to Tower Fall, following a route that closely mirrors today’s Mammoth-Tower road. The team continued south and arrived at Yellowstone Lake on July 28. Here, some members of the survey built a boat, Annie, to explore islands and take bathymetric measurements.

The survey members retraced their steps north, then went west to the Madison River drainage, eventually encountering the Lower, Midway, and Upper Geyser basins, where they camped and explored until Aug. 6, before returning to the shores of Yellowstone Lake. On the morning of Aug. 20, while camped at Steamboat Point along the northeast shore of Yellowstone Lake, the survey experienced a series of earthquakes, as described by expedition mineralogist Albert Peale in the following journal entry:

After traveling through the Lamar Valley in late August, the survey began the trek out of the Yellowstone region, reaching Fort Bridger in what is now southwest Wyoming on Sept. 29, where Hayden officially concluded the expedition on Oct. 2.

The Hayden Survey, which ultimately led to geological maps of the region and stimulated much geological, biological and ecological follow-on work, would go on to encourage the protection of the Yellowstone area through the founding of the world’s first national park by an act of Congress in 1872.

The photos of William Henry Jackson, the paintings of Thomas Moran, and the meticulous journal entries of Hayden himself would prove instrumental in convincing the federal government that the Yellowstone region should be protected.

Hayden continued his explorations of the region, and the West in general, through his “annual surveys” until 1878. When the U.S. Geological Survey was founded in 1879, Hayden served for seven years as one of the geologists. He died in 1887 in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, Hayden’s legacy is not solely one of scientific discovery and conservation.

Among several shameful statements he made, Hayden advocated that Indigenous people be made into farmers, and if they did not comply with federal dictates, they should be exterminated. And the creation of Yellowstone National Park itself was an act of exclusion, as Indigenous people of the region were relocated from their home areas.

While the efforts of Ferdinand Hayden in surveying the West are recognized as being highly influential in the history of the United States and the science of geology, especially in the Yellowstone region, his views of Indigenous people must also be acknowledged to respect those who walked this land long before our modern age.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.


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Cole Messa
Cole Messa

Cole Messa is getting his Ph.D. through the Geology and Geophysics Department at the University of Wyoming. His research interests include isotope geochemistry and volcanology.

Ken Sims
Ken Sims

Ken Sims is an isotope geology professor at the University of Wyoming. His educational goal is to prepare students to understand and safely manage the Earth and its resources for the future. He strives to provide an educational environment where students can learn to think, conduct research, apply their knowledge, and achieve success in a rapidly changing world.