On February 25, a letter published in the New York Sun reinforced the sense of crisis. The author warned of “mammoth mistakes” in Yellowstone – which celebrates its 150th anniversary this month – and urged Congress to prevent the slaughter of once-abundant buffalo (especially American bison), whose latter was now hunted to extinction at the park. “Their massacre was criminally significant and unnecessary,” he wrote.
The letter was signed by William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. Ironically, he had earned that nickname 15 years earlier for killing 4,000 buffaloes as a contract meat supplier to the railroads as they laid tracks through the West. Of the approximately 30 million bison that roamed the Great Plains in the 1850s, only a few thousand remained in isolated pockets in 1883.
Cody detailed the destruction that took place in America’s first national park — in fact, the world’s first. He wrote that the plan to supply the park hotels with wild game from hunters was “blindly carried out” and that Native Americans never killed buffalo and elk there because they considered the landscapes majestic and the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone with spiritual “admiration”.
Cody hadn’t been to the park in at least 10 years and really had no idea what was going on there at the time. So why did he write the letter? Probably as a favor to an old army buddy.
Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, commander of the cavalry corps during the Civil War and architect of the brutal Indian Wars on the Great Plains, had long advocated for the protection of Yellowstone. Cody, who served as chief scout for the U.S. cavalry under Sheridan in 1869, would become the army’s leading commanding general by shaping public opinion to save the park.
Established by an act signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park was seen as a way to preserve and showcase one of America’s greatest natural beauties. The breathtaking scenes of geysers and grizzly bears, waterfalls and wildlife, forests and flora have captured the attention and imagination of newspaper and magazine readers by the thousands, tempting a tidal wave of tourists from around the world. ‘East towards this isolated expanse.
The problem was that Congress had done little to fund the new idea of a national park. A succession of superintendents had few staff and virtually no money for the management and supervision of this vast expanse of wilderness.
Instead, commercial enterprises – some illegal – began to build hotels, restaurants and other places while prospectors and loggers plundered the park almost at will. Many visitors have treated the hot springs as their own personal spas, causing irreparable damage.
Sheridan made two early trips to Yellowstone—first on an 1877 inspection tour with General William Tecumseh Sherman and again in 1881. After the second visit, Sheridan wrote a report asking for more funding than the $15,000 that the government spent there every year.
“Greater appropriation should be given by Congress, and an engineer officer should be assigned to improve the trails and roads, with one or two companies of cavalry stationed in the park during the summer to watch and prevent the burning of forests and the mutilation of large craters and other similar phenomena of geysers,” he wrote.
Sheridan’s report was largely ignored.
In 1883, the Department of the Interior was about to grant permission to a private entrepreneur to develop over 4,000 acres of parkland for commercial purposes. The Yellowstone National Park Improvement Co. would have private control of some areas and planned to build a railroad through the park. In fact, the company had already produced some 1.6 million board feet of lumber from pristine park forests to build a 250-room hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.
Many – including Sheridan – feared it would lead to the devastation of a natural wonder, much like what happened at Niagara Falls, which was converted into a commercialized tourist trap. (Critics of commercial development in Yellowstone have used the term “Niagarizing.”)
After years of talking about protecting Yellowstone, “Fightin’ Phil” decided it was time to act. He appealed to many supporters, including Cody, who ran the popular Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a traveling show entertaining audiences around the world with a highly fictionalized take on life on the Great Plains.
For his counter-offensive, Sheridan also decided to bring out the big weapon: President Chester A. Arthur. Sheridan invited Arthur, an avid fisherman, to visit Yellowstone in the summer of 1883 on a survey and fishing trip. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln (son of Abraham Lincoln) and Senator George Graham Vest of Missouri also joined what became known as President Arthur’s Expedition.
Sheridan planned the entire excursion, including the train journey to Wyoming – nearly 2,000 miles from Washington, D.C. – as well as a 75-man U.S. cavalry detachment for protection and 175 pack animals to transport supplies. The entourage arrived in Yellowstone on horseback in August, spending a week touring the park and casting their lines in trout ponds along the way.
No journalists were invited to the expedition. Instead, Sheridan and one of his adjutants wrote despatches for Arthur’s approval, which were then taken on horseback by military couriers to the nearest telegraph station. Newspapers around the country followed the trip closely, especially since the United States did not have a head of state in Washington. (Arthur had no second-in-command, since he became president after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881.)
The trip to Yellowstone was a huge public relations win for Sheridan and other park conservation supporters, including Vest. The Missouri senator would go on to push Congress to pass legislation to protect the park.
Although a major bill he sponsored that year failed, Vest was able to pass a resolution requiring Senate oversight of all private contracts, effectively ending privatization in the park. The Yellowstone National Park Improvement Co. went bankrupt and no railroads were built.
The battle may have been won, but the war was not over. Sheridan and Vest would continue to push Congress to adequately fund the management of Yellowstone. Each year brought a new struggle to appropriate the money. In the meantime, there was almost no enforcement of the laws protecting the 2.2 million acre site.
The situation came to a head in 1886, when Congress appropriated no funding for the national park. But Vest’s resolution of 1883 included a key provision to protect Yellowstone, allowing the Secretary of the Interior to request assistance from the Secretary of War. After this call, Sheridan – the general in command of the army at the time – ordered the cavalry to come to the rescue.
On August 17, 1886, M Troop of the First Cavalry Regiment entered Yellowstone and began enforcing park regulations and arresting offenders. The soldiers built Camp Sheridan, later renamed Fort Yellowstone, and ended illegal hunting, mining, deforestation, and vandalism in the park. The cavalry unit also built some of the earliest infrastructure, including roads and trails.
The buffalo mentioned in Cody’s letter would finally get the protection it desperately needed. Today, nearly 5,500 bison remain in Yellowstone, with a total population of about 31,000 in North America.
M Troop would remain in Yellowstone for another 32 years, before joining the First Cavalry Regiment in 1918. Its official park protection duties had ended two years earlier when the National Park Service was established. Today, park rangers are indebted to the precedent set by the soldiers. In fact, the reason they wear their wide-brimmed hats is due to similar field hats adopted by their predecessors in the US Army in 1911.
Cody would spend many years as a showman, captivating audiences around the world with his Wild West extravaganza, which included live buffaloes and appearances by Sitting Bull, legendary leader of the Lakota Sioux, born along the Yellowstone River. In 1902 he opened the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyo., about 25 miles from the park. Cody died in 1917 knowing the buffalo had a safe home in Yellowstone.
Sheridan was made a general of the army – the equivalent of a five-star general – by President Grover Cleveland shortly before he died of a heart attack at age 57 in 1888. Mount Sheridan in Yellowstone is named in his honor .