One of the most enduring myths of Yellowstone National Park involves its beginning. As the myth goes, in 1870, explorers gathered around a campfire at the junction of two pristine rivers, overshadowed by the towering cliffs of the Madison Plateau. They discussed what they had seen during their exploration and realized that this land of fire and ice and wild animals needed to be preserved. Thus, the legend goes, the idea of Yellowstone National Park was born.
Though it is a myth, the explorers were real and their crowning achievement was helping to save Yellowstone from private development. They promoted a park bill in Washington in late 1871 and early 1872 that drew upon the precedent of the Yosemite Act of 1864, which reserved Yosemite Valley from settlement and entrusted it to the care of the state of California. To permanently close to settlement an expanse of the public domain the size of Yellowstone would depart from the established policy of transferring public lands to private ownership. But the wonders of Yellowstone—shown through Jackson’s photographs, Moran’s paintings, and Elliot’s sketches—had caught the imagination of Congress. Thanks to their continued reports and the work of explorers and artists who followed, the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The world’s first national park was born.