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The Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings Stopped Public Auction Of The World’s First National Park

The Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 was a game changer for Yellowstone. Prior to that, some Americans considered it ripe for exploitation. Others feared it as a hellish place with boiling geysers. Most had never seen its beauty. Thankfully, Ferdinand V. Hayden invited photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran on this expedition. The resulting Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings created great P.R. for the region. They helped to halt Yellowstone’s public auction and inspired the formation of one of the world’s first national parks.

Ten Things You Might Not Know About The Beginning Of Yellowstone National Park And The Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings

#1 Expeditions Increased The Public’s Appetite For The Wild West

Early in the 1800s fur traders and early explorers told stories of fire and brimstone in Yellowstone. The region was known as “Colter’s Hell” for the boiling sulfurous geysers described by John Colter who had been on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (See # 6.)

Through the 1850s a series of expeditions set out to study the region until the American Civil War. By the late 1860s organized expeditions resumed and gradually changed the image of the Western United States.

As readers’ interest in the frontier grew, publications including Scribner’s, Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s all competed for stories. Scribner’s Monthly hired Thomas Moran (February 12, 1837 – August 25, 1926) as an illustrator in the late 1860s. A brilliant colorist, he soon developed a reputation for his paintings of the American Landscape.

Scribner’s purchased The Wonders of Yellowstone, an article by Nathaniel P. Langford who had been on an expedition in 1870. Moran was assigned to illustrate it from the written descriptions only since he had never seen images of the region.

Moran was eager to experience Yellowstone in person. When he learned that Ferdinand V. Hayden was organizing a U.S. Geological Survey into the Yellowstone region of northwestern Wyoming, he asked to be included as the resident artist. There was not enough government funding, so he turned to Scribner’s for financing in return for illustrations. The editors rejected his request, but Jay Cooke, president of Northern Pacific Railroad loaned him $500 to secure his place on the expedition.

Moran quickly learned to ride a horse in preparation for the trip. He and photographer William Henry Jackson joined the 16-day expedition in the summer of 1871. While photography was cumbersome and had its limitations, Moran filled books with his sketches. The two men collaborated on the selection of vantage points for their works. Moran documented more than 30 sites in his drawings and diaries.

 #2 The Hayden Expedition of 1871 Resulted In The Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings

Moran was determined to capture the beauty of the land, not to create a scientifically accurate portrayal of geological features or topography. Jackson’s photos could provide visual accuracy of given viewpoints. In Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, Thurman Wilkins quotes Moran:

“Every form introduced into the picture is within view from a given point, but the relations of the separate parts to one another are not always preserved…My aim was to bring before the public the character of that region. The rocks in the foreground are so carefully drawn that a geologist could determine their precise nature.”

Moran’s primary masterpiece from this expedition was titled The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canvas was 7 by 12 feet long. The brilliant colors, lighting, textures and unique geological features allowed viewers their first glimpse of Yellowstone’s beauty. The body of work that resulted from this expedition secured Moran’s place in history.

#3 Hayden Used The Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings To Lobby For The Protection Of The Region

Hayden exhibited Moran’s works and Jackson’s photos at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. as well as several congressional committee hearings. His mission was to gain support for the protection of Yellowstone. Hayden believed in “setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” He warned that vandals, if allowed, would soon destroy the region through development and exploitation.

Preserving such a huge tract of land was a departure from the established policy of transferring public lands to private ownership. In 1864 Yosemite had been set aside as a state park, entrusted to California. That precedent, along with the magnificent paintings and photos Hayden presented, inspired Congress to withdraw the region from public auction.

President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act of Dedication law that created Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872.

“AN ACT to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people…”

#4 Tourism Helped Make Conservation Possible

Wealthy tourists were eager to see the places depicted in the Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings. This was exactly the result that Jay Cooke, president of Northern Pacific Railroad hoped for when he funded Thomas Moran’s passage on the Hayden expedition. Cooke had also funded the earlier expedition by Nathaniel P. Langford who wrote the article for Scribner’s that Moran was assigned to illustrate. Langford was also brother-in-law to the Northern Pacific Railroad’s largest investors, James Wickes Taylor and William Marshall.

James Cooke was excited about the great potential for tourism to Yellowstone. The Thomas Moran Yellowstone Paintings could not have been better for marketing the region. With the expansion of the railroads, luxury hotels and resorts were planned at each destination along the route. Tourists could be delivered right to the doors of these civilized establishments that were perched on the edge of the great wilderness. Grand hotels were built near Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Old Faithful.

#5 Art Mattered But Commerce Mattered Too

Thomas Moran’s career was made by his work that came from the original Yellowstone expedition. On June 10, 1872, Congress purchased his painting, The Great Canyon of the Yellowstone, for $10,000, which was an extraordinary sum for the time. The painting made a multi-city tour and finally ended in its home in the Senate lobby.

Thomas Moran continued to paint landscapes from the Western United States and attended several more expeditions. He adopted the name Thomas Yellowstone Moran (TYM).

#6 Early On, Yellowstone Needed Some Good P.R.

Native Americans lived in harmony with Yellowstone for at least 11,000 years. In 1807-08 John Colter who had been on the Lewis and Clark Expedition a year earlier, became one of the first Europeans to explore Yellowstone. He gave accounts of what we now know to be geothermal features. His descriptions of “fire and brimstone” included boiling mud, petrified trees and steaming rivers. The area was nicknamed “Colter’s Hell.”

The Fur Trade Era offers first-person accounts of other early visitors to Yellowstone. Many of these confirmed the image of “Colter’s Hell.” As one example Warren Angus Ferris wrote in 1833:

“From the surface of a rocky plain or table, burst forth columns of water of various dimensions, projected high in the air, accompanied by loud explosions, and sulphurous vapors, which were highly disagreeable to the smell…The largest of these wonderful fountains, projects a column of boiling water several feet in diameter, to the height of more than one hundred and fifty feet, in my opinion… the heat of the water in this immense chauldron [sic], was altogether too great for my comfort; and the agitation of the water, the disagreeable effluvium continually exuding, and the hollow unearthly rumbling under the rock on which I stood, so ill accorded with my notions of personal safety…”

To This Day, National Parks Capture Our History And Sense of Wonder

Thousands of people gathered below Teddy Roosevelt’s great stone Arch at the edge of Yellowstone to celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday on August 25, 2016.

In a videotaped message, President Obama said the national parks “capture our history and sense of wonder” and the fundamental idea that “this country belongs to the people.”

Obama added 265 million acres to the national parks and monuments, preserving more land than any other president. Included in the land preserved were Katahdin National Woods and Waters Monument in Maine, which was the 413th National Park Service site.

President Trump issued an executive order requiring the Department of Interior to review 27 monuments designated since 1996. The order suggested that these monuments might be sitting on potential fossil fuel reserves that could be key to the nation’s energy independence.

The area of all the protected monuments combined is larger than Yellowstone National Park.

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