Two centuries ago, the idea of preserving nature, rather than exploiting it, was a novel one to many U.S. settlers. One of the turning points in public support for land conservation efforts — and recognizing the magnificence of the Yellowstone region in particular — came in the form of vivid photographs.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of a series of Yellowstone photographs by the renowned landscape photographer William Henry Jackson. He captured the first-ever shots of iconic landmarks such as the Tetons, Old Faithful and the Colorado Rockies.
Jackson snapped them on a late 19th-century expedition through the Yellowstone Basin that was conducted by the head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Ferdinand V. Hayden. The team included a meteorologist, a zoologist, a mineralogist, and an agricultural statistician.
Though Native Americans (and later miners and fur trappers) had long recognized the area’s riches, most Americans did not. That’s why Hayden’s expedition aimed to produce a fuller understanding of the Yellowstone River region, from its hot springs and waterfalls to its variety of flora and fauna. In addition to the entourage of scientists, the team also included artists: Painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson were charged with capturing this astounding natural beauty and sharing it with the world.
The pair arrived with relevant experience. Moran had recently created illustrations based on another Yellowstone expedition in 1870. Meanwhile, Jackson had started a photography business with his brother after the Civil War and documented route-adjacent scenery for the Union Pacific Railroad Company.
“[Jackson] had experience in the wilderness, out west, and he could handle himself,” says Heather Hansen, journalist and author of Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service. “He longed to do something, and see something, different.”
Today, those snapshots of a distant time live on through photographer Bradley Boner. About a decade ago, he set out to catalog and “rephotograph” all of Jackson’s Yellowstone images. Over about three years, he managed to do just that: In the 2017 book, Yellowstone National Park: Through the Lens of Time, Boner showcased his images side-by-side with Jackson’s originals. The project took him on several off-trail adventures, like much of the nearly 15-mile hike to reach the Mirror Plateau and find the precise locations documented by Jackson.
While a number of recreations revealed that the landscape had changed — due to natural factors like erosion and forest fires — for the most part, his 21st-century images appear strikingly similar to Jackson’s from 150 years ago. This wouldn't be possible without the preservation of Yellowstone’s wonders, which the original photos helped achieve.
The series also encouraged people to see the area in new ways. Paul Schullery, author of Past and Future Yellowstones: Finding Our Way In Wonderland, says that the artists’ framing of the region continues to influence visitors’ experiences.
“Jackson and Moran had an eye for where to stand to get the best photo, the best view, the highest inspiration, the most fun,” says Schullery. “In that sense, they pioneered subsequent appreciation of the Yellowstone landscape by later visitors more than most other people.”
A Challenging Expedition
The well-documented Yellowstone journey officially began in Ogden, Utah on June 8, 1871. Over nearly four months, dozens of men made their way on horseback into Montana and traversed along the Yellowstone River and around Yellowstone Lake. That fall, they concluded the survey in Fort Bridger, Wyoming.
At the time, Jackson juggled multiple cameras and plate sizes using the “collodion process” that required him to coat the plates with a chemical mixture, then expose them and develop the resulting images with a portable darkroom. The crude technique required educated guesses on exposure times, and involved heavy, awkward equipment — several men had to assist in its transportation. Despite these challenges, Jackson captured dozens of striking photos, ranging from majestic images like his now-famous snapshot of Old Faithful, to casual portraits of expedition members at the camp.
While veterans of previous expeditions wrote at length about stunning trail sights, these vivid photographs were another thing entirely.
“People had been muttering tales of spouting water and sulfur springs going back to when John Colter split off from the Lewis and Clark expedition — but mountain men and explorers were known to tell some tall tales,” says Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone’s park historian. “With Jackson’s photos, suddenly it showed people this was real and ... really wondrous and unique.”
Perhaps most importantly, these images provided documentary evidence of the park’s sights that later made its way to government officials. Weeks after completing the expedition, Hayden collected his team’s observations into an extensive report aimed at convincing senators and representatives, along with colleagues at government agencies like the Department of the Interior, that Yellowstone ought to be preserved (and that his department deserved additional funds).
At the time, a number of business groups, including mining, railroad and tourism organizations, were lobbying Congress to sell them chunks of the territory. Hayden emphasized that the land, with its narrow valleys and high volcanic mountains, was not hospitable for settlement, agriculture or mining: It would be best to leave the region alone.
Making the Case to Congress
In Hayden’s report to the Committee on Public Lands, he stated that if Yellowstone was not protected by law, “the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.” He also feared that it would become a tourist attraction, and warned that some aimed “to make merchandise of these beautiful specimens, to fence in these rare wonders, so as to charge visitors a fee, as is now done at Niagara Falls.”
As an effective Washington operator, Hayden sensed that he could capitalize on the expedition’s stunning visuals. He asked Jackson to print out large copies and distributed them, along with reproductions of Moran’s paintings, to each member of Congress. “The visualization, particularly those photographs, really hit home that this is something that has to be protected,” says Murphy.
The bill proved largely popular and sailed through Congress with large majorities in favor. In quick succession, the Senate and House passed legislation protecting Yellowstone in early 1872.
That March, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act into law that established Yellowstone as the world's first national park. This decision was based on an 1864 precedent that allowed California to incorporate Yosemite Valley public domain land into parks.
Soon, some locals opposed the designation over concerns that a ban on logging, mining and other natural resource extraction would hurt the region’s economy. For the next two decades, Montana’s representatives would continue to push unsuccessful Congress bills to remove the park’s designation.
The Legacy of Jackson’s Images
Still, the decision was largely accepted — and Jackson’s photos played a key role in the fight to protect the area. “I don’t believe that the legal protection would have happened in the timeframe that it did without those images,” says Hansen. “Without the kind of penetration by the expeditions and the ability to capture the essence of the landscape, I don’t believe that would have happened so quickly.”
Not long after glimpsing the remarkable photos and paintings of the region, Americans wanted to see it for themselves. It helped that railroads made the region increasingly accessible.
“Our readers have been made well acquainted with the beautiful and astonishing features of a region unlike any other in the world,” a writer for the New York Times explained soon after the bill’s passage, indicating that the public had quickly come to know and appreciate the area. The public would no doubt “approve the policy by which, while the title is still vested in the United States, provision has been made to retain it perpetually for the nation,” they added.
As the attraction gained popularity, the National Park Service launched in 1916 to ensure the area’s protection and responsibly welcome visitors.
“You look at these scenes Jackson photographed, and what Yellowstone looks like now, and the takeaway has to be that the experiment worked — the preservation of these places was a worthwhile endeavor,” Boner says.