For decades, many Americans shared a common misperception that Indigenous people feared the geysers at Yellowstone. / THF120298
Until recently, much of the American public has shared a common misperception that few Indigenous people had ever ventured within the boundaries of what became Yellowstone National Park. Story had it that these people were afraid of the geysers, or that they felt that the hissing steam vents were signs of angry gods or evil spirits. In fact, the presence of Indigenous Americans was purposefully erased from the story of Yellowstone National Park, beginning with the first white “scientific” expedition there in 1871. This erasure, which lasted through most of the park’s history, is only recently beginning to change.
Some Indigenous people, in their pursuit of the large herds of bison to the east, created a trail that passed near what is now known as Mammoth Hot Springs. /THF120351
Archaeological evidence now indicates that as far back as 10,000 years ago, several bands of Indigenous people regularly passed through this area, primarily hunting bison, bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. In historic times, the area continued to serve as a crossroads for many Indigenous groups—including Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, and Flathead—who followed the Yellowstone River and other waterways through what eventually became the boundaries of the park. They tracked small buffalo herds, elk, and deer in the mountains and forests during the summer months and followed these animals to the warmer geothermal area of the Yellowstone Basin during the bitter winter months. Some of these groups crossed through the area to pursue the great herds of bison in the plains farther east, creating a trail that passed through the area now known as Mammoth Hot Springs and stretching eastward across what is known today as Lamar Valley. Early white hunters, trappers, and explorers not only followed the trails that Indigenous people created, but it is from these people that they first heard the fantastic stories of geothermal wonders in the Yellowstone Basin.
Many early photographs of the wonders of Yellowstone, like this “Grand Group” of geysers, were probably taken by William Henry Jackson, one of the people who accompanied Ferdinand Hayden on his 1871 expedition through what would become the park. / THF120369
The process of Indigenous erasure in Yellowstone began in earnest with the Hayden expedition of 1871—a large, government-funded expedition led by geologist Ferdinand Hayden to study, collect specimens in, and map out the confines of the Yellowstone “wonderland” that had been receiving so much recent attention. Hayden and members of his expedition were able to observe firsthand the places that had been described primarily in stories told by Shoshone and Bannock people—astonishing places like “The White Mountain” (which became known as Mammoth Hot Springs) and the spectacular geysers, bubbling mud pots, and hissing steam vents situated within the geothermal area of the Yellowstone Basin. As a result of this expedition, Hayden laid claim to this unique landscape on behalf of the United States government and the American people, choosing to ignore the longstanding use of the region by Indigenous people. Instead, the expedition report pointed to Yellowstone’s wonders as proof of the country’s “exceptionalism”—that is, Americans’ long-sought evidence that the United States was unique and exceptional when compared with other nations of the world.
Photo of "Sheepeater" Shoshone, William Henry Jackson, 1871. / Public domain photo from National Park Service
By the time of the Hayden Expedition, the only Indigenous people still known to inhabit the area were a by-then considered poor and lowly band of Eastern Shoshone called Sheepeaters (Tukudeka or Tukadika). A wealth of recent archaeological information has pointed to the conclusion that this band had inhabited and roamed this area for thousands of years—not the mere 200 years that early white explorers surmised (a story that then became widely accepted). These people had developed a remarkably sustainable way of life, taking advantage of the once-large population of bighorn sheep for food, clothing, blankets, tools, and bows. Early white trappers observed this band’s self-confidence, intelligence, friendliness, and willingness to trade their fine-quality hide clothing, horn bows, and obsidian arrowheads. Unfortunately, the bighorn sheep population plummeted as the result of diseases brought by white settlers’ domestic sheep. White hunters and settlers also decimated other game and polluted the streams in which these people had fished. No wonder, then, that by the 1870s white explorers of the area described these people as starving and miserable.
In 1903, this monumental stone gateway was completed to mark the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The words “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” inscribed above the arch, are taken directly from the legislation that created Yellowstone back in 1872. / THF120280
The widely publicized and highly celebrated Hayden report rapidly led to the creation of a bill to set the area aside as a national park, a “resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world,” a democratic landscape of tourism. When the question of Indigenous claims to the area under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie was raised, the argument was made that the land was simply too hostile for Indigenous people to live there. Though this was not true, Hayden’s expedition report had already justified the removal of Indigenous people from the area. The bill passed easily, with the help of aggressive lobbying by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the strong desire by members of Congress to use the bill as a way to help unify a Civil War-torn nation. The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act (or, simply, the Yellowstone Act) was placed on President Ulysses S. Grant’s desk on March 1, 1872. President Grant signed it without fanfare. During the 1870s, the Sheepeaters were easily rounded up and exiled to the Wind River (Wyoming) and Fort Hall (Idaho) reservations to live with other bands of Shoshone, along with Bannock and Arapaho people.
Early tourists typically boarded horse-drawn carriages to view the sites at Yellowstone National Park. /THF200464
When Yellowstone became a national park, no funds were allotted to administer or manage it. But an 1877 incident involving an encounter between another Indigenous group and two groups of tourists in the park changed that. The incident involved a group of Nez Perce (Nii mi’ipuu) crossing through the park in an epic flight to avoid the U.S. Army, who was pursuing them to force their removal from their ancestral homeland in eastern Oregon to a tiny reservation in Washington. This incident, which unfortunately involved violence and hostage-taking, created a national media sensation. Many personal accounts of the episode emerged afterward, with some indication that those who were involved sympathized with the plight of the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce group managed to successfully evade the army until the soldiers finally caught up with them 40 miles south of the Canadian border—in an attempt to join Sitting Bull’s Lakota band.
As a result of the widespread publicity and furor raised by this incident, Congress finally committed some money to managing the park. As tourism increased, Congress pressured Yellowstone park administrators to control the “savages” because it was assumed that they would endanger the park’s visitors. After that time, park administrators aggressively downplayed any presence of Indigenous people, not wanting the park’s well-heeled guests to risk crossing paths with them, or to even be worried that they might. By 1882, all Indigenous groups had been banned from the park.
Sheepeater Cliff was named after the only Indigenous people that lived on in public memory as having inhabited the Yellowstone area. / Photo by NPS/Jim Peaco
Once the real presence of Indigenous people had been erased from the landscape, park superintendents, railroad publicists, and tourists alike could look back—safely, nostalgically, and romantically—on the one-time presence of Indigenous people there. For example, when park administrators came across the remnants of wickiups (temporary shelters made from poles leaned and tied together, covered with brush or grass) eight miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs, they assumed these were made and used by the Sheepeaters. Since this was the only group still in the public memory as having inhabited Yellowstone, they felt that they were honoring their one-time presence by naming the natural feature near there “Sheepeater Cliff”—though this band did not live in that area and likely did not build these shelters. Once established, the perception that no Indigenous people had ever set foot inside the current boundaries of Yellowstone National Park (except for the Sheepeaters) persisted for decades.
In recent years, however, archaeologists, historians, and Indigenous activists have begun to correct the narrative of Indigenous presence and habitation on this land. In addition, administrators at Yellowstone National Park have also been making a concerted effort to elevate Indigenous voices and incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems into their research and programs (see, for example: https://roadtrippers.com/magazine/yellowstone-150-native-american-voices/ and https://www.nps.gov/yell/getinvolved/150-years-of-yellowstone.htm). Today, they recognize at least 27 distinct American tribes that have historic and present-day connections to the land and resources of the park. As champions of ecological connectivity, Indigenous people have been galvanizing action to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife, helping to relocate bison culled from the park, raising awareness on living with bears and wolves in the wider landscape, and enlightening administrators and the public on other aspects of environmental conservation related to the Yellowstone ecosystem. For the 150th anniversary of the park in 2022, administrators have been “shining a light” on Indigenous people whose past, present, and future are an essential part of Yellowstone’s story. As Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, proclaims, “This isn’t just about the last century and a half. We also want to use this anniversary to do a better job of fully recognizing many American Indian nations that lived in this area for thousands of years prior to Yellowstone becoming a park…. The engagement we’re doing now will help set a stronger foundation for collaboration well into the future.”
As erasure shifts toward inclusion—through published materials, behind-the-scenes collaboration, and public programming—the historic and present-day connections of Indigenous people to Yellowstone National Park will continue to play an important role in the park’s future.
The photograph I came across in The Henry Ford’s archives in 1985. /THF120353
Back in 1985, I was looking through The Henry Ford’s archives for images that depicted vacation destinations to complete a museum book I was writing called Leisure and Entertainment in America. There, in our collection, I came across the most amazing photograph of a hotel that I had ever seen. It looked like the outdoors had been brought inside. A great lobby dominated the scene, featuring a mammoth fireplace made of massive boulders. Real, full-size logs supported the balconies that rose several stories. In the midst of all this grandeur, comfortable Mission-style rockers, settees, and handwoven rugs were scattered about.
What was this place? I wondered. Did it still exist? Could I go there?
This was my first encounter with the Old Faithful Inn, which is situated alongside Yellowstone National Park’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful. As it turns out, Old Faithful Inn is quite significant in its own right, as it was not only the first rustic hotel of the Western national parks, but it also set the standard for rustic lodgings and manmade structures in other national parks.
What was the story behind this unique place?
Photographs like this one of Yellowstone Lake, from the 1870s, encouraged early tourism in the park. Note the man fishing, lower left. / THF120349
During the first few decades after Yellowstone became a national park in 1872, accommodations inside the park were, admittedly, spotty. The small number of well-to-do tourists who could afford the trip to Yellowstone during this time expected the pleasures of the high-class, comfortable lodgings they were used to on their European vacations or nearer to home along the East Coast. The first lodgings near Old Faithful were generally ramshackle establishments, built quickly and cheaply. When a lunch station/hotel constructed there in 1884—nicknamed “The Shack”—burned down, park administrators were actually relieved. They had considered it an eyesore.
Before the Old Faithful Inn existed, the Fountain Hotel—typical of Yellowstone hotels at the time—provided comfortable lodging 10 miles north of Old Faithful. / THF203310
Tourism increased when the Northern Pacific Railroad established the “Grand Tour” route through the park for four- to five-day horse-and-carriage tours. At key stops like Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone Lake, the railroad had built some of the nicer hotels in the park. But Old Faithful was located 10 miles south of the route, and comfortable lodgings were already available at the privately-run Fountain Hotel near the Paint Pots (bubbling mud pots) thermal feature. Railroad executives were reluctant to take a chance on building a hotel so far off the beaten track.
Old Faithful was such a dramatic attraction, it is surprising that it was not part of the original Grand Tour route. / THF120359
But, in 1894, park administrators passed a special regulation that lodging could be situated ⅛ of a mile from Old Faithful geyser rather than the usual ¼ mile required between lodgings and natural features. This changed everything. Within a few years, Harry W. Child, entrepreneurial president of the Yellowstone Park Association (which oversaw the Northern Pacific Railroad’s transportation and lodgings), began making plans to build a respectable hotel at Old Faithful. He initially engaged Seattle-based architect A.W. Spalding, who designed a hotel much like the other Yellowstone hotels that were reminiscent of European and East Coast hotels. Spalding’s design was never built, as it apparently did not meet the expectations of railroad executives.
The Saranac Inn, a rustic lodging on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. / THF126056
It was then that Child turned to his young friend—self-taught San Diego-based architect Robert Reamer—to design something more in the manner of rustic “great camps” of the Adirondacks. Combining the influence of California bungalows (especially the idea of bringing the roofline low to the ground) with the rustic trappings of the Adirondack lodge, Reamer designed a hotel that was radically different from anything seen before but seemed to perfectly fit Yellowstone’s exotic setting.
As seen in this 1908–1909 postcard of the front porch, locally obtained lodgepole pines were used for the ground floor of the Inn, while rhyolite rock (which can be glimpsed in the background) formed much of the building’s foundation. /THF120292
Reamer’s design was completed and approved in 1902, and actual construction of the building began in June 1903. It took 13 months to complete, over a long winter that was particularly bitter. About 40 skilled artisans were hired for the work, hailing from nearby Montana towns like West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Livingston. They were a hardy crew, facing many hardships while making swift work of the construction. Materials were mostly obtained nearby, including lodgepole pine and rhyolite rock (an unusual type of rock produced by Yellowstone’s volcanic eruptions). A temporary sawmill was built eight miles to the south to produce the many boards of lumber needed for the project. A Livingston, Montana, blacksmith named George Colpitts and his assistants hand-forged the wrought-iron work for Old Faithful Inn, including the massive front door hardware, the fireplace clock and tools, and all the original guest room door numbers and locks. The total cost of construction was $140,000.
Original façade of Old Faithful Inn, 1905, before the east and West Wings and the extended front porch were added. / THF120361
When it opened on June 1, 1904, Old Faithful Inn was a dramatic tour de force. It seemed rooted in the landscape, as if it had risen directly from the earth. On its exterior, the steep gable roof dominated (for both aesthetic reasons and the very practical one of having to withstand 20-foot drifts of snow in winter). Cedar shingles covered the roof and upper siding, with dormer windows that seemed to pop out in odd places (some were real, others just decorative). The building’s interwoven log construction not only gave it a look of permanence and solidity but also transformed it, in essence, into a gigantic log cabin.
Postcard of the great hall lobby, 1904–1905. / THF120294
Inside, the great hall rose 76½ feet—seven stories in all—with square and diamond windowpanes that filtered light in. Upright poles and beams supporting each balcony were made from lodgepole pine tree trunks, with thick branches attached to the trunks at Y-shaped angles. Balconies and stairways were supported by smaller pine branches found around the area, adding interest with their twisted, curved, and gnarled shapes. A trapeze-like wooden platform near the ceiling of the Inn, called the “Crow’s Nest,” originally held a string quartet—who performed before dinner so guests could mingle, and after dinner when the lobby was transformed into a dance hall. (The Crow’s Nest unfortunately closed when it was deemed unstable after a disastrous earthquake in 1959). The fireplace dominated: 15 by 15 feet at its base, with eight hearths, and rising to a tapered pyramidal shape of 41 feet high. Near the top of it was a huge 14-foot windup clock designed by Reamer. Electric fixtures simulating candlelight were placed discreetly around the space.
Postcard of the dining room at Old Faithful Inn, 1904–1905. / THF120296
Behind the great hall was the dining room, with split logs covering an open-pitched roof. Similar to the great hall, it was also dominated by a massive stone fireplace. Guests originally sat at long, family-style tables and could obtain a meal for 75 cents. A dinner bell atop the Inn’s rooftop summoned guests to dinner.
A typical room for lodgers in the Old House, circa 1905. / THF120355
The lobby and upper mezzanines were filled with Mission-style tables, settees, rockers, desks, and Old Hickory tables and chairs. (Old Hickory was a Martinsville, Indiana, company founded in 1892 that specialized in rustic furniture made out of hickory, with woven, hickory-rushed seats and backs.) One hundred forty log-walled rooms for lodging led off the great hall, on two floors, to the east and to the west. Rooms were furnished simply, with brass, iron, or wood beds; natural wood dressers, chairs, nightstands, and desks; and washstands with chamber pots. Some had cushioned window seats. The rooms had steam heat and sinks with running water (communal bathrooms were, and still are, available down the hall.) This original set of rooms, which cost four dollars per night to lodge in when the Inn opened, became known as the Old House.
It is believed that Harry Child’s wife Adelaide (or Addy), who accompanied her husband on the initial trip to hire Reamer, had a hand in the furnishings, decorations, and details. The delicacy of the balconies, stairway railings, window placements, and Mission-style furniture shows her influence. As a result of this collaboration, both men and women felt comfortable and relaxed here. The Inn, in essence, neutralized gender and class distinctions, encouraging impromptu encounters and informality.
The radically different look of Old Faithful Inn prompted the National Pacific Railroad to justify it in its promotional materials. / THF120290
Old Faithful Inn was different from the usual lodging, and Northern Pacific Railroad promoters figured they had better explain this to potential guests. They wrote this statement in the Inn’s defense when it first opened, just in case guests rejected the notion of a rustic hotel: “The Inn is not in the least a freaky affair…. It is a thoroughly modern and artistic structure in every respect—modern in its appointments and artistic in the carrying out of an unconventional and original scheme.”
They needn’t have worried about guests’ reactions. Old Faithful Inn was an immediate hit with the public. One guest, a Mrs. E.H. Johnson, in 1905, recounted: “And then we came to the Inn, the most unique and perfect place; it is the craftsman’s dream realized. My room alone is a paradise of restfulness though in a rough and rustic fashion…. At luncheon we had another treat. The dining room has its own charm.”
Old Faithful Inn after the new porch and veranda were completed in 1927. / THF120323
Old Faithful Inn was so popular, in fact, that in 1913–1914, 100 guest rooms were added to create the East Wing. And, in 1927, with the increasing number of tourists coming by automobile, 150 more rooms were added to create the West Wing. Although the interiors of these later rooms were more modern than those in the Old House, a consistent look was maintained on the exterior for an overall cohesive effect. A covered porch was added to the front of the building in 1927—again to accommodate automobile traffic—with an open veranda above for viewing Old Faithful eruptions. (For more on the impact of automobiles on the national parks, see my blog post, “Automobiles Enter the National Parks.”)
The rustic Lodge, shown on this Bryce Canyon pennant, was constructed in 1925. / THF239283
Old Faithful Inn really started something. The railroad companies, who had made the Western national parks accessible and controlled many of the concessions in the early parks, realized that the rustic style suited these places, and the style spread quickly—first to the upscale hotels, then to other manmade structures in the parks. The National Park Service, formed in 1916, eventually chose the rustic style as its standard architecture across the entire park system. This style, which colloquially became known as “Parkitecture,” reached its culmination with the Depression-era projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Old Faithful Inn was a very atypical hotel of its era. Most resort hotels at the time were intended to serve as civilized oases from the wilderness. Old Faithful Inn, the first rustic-style lodge of the West, was designed to fit in and become part of the wilderness experience. Somehow, Robert Reamer recognized this when he created what was truly a one-of-a-kind national park lodging.
Snapshot of the author at Yellowstone National Park in 1985, standing on the Upper Geyser Basin trail with Old Faithful Inn in the background. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden
Soon after I first viewed the image of the Old Faithful Inn lobby in 1985, my husband and I had the pleasure of visiting Yellowstone National Park, and we stayed at the Old Faithful Inn. Eighty years after that photograph was taken, it was like we had entered it in real life. We stayed in one of those tiny, log-walled, chamber-potted rooms in the Old House. It was noisy but thrilling to be in that room—to become part of that place. We returned to Yellowstone National Park in 2014, almost 30 years later, and have returned year after year since then (except in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic). We have stayed at the Old Faithful Inn every year—in the Old House, the East Wing, and the West Wing. We plan to stay there again when we return to Yellowstone National Park this summer. Somehow, it always feels comfortable, welcoming, and timeless—like we’re coming home.
Snapshot of the author at West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, 2014. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Yellowstone National Park, the first national park established in 1872, was a uniquely American innovation. Like the Declaration of Independence, it embodied America’s democratic ideals—in this case, the groundbreaking idea that our magnificent natural wonders should be enjoyed not by a privileged few but by everyone. The inscription over Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to the park, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People," symbolizes the ideals that established Yellowstone and defined the vision for all national parks to come.
Come now on a virtual tour through The Henry Ford’s collection to view the wonders of Yellowstone National Park.
Imagine it is the early 1900s, and you’ve chosen to take the four-day guided tour through the park by horse-drawn carriage. From the north entrance, you travel through towering canyons to your first stop, Mammoth Hot Springs.
The hot springs there, heavily charged with lime, have built up tier upon tier of remarkable terraces. The springs are constantly changing, presenting what one guidebook calls “an astonishing spectacle of indescribable beauty.” After viewing the hot springs and walking among its many terraces, you spend your first night at the humble but serviceable Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
The next day, anticipation builds as you head south into the area with all the geyser activity. You pass Roaring Mountain, so named for the sound of steam fumaroles that became very active and noisy there in 1902.
Before long, you reach the first great geyser basin: Norris Geyser Basin. At the intersection of three major earthquake fault zones, Norris is the hottest, most active geyser basin in the park. Underground water temperatures of 706 degrees Fahrenheit have been measured. Norris has it all: hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and bubbling mud pots.
From Norris, you proceed to Lower and Middle Geyser Basins until you finally reach Upper Geyser Basin—the place you’ve heard so much about. Approximately two square miles in area, Upper Geyser Basin contains the largest concentration of geysers in the park—in fact, nearly one-quarter of all of the geysers in the world! A variety of other thermal features also exist here, including colorful hot springs and steaming fumaroles.
Upper Geyser Basin is home to Old Faithful, the most famous and celebrated geyser in the world. The 1870 Washburn Expedition camped near this geyser. They were the ones who named it Old Faithful, because they discovered it had frequent and regular eruptions. It can last from 2-5 minutes, reach a height of 90 to 184 feet, and emit 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of water at a time.
You stop for the night here at Old Faithful Inn, a grand hotel built in 1903. Most resort hotels at the time were intended to serve as civilized oases from the wilderness. However, Old Faithful Inn, the first true rustic-style resort, was designed by young, self-taught architect Robert Reamer to fit in with nature rather than to escape from it. The inside of the hotel continues the rustic look, with a spectacular seven-story log-framed lobby containing a massive stone fireplace.
Heading down the road, West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of the smaller geyser basins in Yellowstone. Located along the edge of Yellowstone Lake, it consists of a stone mantle riddled with hot springs. These resemble vast boiling pots of paint with a continuous bubbling-up of mud.
About 30 miles from Upper Geyser Basin is Yellowstone Lake—one of the coldest, largest, and highest lakes in North America. The lake includes 110 miles of shoreline and reaches depths of up to 390 feet. The bottom of the lake remains a constant 42 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
Here you rest for the night at the charming Yellowstone Lake Hotel, the oldest surviving hotel in the park, built in 1891. Robert Reamer added the colonial-style columns to this quintessential Eastern-styled hotel in 1903.
Heading back north along the park’s Grand Loop Road, Hayden Valley is filled with large, open meadows on either side of the Yellowstone River—the remains of an ancient lakebed. The valley is the year-round home to bison, elk, and grizzly bear.
As the Yellowstone River flows north from Yellowstone Lake, it leaves the Hayden Valley and takes two great plunges: first over the Upper Falls and then, a quarter mile downstream, over the Lower Falls—at which point it enters the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. In places, the canyon walls drop some 1,000 feet to the river below. You spend the night at the last of the four great Yellowstone resorts, Grand Canyon Hotel, before returning to Mammoth Hot Springs and the end of your tour.
It is inevitable, of course, that more and more motorists are arriving at Yellowstone every day. The use of automobiles in the park are bringing paved roads, parking areas, service stations, and improved public campgrounds. Most early motorists are used to roughing it and come prepared to camp.
Yellowstone will set the tone for all the other national parks to come. When the National Park Service is formally established in 1916, it incorporates many of the management principles that the U.S. Army brought to Yellowstone when its soldiers first arrived to establish order there back in 1886. Old Faithful Inn will help define the style of Western resorts and park architecture for the next several decades. Finally, as some early tourist behaviors—like feeding bears, peering into geysers, and fishing in hot springs (as shown in the postcard of Fish Pot Hot Springs)—are found to be harmful to Yellowstone’s fragile ecosystems, the park will become a testing ground for exploring and defining what it means to be a national park—serving the dual mission of preserving natural wonders while, at the same time, letting the public enjoy them.
Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.