Archives tell Yellowstone’s story with millions of records
LIVINGSTON, Mont. (AP) — Most people first entering the historical archives at Yellowstone National Park see long shelves of mute-colored boxes.
But for Yellowstone National Park Archivist Anne Foster, those boxes — and the treasures they hold — are a thing of beauty.
“Most people just see rows of plain gray boxes, but to me they’re beautiful because they show how organized and preserved the documents are,” Foster told The Livingston Enterprise.
Foster has served as Yellowstone’s archivist for the past nearly 10 years in what she calls her “dream job.” The Bozeman native’s love for the park and its history is apparent when you join her in a tour of Yellowstone’s Heritage and Research Center, which houses the archives just inside the Park boundary in the shadow of Roosevelt Arch at Gardiner.
Here you’ll find documents bearing the signature of Theodore Roosevelt as well as the first written account of someone traveling through the Park in the 1820s — long before it became the Yellowstone National Park.
“People always ask what my favorite item is in the archives, and I can’t ever just pick one,” said Foster. “There’s just too many to choose from — they all tell different stories.”
The letters from mountain man Daniel Trotter Potts to his family in Pennsylvania are the first written eyewitness accounts of the Yellowstone area. In his letters, the originals of which are kept at the archives, Potts also writes home to tell the story of a fellow mountain man attacked by a bear and left for dead by his colleagues.
Fellow mountain man Hugh Glass — who is portrayed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2015 movie “The Revenant” — is believed to be the person whose bear attack Potts recounts in his letters, Foster said.
Potts traveled through the area in the late 1820s until the early 1830s when he left on a return trip back to Pennsylvania. He disappeared in New Orleans, however, and never made it back home, Foster said.
Among the trove of other documents housed in the park archives also lives an April 30, 1894 letter signed by Theodore Roosevelt to Capt. George S. Anderson at Mammoth Hot Springs. The letter is in response to the capture of notorious local poacher Ed Howell, who was held at Mammoth, then Fort Yellowstone, but eventually released because the federal government had no provisions at the time to prosecute those who violated park rules.
The historic letter from Roosevelt shows the early history of what would become the Lacey Act, a federal law that sought to protect wildlife and plants.
“In addition to having a famous signature, it’s also telling a story that’s a big aspect of Yellowstone’s history and mission with the restoration of the bison,” Foster said.
Roosevelt’s letter begins by commending Capt. Anderson for capturing Ed Howell and goes on to tell of efforts to establish Park protections.
“You have done well to keep the infernal scoundrel as long as you did keep him,” wrote Roosevelt, who served at the time on the United States Civil Service Commission in Washington, D.C.
Roosevelt’s letter goes on to state, “We have now, as you know, got through the Park protection bill. It is by no means as good as I should like to have had, but still it is a good deal better than the present system, and we felt it was far better to get this than to get nothing. It at least gives us a groundwork on which to go.”
One may find an endless supply of documents outlining the park’s history at the archives, from an administrative standpoint but also from the eyes of a young girl traveling the park. Foster delicately opened the diary of Alice B. Stratton, who traveled the park with her parents in June and July of 1895.
Alice’s father, Frederick, who worked as a professor at Carlton College in Minnesota, also kept a diary from the family’s visit to the park. Foster has read both diaries and says they read as though the father and daughter were on two separate trips — with the father focusing in his diary on park features and science, and his daughter writing about the social components of the trip.
For instance, while the father’s diary tells of geothermal features and other park biology, young Alice wrote about the people she met, the games she played and the fact that it snowed on the Fourth of July, and that the cook at the hotel where the family stayed in Yellowstone served the children snow with maple syrup.
Foster said one of her favorite parts of Alice’s diary is a cheer the girl jotted down from her time riding through the park on a stage coach. She said visitors to the Park in those days made up cheers that they would yell to those passing in coaches while touring the park. The poem in Alice’s diary, which Foster transcribed, goes:
Wah! hoo! rah!
Wah! hoo! rah!
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Hi-ho! Hi-ho — Hi-ho
We’re off for the Yellowstone
Don’t you know
Never mind the rain spots
Don’t you miss the paint pots
Hurrah! for the geysers
See them blow
Yell Yellow Yellowstone
Go in parties not alone.
See the wonders and the geyser
Go home happy, and the wiser.
Documents stored at the archives are ones deemed to be administratively or historically significant to the park’s history. In today’s electronic era, Foster said digital records are also stored using an archival computer server. She’s also in the process of sorting through and cataloging film reels, which will be digitized and eventually stored in the building’s vault.
Paper documents are catalogued and stored in boxes in a large temperature- and humidity-controlled room at the archives. Some documents have been scanned and are available for review in digital format.
Many more of the documents stored here may be viewed only by visiting the archives and its adjoining reading room, which is open to the public.
Walking the aisles of the archives is telling in itself, Foster pointed out during a recent tour of the facility. Visitors quickly get an idea of the issues that were significant to the park’s history and generated controversy or public interest.
One such issue is the park’s winter use plans starting in 1990 following the introduction of snowmobiles to the park. Documents related to the park’s winter plans occupy a chunk of real estate on the facility’s shelves. Dozens of boxes occupy several shelves at in the archives with 82 boxes holding documents related to the 2000 winter plan alone.
In all, Foster estimates that the archives are home to several million documents that tell the story of the area and what would eventually be America’s first national park. The collection includes documents related to the military’s administration of the park, the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 as well as current documents related to Yellowstone. You’ll also find photographs, manuscripts, maps and scientific data, among other items, in the archives.
In fact, there are so many documents related to the park’s history that Foster does not keep track of the actual number.
“We tend to keep track by linear feet,” Foster laughed.
For more information about the Heritage and Research Center at Yellowstone National Park, visit https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/collections.htm