by Nathaniel P. Langford
Scribner’s Monthly – An Illustrated magazine for the People; May 1871; Conducted by J.G. Holland; Scribner & Co.; New York
I HAD indulged, for several years, a great curiosity to see the wonders of the upper valley of the Yellowstone. The stories told by trappers and mountaineers of the natural phenomena of that region were so strange and marvelous that, as long ago as 1866, I first contemplated the possibility of organizing an expedition for the express purpose of exploring it. During the past year, meeting with several gentlemen who expressed like curiosity, we determined to make the journey in the months of August and September.
The Yellowstone and Columbia, the first flowing into the Missouri and the last into the Pacific, divided from each other by the Rocky Mountains, have their sources within a few miles of each other. Both rise in the mountains which separate Idaho from the new Territory of Wyoming, but the headwaters of the Yellowstone are only accessible from Montana. The mountains surrounding the basin from which they flow are very lofty, covered with pines, and on the southeastern side present to the traveler a precipitous wall of rock, several thousand feet in height. This barrier prevented Captain Reynolds from visiting the headwaters of the Yellowstone while prosecuting an expedition planned by the Government and placed under his command, for the purpose of exploring that river, in 1859.
The source of the Yellowstone is in a magnificent lake, nearly 9,000 feet above the level of the ocean. In its course of 1,300 miles to the Missouri, it falls about 7,200 feet. Its upper waters flow through deep canons and gorges, and are broken by immense cataracts and fearful rapids, presenting at various points some of the grandest scenery on the continent. This country is entirely volcanic, and abounds in boiling springs, mud volcanoes, huge mountains of sulphur, and geysers more extensive and numerous than those of Iceland.
Old mountaineers and trappers are great romancers. I have met with many, but never one who was not fond of practicing upon the credulity of those who listened to his adventures. Bridger, than whom perhaps no man has experienced more of wild mountain life, has been so much in the habit of embellishing his Indian adventures, that they are received by all who know him with many grains of allowance. This want of faith will account for the skepticism with which the oft-repeated stories of the wonders of the Upper Yellowstone were received by people who had lived within one hundred and twenty miles of them, and who at any time could have established their verity by ten days’ travel.
Our company, composed of some of the officials and leading citizens of Montana, felt that if the half was true, they would be amply compensated for all the troubles and hazards of the expedition. It was, nevertheless, a serious undertaking, and as the time drew near for our departure, several who had been foremost to join us, upon the receipt of intelligence that a large party of Indians had come into the Upper Yellowstone valley, found excuse for their withdrawal in various emergent occupations, so that when the day for our departure arrived, our company was reduced in numbers to nine, and consisted of the following-named gentlemen: General H. D. Washburn, who served with distinction during the war of the rebellion, and subsequently represented the Clinton District of Indiana in the Congress of the United States; Samuel T. Hauser, President of the First National Bank of Helena; Cornelius Hedges, a leading member of the bar of Montana; Hon. Truman C. Everts, late United States Assessor for Montana; Walter Trumbull, son of Senator Trumbull; Ben. Stickney, Jr.; Warren C. Gillette; Jacob Smith, and the writer.
The preparation was simple. Each man was supplied with a strong horse, well equipped with California saddle, bridle, and cantinas. A needle-gun, a belt filled with cartridges, a pair of revolvers, a hunting-knife, added to the usual costume of the mountains, completed the personal outfit of each member of the expedition. When mounted and ready to start, we resembled more a band of brigands than sober men in search of natural wonders. Our provisions, consisting of bacon, dried fruit, flour, &c., were securely lashed to the backs of twelve bronchos, which were placed in charge of a couple of packers. We also employed two colored boys as cooks.
Major-General Hancock, in favorable response to our application for a military escort, had given orders for a company of cavalry to accompany us, which we expected to join at Fort Ellis, in the Gallatin Valley—a distance of one hundred and twenty miles from Helena. We were none the less obliged to Gen. Hancock for his prompt compliance with our application for an escort, because of his own desire, previously expressed, to learn something of the country we explored which would be of service to him in the disposition of the troops under his command, for frontier defense ; and if the result of our explorations in the least contributed to that end, we still remain the debtor of that officer for his courtesy and kindness, without which we might have failed altogether in our undertaking.
(continue on next page at Haw Creek Destinations.)