As many of my friends are aware, I made my first visit to Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago in the company of our Boy Scout troop. While I thoroughly enjoyed the scenic beauty and wildlife of the park, I dimly remembered something about Moses Harris, one of the cavalry regiments, and the parks. Cell and internet service being very sketchy at best in the area, I resolved to look into it when I returned.
Lest one think this simply another manifestation of my determination to find a connection of Civil War cavalry with anything I happen to run across, I will first direct the reader to this article on the Yellowstone NPS webpage, entitled “How The U.S. Cavalry Saved Our National Parks” .
If the name Moses Harris sounds familiar, it should. An enlisted man in the 4th U.S. Cavalry and officer in the 1st U.S. Cavalry during the Civil War, I have previously written about him here. I came across several new items while researching his Yellowstone connections, so there will be an updated biographical sketch of him posted here in the near future.
Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, one of the original national parks. As such, there was no inherent program for the administration of the park and the protection of its resources. Civilian superintendents were appointed, but with little instruction or resources to carry out their mandate to protect the park and its treasures. Consequently, the park was under constant threat from those who wanted to exploit its resources. This varied from souvenir hunters and poachers to tourist facilities in and around the geysers and hot springs.
In 1886 the problem came to a head when Congress refused to appropriate additional funds to administer the park. The Secretary of the Interior turned to the Secretary of War for assistance. In August, Captain Moses Harris and the 50 men of his Company M, 1st U.S. Cavalry were ordered from Fort Custer, Montana to the park.
Here is Captain Harris’ account of his time at Yellowstone:
“In August 1886 Captain Harris was ordered to take station with his troop in the Yellowstone National Park relieving the civilian superintendent, and was ordered to report to the Secretary of the Interior for instructions relative to the protection of the Park. Having so reported was directed to perform the duties which had previously been performed by the superintendent of the Park and his assistants. He remained at this station with his troop performing the civil duties of the superintendent of the National Park, and with his troop giving the Park full and efficient protection until June 1889, when he was ordered to take station at Fort Custer. It is proper in connection to state that the reports of the Secretary of the Interior for the years 1887, 1888, and 1889 contain expressions of satisfaction at the efficient manner in which the duty of protecting the park had been performed and its interests cared for during the tour of duty in the Park of Captain Harris and his command.”
For those interested, one of Captain Harris’ annual reports to the Secretary of the Interior can be found here.
At first, the soldiers lived in temporary frame buildings at what was initially called Camp Sheridan at the foot of the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. After five cold, harsh winters, the Army realized there was no end in sight to this assignment and requested funds from Congress for a permanent post. These funds were granted in 1890, and the post renamed Fort Yellowstone.
The first buildings of Fort Yellowstone were finished by late 1891, though Company M had been replaced by a different company by then. An almost identical set of wooden buildings was finished in 1897 to house a second troop. In 1909, sandstone buildings were constructed, increasing the fort’s capacity to four troops (approximately 400 men). The stone for these buildings was obtained from a local quarry. At its height in 1910, over 300 soldiers manned the park between the fort and outlying posts.
In 1916, the National Park Service was created and assumed control of the park. After a brief return the following year, the Army departed the park for the final time in 1918. Fort Yellowstone became the administrative center of the park for the new organization. Over the 32 years of its tenure, troops from 10 different cavalry regiments served in the park: the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 11th and 13th U.S. Cavalry Regiments.
Ironically, I didn’t get to see Fort Yellowstone while I was in the park. Maybe on my next visit.