THE YELLOWSTONE EXPEDITION
Captain William Ludlow and the Yellowstone National Park
Expedition of 1875
If a West Point
cadet's first year is the most difficult, circumstances made it
particularly so for those who entered the academy on 1 July 1860.
Tensions mounted that fall. By year's end cadets faced a difficult
choice: either swear allegiance to the United States or
resign. William Ludlow, a New Yorker, stayed. But his
troubles were just beginning. His academic standing was
unimpressive. His impetuous conduct earned him 202 demerits by the
end of his first year and threatened him with dismissal.
Recognizing the need for Union officers and willing to allow the
17-year-old Ludlow to mature, the Board of Conduct allowed him to
During the remainder of his studies at West Point, Ludlow's academic
performance improved. His demerits, while continuing to be excessively high,
declined. When the academy reverted from a five- to a four-year course of study, his
prospects of serving in the war increased. Ludlow wanted a commission as a
topographical engineer. Ordinarily his class standing would have made that unlikely,
but the Union Army needed engineers. Remarkably, in June 1864 he graduated eighth in
a class of 27. He was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers,
now reunited with the topographers, and wasted little time going into battle.
In July, Ludlow went south as chief engineer of the newly formed XX
Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. He saw action in the Atlanta campaign, on
Sherman's march to the sea, and in the Carolinas during the closing weeks of the war. Within less than a year, Ludlow had advanced from brevet captain to brevet lieutenant
colonel for his distinguished service.
In late 1865 Ludlow began his first assignment at Jefferson
Barracks, Missouri, where he organized and took command of the Engineer Depot and Company
E of the Engineer battalion, a company of Topographical Engineers. On this
assignment Ludlow learned firsthand the topographical needs of commanders who were
fighting hostile Indians in unmapped territory. With a commission as captain of engineers,
Ludlow returned east in March 1867. As assistant to General Quincy A. Gillmore until
November 1872, he worked on coastal fortifications and civil works projects on Staten
Island and at Charleston, South Carolina. In 1872 Ludlow traveled to St. Paul,
Minnesota, to become chief engineer in the Department of the Dakota, which included
territory later organized as the states of North and South Dakota and portions of Montana
When Ludlow arrived at department headquarters, he found a
challenging task before him. The Army was attempting to maintain order and protect
American citizens as the Sioux Indians responded with increasing hostility to the white
man's incursions into their territory. The Northern Pacific Railroad was pushing its
lines deeper into Montana territory. Settlers and fortune hunters flooded the
region to exploit the new opportunities for trade and the abundant game population and to
search for gold. Little regard was given to Indian land rights supposedly secured by
treaty in 1868. Anticipating more difficult times, including full-scale war, the
Army needed maps of the territory, descriptions of its topography, and recommendations on
sites for new forts. Knowledge of sources for wood, water, and grass was
particularly important to the cavalry on campaign.
During his four years in the Department of the Dakota, Ludlow made two major
expeditions. On the first in July and August 1874, he accompanied Colonel George
Armstrong Custer, commander of the 7th Cavalry and a friend from West Point days, into the
Black Hills, home of the Sioux. The region was believed to be rich in gold. Custer's
assignment was to obtain military information. The mere presence of a military
force was enough to stir up the Indian resentment. The inclusion of gold hunters in
the reconnaissance party and Custer's haughty attitude made matters worst.
The Black Hills expedition was an eye opener for Ludlow. In
his report on the trip, he evidenced a marked sympathy for Indian treaty rights and
disdain for those who sought to exploit the region. Believing that the reports of
gold in the hills were highly exaggerated, Ludlow thought it folly to allow prospectors to
flood the area when increased tensions would certainly result. The Indians would
never allow white men to occupy their territory. Were they to do so, he wrote,
"settlements there could only be protected by force and the presence of a
considerable military power."
Custer differed sharply. He found the discoveries of gold
"exceedingly promising" and urged further investigation. As for the
rights of settlers, he stated bluntly: "The title of the Indian should be
extinguished as soon as practicable." And why not, he argued, since his
expedition revealed that the Indians actually occupied only a small portion of the
hills? Ludlow's advice counted for little in the climate of gold fever and land
While Ludlow served in the Department of the Dakota, interest was
also growing in the Yellowstone region west of the Black Hills. In the early 1850s
Jim Bridger, a frontiersman, had described the site of the future national park as a
natural wonderland filled with geysers, canyons, falls and a magnificent lake. Few
people believed him. In 1860 Captain William F. Raynolds of the Topographical
Engineers had attempted to reach the upper Yellowstone. Deep snow and difficult
terrain thwarted him, but his official report, published in 1868, confirmed the presence
of volcanic activity and offered the first official verification for some of Bridger's
claims. A private expedition in 1869, followed by Henry D. Washburn's expedition in
1870, resulted in vivid firsthand descriptions of the region.
In 1871 the government dispatched two official reconnaissance parties to the
region. Ferdinand V. Hayden, a veteran of the Raynolds expedition, and Captain John
W. Barlow, chief engineer of the Military Division of the Missouri, headed investigations
of the territory for the Interior Department and the War Department respectively.
Their lobbying efforts helped secure passage of an act establishing Yellowstone as a
national park on 1 March 1872. In the summer of 1873 Captain William A. Jones's
general survey of northwestern Wyoming for military purposes also included a visit to the
new park. These expeditions added much to existing knowledge of the park and the
surrounding region and aroused further interest in its wonders. The resulting
reports and maps served as guides for those who followed.
In June 1875, as conflict with the Indians in the
Yellowstone region grew more likely, Brigadier General William Terry, the department
commander, ordered his chief engineer to reconnoiter the Montana territory. Ludlow
was to chart routes leading to existing forts, to determine the latitude and longitude of
the forts by astronomical observations, and "if time permits" to examine the
route from Fort Ellis to Yellowstone Park. Ludlow was authorized to take along a
geologist and three additional "scientific gentlemen" with the intention that
the expedition provide a thorough examination of the region.
As geologist, Ludlow recruited George Bird Grinnell, a graduate
student at Yale's Sheffield Scientific School whom he had met the previous summer on the
Black Hills expedition. Ludlow offered Grinnell subsistence while in the field as
the only compensation for making the trip. But Grinnell welcomed the opportunity to
take part in another organized expedition with the possibility of obtaining new specimens
and the certainty of seeing his report on the region's zoology, geology, and paleontology.
With Ludlow's assent, Grinnell invited Edward S. Dana, a classmate
and recognized authority on mineralogy, to join him. Others in the expedition included
Ludlow's brother Edwin ("Ned"), a surveying detachment of two sergeants and five
enlisted men, Lieutenant Richard E. Thompson of the Sixth Infantry as topographer and
general assistant, and Charles Reynolds as guide and hunter.
On June 1875, Ludlow left headquarters in St. Paul by train for Bismarck. From
there his party proceeded up the Missouri River by steamer, arriving at Fort Buford 300
miles above Bismarck on 9 July. The equipment they carried - a transit-theodolite; a
sextant; a reflecting circle; two chronometers; and odometers, thermometers, and
barometers - underscored the purpose of the expedition. Though the expedition was
timed to end before the first snow, that hardly seemed a concern as Ludlow and his
companions experienced nights of fitful sleep amidst the heat and persistent mosquitoes.
When "a disorder
brought on by the heat and the effect of the river-water," struck down his
brother Edwin, Ludlow decided to remain with him at Fort Buford. To
save time he dispatched Thompson to thoroughly examine the territory between
Fort Buford and Carroll, a small frontier town lying on the upper Missouri
at the head of navigation. Thompson reported an encounter with Indians along the Carroll
road. Then the news arrived that Indians had killed three recruits near Camp Lewis,
75 miles from Carroll. Ludlow grew impatient waiting for transportation and was
about to take off overland when a steamer finally arrived. On the 23rd, after an
anxious two weeks, he resumed his journey toward Carroll.
An incident en route underscored the sensitivity of this young
Engineer officer to the world around him. From his boat Ludlow observed a herd of
buffalo plunge into the Missouri on a collision course with the vessel. "The
stupid animals only turned back when the foremost actually struck the boat with their
heads," he later recalled. "They heaped together and climbed upon each
other in desperate fright, within a few feet of us. It would have been butchery to
kill them, especially as we did not need the beef, and they were allowed to escape
When Ludlow reached Carroll, he discovered that Thompson had
exhausted his supplies and gone on to Camp Baker without him. Ludlow's journey
along the Carroll road to Camp Baker, and from there to Fort Ellis, took him through the
Judith Basin. Inspired by the scene, he described the basin a "a fine,
well-grassed, gently rolling prairie" about 1,500 miles square encircled by four
mountain ranges "painted in a clear, transparent purple upon the sky" and
looking "like massive islands in the tawny ocean that rolls against them."
He concluded that with the aid of irrigation that region would someday become a great
agricultural and stock-raising area.
At Camp Baker, 52 miles east of Helena, Ludlow at last rejoined Lieutenant
Thompson and the other members of his party whom he had sent ahead from Fort Buford nearly
a month earlier. The trip from Baker by way of the Gallatin valley to Fort Ellis
near Bozeman took three days. On 11 August Ludlow met another party, led by General
William W. Belknap, returning from Yellowstone to Fort Ellis. The journey to Mammoth
Hot Springs, not far inside the northern boundary of Yellowstone Park, took another three
On 14 August, some 45 days after leaving St. Paul, Ludlow's party
finally began their journey through the park. The expedition moved in "eager
haste," with time to record "only a few of the more prominent and enduring
impressions." The visit lasted 13 days and covered ground well known from
previous explorations. Aware of the earlier reports on the Hayden and Jones
expeditions, Ludlow purposely avoided detailed descriptions of Mammoth Hot Springs and the
springs and geysers in the lower basin.
The expedition added
some significant information to existing knowledge of the upper and the
lower falls of the Yellowstone River. Using a measured cord, in one
case with a weight attached, Ludlow made what proved to be highly accurate
calculations of the height of each falls. He recorded the upper falls
1 foot too high at 110 feet and the lower falls 2 feet too high at 310 feet.
The Jones expedition, using barometrical measurements, had set the heights
at 150 and 328 feet respectively.
Canyon and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.
By the time Ludlow's party broke camp in Yellowstone Park on 24
August, they were genuinely concerned about reaching Carroll before navigation on the
Missouri River closed for the season. To save time on the return to Carroll, Ludlow
frequently pushed ahead of the main party.
Learning while at Camp Lewis that the next departure from Carroll
was a week away and determined to allow as much exploration of the region as possible,
Ludlow split his party again. On 11 September he sent one group under Lieutenant
Thompson back to the Judith Basin for a more thorough study of the topography and more
accurate determinations of latitude and longitude. George Grinnell, who went along,
wanted one last chance to examine fossils. Although Thompson's group was unable to
do justice to the region in so short a time, the route they followed demonstrated that a
wagon road through the Judith Basin to the Missouri was practical. Thompson
observed, however, that considerable work would be required if the road was intended for
Meanwhile, Ludlow hastened to Carroll. After arranging transportation, he
and Edward Dana went hunting and exploring in the Little Rocky Mountains. On the
19th they reunited with Thompson and Grinnell at Carroll. The next day Ludlow and
the main party boarded the Josephine on the first leg of their return to St.
Paul. Thus, in Ludlow's words, ended a 93-day reconnaissance covering 3,300 miles
"through every variety of landscape, from . . . the most forbidding to the grandest
and most . . . picturesque."
Captain Ludlow submitted his report on the reconnaissance
to the Chief of Engineers on 1 March 1876. The report included a map of the entire
route, compiled from earlier sources supplemented by Ludlow's own field notes, and
sketches of the Judith and Upper Geyser basin. Astronomical observations, made at
Carroll and Camps Lewis and Baker, and tables of latitude and longitude were also
presented. Ludlow added separate reports by Dana, Grinnell, and Thompson. Congress
published the reports and supplementary materials in 1876 as an appendix to the Annual
Report of the Chief of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers also published a separate
edition in 1876.
Ludlow approached the wonders of Yellowstone with awe and
reverence. In the geysers he saw nature at work "devoting some of her grandest
and most mysterious powers to the production of forms of majesty and beauty such as man
may not hope to rival." Ludlow stated that the "varied features of mingled
grandeur, wonder, and beauty," required a great writer to do them justice.
Although he did not consider himself qualified, he eloquently captured the region's
character. After viewing the crater at Old Faithful, he wrote: "the lips
are molded and rounded into many artistic forms, beaded and pearled with opal, while
closely adjoining are little terraced pools of the clearest azure-hued water, with
scalloped and highly-ornamented borders. The wetted margins and floors of these
pools," he continued, "were tinted with the most delicate shades of white,
cream, brown, and gray, so soft and velvety it seemed as though a touch would soil
Little wonder that Ludlow was horrified when he saw visitors armed
with shovels and axes cutting away souvenirs and destroying in minutes "miracles of
art" that had formed through "the slow process of centuries." What
particularly alarmed him was that in removing souvenirs, ten times more material was
destroyed than was taken away. More than once on their trek through the park, Ludlow
and his companions intervened directly to halt the destruction. He termed the
plunderers "sacrilegious invaders of nature's sanctuary" who were "utterly
ruthless" and acted with "unrestrained barbarity," wantonly destroying
"what was intended for the edification of all."
Ludlow's concern also extended to the region's wildlife. He
did not object to killing for food or even for sport. In fact he hunted on both the
Black Hills and Yellowstone expeditions. But he abhorred the hunters he saw engaging
in "wholesale and wasteful butchery," such as that which threatened the elk with
The 1872 law designating Yellowstone as the first national park had
placed it under the control of the Secretary of the Interior and "intended to include
all of the more remarkable objects and scenery" as part of the national domain.
Regulations were to be devised and published to protect the park and its inhabitants, and
the Secretary was authorized to take necessary measures to carry out the
legislation. But Ludlow concluded that Interior was not doing its job, and that the
law did not go far enough. As a result, Yellowstone had not yet become "what
nature and Congress" had intended it to be - a national park.
Ludlow saw mounted police as the solution. As a temporary
measure, he recommended using Army troops stationed in the area and transferring control
of the park to the War Department. Later the arrangement might change if a civilian
superintendent lived in the park and commanded mounted police.
Despite the earlier expedition to the park, a thorough and accurate
topographical survey was still needed. Ludlow also directed his attention toward
needed improvements - roads and trails within the park and lodges to accommodate visitors. He suggested placing an Engineer officer in charge. With an annual appropriation of
$8,000 to $10,000, the officer could execute the survey and improvements.
Access to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which Ludlow
described as "perhaps the finest piece of scenery in the world," was quite
limited. Descent by the east side of the canyon was fairly easy, but the west side
presented numerous problems which, Ludlow believed, could be alleviated simply by
providing "rude but strong ladders." Likewise, he pointed out that the
ascents and descents in the trail approaching the canyon overtaxed the pack animals. What was needed was a level road, although it would be more than three times as
long. Throughout the park, bridges could be constructed and logs placed across the
Nearly all of Ludlow's suggestions regarding the park became
reality. In 1883 Congress finally designated the Corps of Engineers to make
improvements in Yellowstone but left security to the Secretary of Interior. The
Corps immediately placed Lieutenant Dan C. Kingman in charge of road construction.
By the time he left in 1886, 30 miles of roads had been completed. Interior moved more
slowly. The Secretary waited until 1886 to ask that a troop of cavalry be assigned
to the park.
Ludlow's remarks on the towns and forts he visited on the way to and
from Yellowstone provided the Army with crucial information for future engagements.
Ludlow saw Carroll as an important link between the Montana territory and the outside
world. The Carroll road to Helena was 200 miles shorter than the existing railroad
route from Helena to Corrine. The trip by road saved at least 15 days. From
there it was possible to travel on the Missouri five months of the year and connect with
the Northern Pacific Railroad at Bismarck. Ludlow recommended this route to the
government for transporting troops and supplies to upriver posts like Camps Baker and
Lewis. Best of all, perhaps, the route made another railroad line in violation of
Indian treaty rights unnecessary.
A night's stay at the confluence of the north and south forks of the
Mussleshell River convinced Ludlow that the site should be made a permanent post by
relocating Camp Baker. The move, he urged, would secure the surrounding territory
from Indian attacks, allow scouts and reconnaissance parties to be dispatched with ease,
and place the post farther east nearer sources of supply.
George Grinnell's report contributed significantly to the zoological and
geological knowledge of the area and protested "the terrible destruction of large
game" that he witnessed. In the preface to his zoological report, Grinnell
spoke out with the assurance that Ludlow, whom he admired as a defender of Indian rights
and a critic of nature's despoilers, would support him. Grinnell saw the officers
already stationed on the frontier as one hope for controlling the abuses which he believed
"the better class of frontiersmen, guides, hunters, and settlers" strongly
The Ludlow expedition profoundly affected Grinnell.
The next year he began writing a natural history feature for the New York-based journal, Forest
and Stream. He traveled west again, and four years later he took over as the
journal's editor. Grinnell soon established himself as a leading protector of the park.
Spared by reassignment from the fateful Custer expedition, Ludlow
returned east in May 1876. A distinguished career followed. His major
assignments included serving as Engineer Commissioner of the District of Columbia:
brigade commander in the invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War; and military
and civil governor of Havana; and having charge of surveys and river and harbor
improvements on the Great Lakes. From April 1883 to April 1886 he served on leave
without pay as chief engineer of the Philadelphia Water Department.
While on the way to a
new assignment in the Philippines in April 1901, Ludlow discovered the fever
and bronchial congestion he had suffered since the campaign in Cuba was in
fact pulmonary tuberculosis. He immediately returned to the states,
but his condition deteriorated rapidly. His death on 30 August ended a distinguished career
in military and civil engineering.
Paul K. Walker, Introduction to Exploring Nature's
Sanctuary: Captain William Ludlow's Report of a Reconnaissance from Carroll,
Montana Territory, on the Upper Missouri to the Yellowstone National Park, and Return Made
in the Summer of 1875 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1876), pp. v-xi.