Nathaniel P. Langford, a prominent Mason in early Montana history who served as the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, suggests in his 1905 book The Discovery of Yellowstone Park that the idea of preserving Yellowstone as a park first arose around the campfire on the final night of the Washburn-Doane expedition in 1870. In Langford’s telling of the story, the party had set up camp on September 19 near where the Firehole River converges with an unnamed stream (later named the Gibbon River) to form the Madison River. As they relaxed by the campfire that evening, the talk turned to the future prospects for the unusual land and its amazing attractions that the expeditioners had experienced in the previous weeks. After several suggestions for capitalizing on the profitable potential of this wonderland, the lawyer and future judge Cornelius Hedges proposed that “there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great National Park.” (1) All but one of his companions readily agreed, according to Langford’s retrospective account. These noble and visionary men, the story implies, set aside their personal ambitions for the democratic ideal of a national park that anticipated the conservation movement that would gain momentum in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
A disputed tale
Langford’s account of the campfire discussion concerning the future of Yellowstone on the final evening of the Washburn-Doane expedition served for decades as the official origin story of the national park idea, used to promote the mission of the National Park Service and repeated in countless Park Service campfire programs, and even celebrated with historic reenactments at the site of the expedition’s final campsite near Madison Junction in Yellowstone. Its accuracy, though, is doubtful at best, and it may have been entirely fabricated. Most historians who have studied Langford’s “campfire myth” are in agreement that the historical evidence for such a conversation is inconclusive at best.
This doesn’t mean that this tale of forward-thinking men agreeing to forego personal profit in the interest of preserving Yellowstone for the enjoyment of future generations has no value. As Paul Schullery and Lee Whittlesey conclude in their book about the origins of the national park idea in Yellowstone, “The Madison campfire story is without question lousy history, but it is not without greater meaning, even yet. What people may have loved most about it all these years is its sense of foresight and of the heroism to act on that foresight. With any luck at all, those values will endure, and if the campfire story can somehow enable us to better celebrate them without sacrificing other values, let it live for a long time to come.” (2)
The Masonic connection
Historians have paid less attention to the relationship between the two most prominent characters in this mythic campfire tale. Both Cornelius Hedges and Nathaniel Langford were among the earliest and most prominent members of Montana’s Masonic orders. Freemasonry in the middle decades of the nineteenth century followed the nation’s westward expansion and arrived in Montana in the wake of gold fever. Masons quickly established themselves as mainstays of civilized people in the rough and tumble lawlessness that characterized the early mining settlements in the region. The first Masonic lodge in Montana was established in the mining town of Bannack by dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Nebraska in 1863, with Nathaniel Langford as First Master. Unfortunately, the Bannack lodge never fully materialized, as most of the local Masons had moved on to other opportunities before the dispensation arrived. Nevertheless, their presence had a lasting impact. Langford later recalled, “Masons who in the first terrible year of our history, were instant in every good word and work which had for its object the protection, improvement and purification of our little society.” (3)
Cornelius Hedges became a Montana Mason in 1865 and may have been the most important Mason in Montana’s early history. By the time he went to Yellowstone with Langford and the others on the Washburn-Doane expedition, he had risen high in the Masonic ranks; in November, 1870, shortly after returning from Yellowstone, Hedges was installed as Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Montana. Beginning in 1872 and lasting until his death in 1907, he served as Grand Secretary of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Montana. In what was probably his last visit to Yellowstone, Hedges sat on the dais on April 24, 1903, in Gardiner, Montana, with President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Mason, for the Masonic ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the Roosevelt arch.
The fact that two important figures in the mythical origins of Yellowstone National Park were both important Montana Masons may be merely coincidental, but it reveals a significant element in the motivations for protecting the area as a park. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, we know now that preservation was not a central consideration in setting aside Yellowstone for special protections, at least not in the way that subsequent generations of environmentalists would think of preservation. More significant for the Montana boosters who were behind the push to pass the legislation that would create the park were the values they wished to establish in their Territory. No longer a wild, lawless land, Montana was joining the civilized world, and its prominent citizens, many who were Masons themselves, sought “the protection, improvement and purification of our little society.” For people like Langford and Hedges, this meant civilizing Yellowstone by claiming it as a park, not a wild and dangerous land but a place of democratic enjoyment and wonder for generations to come. Whatever they may have actually discussed in their campfire conversation, Langford and Hedges along with the other Montana boosters gathered on the final evening of their expedition would become strong voices in favor of domesticating Yellowstone as a place of civilized pleasures.
- Nathaniel Pitt Langford, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park: Journal of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870 (University of Nebraska Press, 1972), pages 117-118.
- Paul Schullery and Lee H. Whittlesey, Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park (University of Nebraska Press, 2003), page 91.
- Langford is quoted in History of Montana, 1739-1885 … by Michael A Leeson (Warner, 1885), page 175.