The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 2

February, 1940

"National Park" Langford


The letter [page 12] chosen by Mr. Kahn to illustrate the interesting documents relating to the Service which are to be found in The National Archives, evokes memories of the first Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, who also was explorer, vigilante and historian. He was Nathaniel P. ("National Park") Langford whose death in 1911 closed a full and adventuresome career. He went from New York state to Minnesota in 1854 and from there in 1862 he joined Captain James L. Fisk's Northern Overland Expedition to the Salmon River gold fields. With a few hardy souls he reached Bannack, Montana, 400 miles from the nearest permanent settlement. Gold had been discovered there the year before and outlaws and gunmen were attracted to the "diggings" from all parts of the West. Among them was Henry Plummer, speed draw artist and killer who, by 1863, had had himself elected sheriff. While masquerading as the arm of the law he directed a gang of cutthroats and robbers which terrorized the entire southern half of Montana. Within a few months 102 men had been killed or robbed. The situation became desperate. In a country where there was no law or order, self-respecting citizens organized in defense of their lives and property and formed the famous vigilante committee of Bannack and Virginia City. Langford was one of its leaders. In the end, 24 members of Plummer's gang were hanged and eight were banished. Plummer himself was hanged in 1864 on a gallows that he had erected as sheriff. Langford's Vigilante Days and Ways (2 vols., 1890) has become a valuable item of Americana and an authority on early Montana history.

The letter reproduced above is an example of the valuable documents relating to the development of the National Park System which are available in The National Archives. Written 67 years ago this month by "National Park" Langford, first Superintendent of the Yellowstone, it is believed to constitute the first request ever made for "roads and trails" funds for a national park. More about Langford appears on pages 17-18.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

When Montana Territory was organized in 1864, Langford was appointed U. S. Collector of Internal Revenue. In 1868 he was twice removed by President Johnson and twice reinstated by the Senate. In December, 1868, President Johnson appointed him Governor of the Territory, but his appointment was not confirmed by the Senate.

In 1869, D. E. Folsom was driven back from the Yellowstone country by hostile Indians. In his desire to explore the region more fully and to take steps to preserve adequately that wonderful region he approached General H. D. Washburn, Surveyor-General of Montana, Judge Cornelius Hedges, and Langford. General Sheridan promised a military escort and an expedition to the Yellowstone Country was organized. The group, known commonly as the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, left Helena, Montana, August 17, 1870. Diaries were kept by Washburn, Langford, Hedges and Doane, and all subsequently were published. Langford's Diary of the Washburn Expedition to Yellowstone and Fire Hole Rivers in the Year 1870, a fine piece of descriptive writing, is easily the best.

Hedges and Folsom, each independently of the other, suggested that the Yellowstone region be made a national park. It was Langford, however, by lectures and writing and especially his articles in Scribner's Magazine, and his persistent work in Washington, who was most influential in assuring the establishing of Yellowstone. With William H. Clagett, the delegate to Congress from Montana, he wrote the Yellowstone Park bill. The boundaries were drawn by Dr. Heyden. These three men, more than all the others, were responsible for the passing of the bill that established the first National Park and initiated a lasting and ever-enriching conservation movement.

The Secretary of the Interior appointed Langford the first Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. For five years he served in this capacity without compensation and without funds to carry out the duties entrusted to him. His will remain one of the first names in the national park movement in the United States. He was a worthy representative of the strong men who shaped the destinies of the West when the test of courage was action as well as words. --- Roy Edgar Appleman.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002