Little Cub geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park
History | Places | Sacred Wonderland

Warren Angus Ferris, Yellowstone’s first tourist

Probably the first person to visit Yellowstone out of a purely touristic curiosity was a clerk with the American Fur Company by the name of Warren Angus Ferris. At a summer rendezvous gathering in 1833, Ferris heard the excited tale of trappers who had discovered what they described as “remarkable boiling springs” at the source of the Madison River. He doubted the stories at first, accustomed as he was to the exaggerations and embellishments that usually characterized tales of mountain men’s exploits. But after hearing similar tales from twenty different trappers, Ferris resolved to see these boiling waters for himself.

The following spring, Ferris found himself on a trading expedition along the Snake River in the vicinity of the Teton Mountains. He realized that they were not far from the headwaters of the Madison, the place of boiling springs that he had heard of, and he may not again have such a convenient opportunity for seeing the remarkable sights that had captured his imagination at the previous summer’s rendezvous. Following supper on May 18, 1834, Ferris left the trading party and with two Pend d’Oreille Indians to accompany him, set out into the night. The evening was clear, calm, comfortable, and they were able to make good progress across the open flatlands, going twenty miles before they stopped to sleep beside a clear spring. Following a few hours of rest and a quick breakfast, the three travelers continued, this time across a more challenging terrain. They made a very difficult forty miles through thick forests and over rough ground. By nightfall they reached the vicinity of the hot springs. They drank some coffee and had some supper, and then fatigue caught up with them. Ferris fell into a slumber, although not immediately. The constant roar of the hot springs kept him awake, and for a while an excited curiosity overtook him. Eventually he slept, but his dreams, Ferris later recalled, were filled “with visions of water spouts, cataracts, fountains, jets d’eau of immense dimensions.”

Sulfured steam
Sulfured steam escapes fumarole shafts (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

The next morning satisfied his curiosity.  Ferris and his Indian companions arose to a dense fog of vapor steaming off the hot springs. A variety of explosions and other reports punctuated the air. As he investigated the sources of these sounds, the young trader was astounded. He reports what he saw in what is probably the earliest tourist account of the attractions of Yellowstone:

From the surface of a rocky plain or table, burst forth columns of water, of various dimensions, projected high in the air, accompanied by loud explosions, and sulphurous vapors, which were highly disagreeable to the smell.  The rock from which these springs burst forth, was calcareous, and probably extends some distance from them, beneath the soil.  The largest of these wonderful fountains, projects a column of boiling water several feet in diameter, to the height of more than one hundred and fifty feet . . . accompanied with a tremendous noise.  These explosions and discharges occur at intervals of about two hours.

At one point, Ferris approached one of the fountains as it rested between eruptions and attempted to put his hand in the water,

but withdrew it instantly, for the heat of the water in this immense cauldron, was altogether too great for comfort, and the agitation of the water, the disagreeable effluvium continually exuding, and the hollow unearthly rumbling under the rock on which I stood, so ill accorded with my notions of personal safety, that I retreated back precipitately to a respectful distance.

Ferris’s boldness made his Indian companions anxious, which he interpreted as religious dread. Despite his encouragements to join him beside the boiling waters, they were, in his words, “quite appalled, and could not by any means be induced to approach them.” His account speculates that his Pend d’Oreille friends clung to superstitious attitudes toward the hot springs and fountains, that “they believed them to be supernatural and supposed them to be the production of the Evil Spirit. One of them remarked,” Ferris reports, “that hell, of which he had heard from the Whites, must be in that vicinity.” In Ferris’s imaginative estimation, Yellowstone was a place of unusual attractions that could frighten those of a superstitious mind.

Ferris’s excursion in 1834 earned him the distinction, at least among historians, as Yellowstone’s first tourist, the first person to go there expressly for sightseeing purposes. He also is the first person to use the term “geyser” in describing the fountains of steaming water periodically erupting from beneath the ground. Today Yellowstone is pretty much synonymous with the term, but before Ferris applied this Icelandic word to what he witnessed there, others struggled to describe what they had seen in the bizarre landscape of Yellowstone’s thermal basins.

Ferris’s interpretation of the Pend d’Oreilles’ reluctance to approach the geysers also stayed in the American imagination of Yellowstone. For more than a century most people assumed that Indians harbored a superstitious fear of the Yellowstone plateau as a place of evil powers. This presumption would later serve efforts to rid the park of Indian threats and to quell tourist fears of attack by hostile natives.

Solitary Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park
Solitary Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

[For the account of his excursion to Yellowstone, see Warren Angus Ferris, Life in the Rocky mountains; a diary of wanderings on the sources of the rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado from February, 1830, to November, 1835  (published in 1940), pages 296-298 (Chapter L).] ♨

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