Eleanor Corthell’s husband “could only fizz and fume” when she announced in 1903 that she was taking their seven children to Yellowstone National Park by team and wagon. But he could think of no good reason to stop her.
By then the park had been transformed from a forbidding wilderness into a genteel resort where an unaccompanied woman could travel without fear of being attacked by Indians or bears. The Army Corps of Engineers had completed a network of roads in the park that were among the best in the United States, certainly good enough to be navigated by Mrs. Corthell’s sixteen-year-old son. There were stores where the Corthells could buy supplies and post offices where they could keep in contact with family and friends.
Although the park had several grand hotels, the Corthells camped out for their entire two-month adventure. This meant that Mrs. Corthell had to manage not only the logistics of the trip but also cooking and laundry—all out of doors. That might sound like an enormous challenge, but as Eleanor would have pointed out, she would have been in charge of all those duties had she stayed at home.
Despite the relative tranquility of Yellowstone Park at the time, the Corthells had plenty of adventures. Their travels across the ranch country of central Wyoming reminded them of Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian, which many consider to be the first Western. In the park they kept their eyes out for black bear cubs like Johnny Bear and grizzlies like Wahb, who were the subjects of famous stories by the hugely popular naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton.
Eleanor’s husband, Nellis, joined his family in the park and promptly ran afoul of regulations that were enforced by the Army, which ran the park then. But Nellis (Eleanor called him “The New Camp Spirit”) was a prominent Wyoming attorney, and he managed to talk himself down to a two-dollar fine.
Eleanor’s story of her family trek was published in June 1905 in the magazine, Independent. Here’s an excerpt.
We camped across the road from Old Faithful and saw it play five times; but we shouldn’t have stopped there, we were taking chances. The park rules are very strict in regard to trespass on the formations, and thereby hangs a tale: But then, you would not expect such a large family to pass among a whole valley full of yawning gulfs and smiling springs and shooting geysers, absorbed until they forgot time and place and circumstance and not have something happen, would you? Since none of them fell into a hot spring, what could matter?
Well, “The New Camp Spirit” got arrested! And that mattered a good deal.
The horses found feed scarce in the very heavy timber so came into the open where the road lay. Just across, on forbidden territory, was a bunch of grass that poor Star wanted. Now he didn’t intend to swallow Old Faithful, or tramp on its flinty surroundings. We were busy spreading a good, hot dinner on the tablecloth, so failed to notice Star quite quick enough. Presently we saw, and sent a boy to drive him back, but a soldier on horseback got ahead of him, and swearing like a trooper at boy and horse, he came thundering up saying, “Consider yourself under arrest, sir, and come with me!”
In his very, very sweetest manner and most persuasive tone, Mr. Corthell asked, “May I finish my dinner first?” “Well, yes sir,” the soldier said, somewhat mollified. And he sullenly stood in the background.
But dinner had lost its savor. This is an experience we had nowhere reckoned on. What if it meant jail—forgotten pocketbooks, broken wagons, floods, nothing ever created such consternation as this. But we didn’t fall into a panic. The chief victim was so placid, so serene, even sweetly content, that the example set composed the rest of us. Before the walk to headquarters was over, sweetness won the day, so the fine was only two dollars when it might have been a hundred. From this point on the “New Camp Spirit” took no more chances and always put out his fires.
— Excerpts from “A Family Trip to the Yellowstone” by Mrs. N. E. Corthell, The Independent, 58:2952, 1460-67 (June 29, 1905).
— Photo, Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.
— Read more about Eleanor Corthell’s adventures:
- A mother takes her seven children to Yellowstone Park.
- A woman fends of an attacking bear with a zucchini.
- Or Eleanor’s whole story in Adventures in Yellowstone.
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