A Tale: Early Travelers Confuse Geyser Basins — Rossiter Raymond, 1871

In the summer of 1871, U.S. Commissioner of Mines Rossiter Raymond was in Virginia City, Montana, when he decided to organize a group to tour the area that would become Yellowstone National Park the next year. Of course, nobody had published any guidebooks by then, so Raymond and his companions decided to take copies of N.P. Langford’s descriptions of wonderland that Scribner’s Monthly published in its May and June 1871 issues.


White Dome Geyser, Lower Geyser Basin

There were no signs in the roadless Yellowstone wilderness, so it was easy for travelers to become confused about the things they were seeing. When Augustus F. Thrasher, a photographer on the expedition, compared the Lower Geyser Basin to Langford’s descriptions of the Upper Basin, he became convinced that Langford’s description of geysers were exaggerations and decided to use his camera to prove it. 

Raymond said, “Thrasher invests the profession of photography with all the romance and adventure . . ..  No perilous precipice daunts him, if it’s just the place for his camera.”  Given Thrasher’s passion, he must have taken some marvelous photographs, but, unfortunately, none of them are known to have survived.

 Here’s Raymond’s description of his expedition’s confusion over geysers.


We approached the geyser basin with our expectation at the boiling-point, and ready to discharge; for we had among the baggage two copies of Scribner’s, containing Mr. Langford’s account of the wonders of the region, as seen by the Washburn exploring party. His article occupied two numbers, and we had two copies of each: so four persons could be accommodated with intellectual sustenance at one time. For the other two, it was, as one of them mournfully observed, “Testaments, or nothin’.”

Mr. Langford’s articles were vivid and fascinating; and we found them, in the end, highly accurate. At the outset, however, we were inclined to believe them somewhat exaggerated; and Thrasher was divided between his desire to catch an instantaneous view of a spouting column two hundred and fifty-six feet high, and his ambition to prove, by the relentless demonstration of photography, that these vents of steam and hot water were not half as big as they had been cracked up to be.”

We were not at first aware that there are two geyser basins on the Fire-Hole River; the upper one, ten miles above the other being the smaller, but containing the largest geysers. It was this one, which Washburn’s party, coming from Yellowstone Lake, first stumbled upon, and, after viewing its splendid display, naturally passed by the inferior basin with little notice. But we, emerging from the forest, and finding ourselves on the border of a great gray plain, with huge mounds in the distance, from which arose perpetually clouds of steam, supposed we had reached the great sensation, and prepared to be enthusiastic or cynical as circumstances might dictate.

Rositer Raymond Wikipedia

Rossister Raymond

We rode for a mile across the barren plain picking our way to avoid the soft places. This is quite necessary in the neighborhood of the hot springs. Where they have deposited a white, hard crust, it is generally strong enough to bear horse and man; but, over large areas, the ground is like what we call, in the East, “spring-holes;” and the treacherous surface permits uncomfortable slumping through, haply into scalding water. It is not very deep; but a small depth under such circumstances is enough to make a fellow “suffer some,” like the lobster in the lobster pot. ”

The plain contains a few scattered springs; and along the river, its western border, there are many in active ebullition. The principal group of geysers is at the upper or southern end extending for some distance up the valley of a small tributary from the east. With cautious daring, we rode up the side of the great white mound, winding among the numerous fissures, craters, and reservoirs that on every side of us hissed, gurgled, or quietly vapored, with now and then a slight explosion, and a spurt to the height of a dozen feet or more. Sawtell’s dog nosed suspiciously around several of the basins, until, finding that seemed not too hot for a bath, be plunged in, and emerged in a great hurry, with a yelp of disprobation.

A couple of dead pines stood, lonesome enough, in the side of the hill, “whence all the rest had fled.” They had died at their posts, and to the said posts we made fast our horses, and ascended a few rods farther, until we stood by the borders of the summit springs. There were two or three large vents at the bottom of deep reservoirs or intricate caverns. It gives one an unpleasant thrill, at first, to bear the tumult of the imprisoned forces, and to feel their throes and struggles shaking the ground beneath one’s feet; but this soon passes away, and the philosopher is enabled to stand with equanimity on the rim of the boiling flood, or even to poke his inquisitive nose into some dark fissure, out of which, perhaps in a few moments more a mass of uproarious liquid and vapor will burst forth.

We lingered much longer in this basin than my brief notice of it indicates; for, you see, we thought we had found the geysers; and oh the hours that we spent “identifying” the individual springs that Langford had described! Since, the largest eruptions we observed did not exceed forty-five feet in height, we set down his account as hugely overdrawn, and were deeply disgusted at the depravity of travelers. But Sawtell remarked, in his quiet way, that, “if it were not for that there article in that there magazine, these yer springs would be considered a big thing, after all, and perhaps it was just as well to let the magazine go to thunder, and enjoy the scenery.”

This sensible advice we followed with much profit and pleasure; and we are all now ready to admit that our happening upon the wrong lot of geysers first was a most fortunate occurrence, since we should otherwise have been tempted to pass them by as insignificant. The truth is that in some of the elements of beauty and interest the lower basin is superior to its more thrilling rival. It is broader, and more easily surveyed as a whole; and its springs are more numerous though not so powerful. Nothing can be lovelier than the sight at sunrise, of the white steam-columns tinged with rosy morning ascending against the background of the dark pinewoods and the clear sky above. The variety in form and character of these springs is quite remarkable.


— Excerpt from Rossiter Raymond, “Wonders of the Yellowstone.” Pages 153-207 in Camp and Cabin, New York: Fords, Hubbard & Howard, 1880.

— Geyser postcard, Pioneer Museum of Bozeman; Raymond photo, Wikipedia Commons.

— You might also enjoy Calvin Clawson’s tale about “First Blood” on the Raymond Expedition.

— Find out more about Yellowstone’s first tourist guide, Gilman Sawtell.

— For tales by N.P. Langford, click “Langford” under the Categories button above.

2 thoughts on “A Tale: Early Travelers Confuse Geyser Basins — Rossiter Raymond, 1871

  1. Pingback: A Tale: Guarding the Horses — Rossiter Raymond, 1871 | M. Mark Miller

  2. Thought I’d add a little bit to your backstory: Rossiter Raymond and Anton Eilers, commissioner and deputy commissioner of mining statistics, had agreed to meet and visit the Yellowstone prior to their joint arrival in Virginia City. They’d planned to spend 10 days, but ended up spending 21 days. Not only did they bring two copies of the Scribner descriptions, they were led through the area by Gilman Sawtelle, who lived just west of the future park. How Gilman got the geysers wrong is a bit of mystery to me. Further along in their adventure the small party of six was corrected by members of the Hayden party, so they returned to the area and found Old Faithful and the other geysers.

    You are correct that the search for Thrasher’s photos has yet to yield any, we do have at least one solid lead. At least we have both Raymond’s and Calvin C. Clawson’s descriptions of their journey. Unlike Clawson’s version, which follows a more accurate timeline, Raymond takes more literary license in order to tell a better story.

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