Yellowstone Park's first leader, from St. Paul to the Wild Westby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
If Yellowstone is part of your summer travel plans, you may be interested to hear that a Minnesotan played a key role in creation of the country's first national park.
Nathaniel Pitt Langford of St. Paul was Yellowstone's first superintendent.
But he was much more than that.
Langford was also a vigilante in the lawless, rough-and-tumble Montana territory of the 1860s.
Nathaniel Pitt Langford's life rivals any fictional Wild West story.
Great-great nephew Bill Langford of New Richmond, Wis., recalled his forbearer on a recent visit to his grave at Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul.
Young Nathaniel Langford left New York in the 1850s and came west to Minnesota to seek fame and fortune.
He made some money here and then caught the bug to join the gold rush to Montana territory in the 1860s.
Bill Langford says what he found was a landscape populated with hostile American Indians, wild-eyed gold seekers, slippery business opportunists and a nasty collection of criminals.
"There were no judges, no marshals, no anything," Bill Langford said, "and if there were they had to cover hundreds of square miles so they had to take law into their own hands."
Author George Black has written a new book about Nathaniel Pitt Langford and the others who helped create Yellowstone National Park.
Black says Langford was tall, perhaps 6-foot-4, with a steely gaze and commanding demeanor.
He says the vigilante movement they created was the country's largest.
"They would apprehend someone, they would drag them in front of a very perfunctory judicial hearing, so-called trial," Black said, "and they'd take them to nearest tree and string them up."
Black says more than four dozen men accused of murder, robbery, horse theft and other assorted crimes met their end that way in the mid to late 1860s in Montana territory.
He traces part of the lawlessness to the Civil War. Many of the gold seekers were secessionists from Southern states and hated anyone connected with the U.S. government.
That created another problem for Nathaniel Pitt Langford.
Black says besides operating a sawmill and a stagecoach line in Montana territory, Langford won appointment as a federal tax collector.
"He rode thousands and thousands of miles alone on horseback, usually carrying sacks of gold dust, which he collected in lieu of taxes," Black said.
Black says on more than one occasion Langford was brave to the point of being foolhardy in his tax collection methods. "He shut down the town on one occasion, shut down all the liquor establishments, and said he wouldn't allow anything to reopen until people had paid their taxes."
Through it all Langford and his friends kept hearing accounts of a place with boiling rivers -- geysers -- and mountains made of black glass - obsidian.
Black says Langford and associates organized an 1870 expedition to see for themselves.
"It was the first time that the valley of the upper Yellowstone, the volcanic caldera of the Yellowstone had been systematically explored and documented by educated men," Black says.
That trip and subsequent visits led to the 1872 creation of Yellowstone National Park.
Langford was appointed superintendent: a big title with little meaning.
Descendant Bill Langford says there was no pay for the job and no support to help bring order to the area.
"No salaries, no road, poaching, hunting everything was still going on and they were very concerned about commercial development."
Vandals desecrated ancient rock formations. Poachers killed thousands of animals. A disheartened Nathaniel Pitt Langford returned to his home in St. Paul.
He lived another three decades working as a Ramsey County civil servant and burnishing his stature as a leading citizen of the time, including a stint as president of the Minnesota Historical Society.
More from MPRThe Cities blog: More on the story from Dan Olson
August 6, 2012