From Westfield to Yellowstone: The Massachusetts native who explored America’s first national park

Ferdinand V. Hayden is perhaps the most influential Westfield native most of us have never heard of.

A poor kid from a troubled family, Hayden is the main reason we get to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park. Hayden’s name appears in the recently aired four-part series “Yellowstone 150,” narrated by actor Kevin Costner.

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden was born in September 1828 or 1829 to Asa and Melinda Hayden of Westfield. His father had a prison record, was an alcoholic and died before Ferdinand was in his teenage years. Because of the neglect, Melinda divorced Asa, moved to Rochester, New York and remarried.

Soon after, she sent Ferdinand to live with his aunt and uncle on a farm in Lorain County, Ohio. The aunt, Lucrezia, and her husband welcomed Ferdinand into their family. They offered to adopt him, but he refused, saying that he did not want to become a farmer.

Instead, he walked 15 miles to Oberlin College. There, at the age of 16, he introduced himself directly to the college president who arranged for the boy to be admitted to a college preparatory school. Hayden managed to enter the first class in 1846.

An Oberlin classmate recalled that Hayden “was an enigma to most teachers and classmates and thought of as ‘an enthusiastic dreamer who would never win in practical life.’ “

Hayden went through Oberlin and graduated in 1850 with what he called “a decided taste for the natural sciences.”

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After Oberlin, Hayden taught in schools in Ohio and then returned to New York State where he enrolled and studied medicine and geology at Albany Medical College, graduating in 1853. One of his professors there convinced Hayden to join a geological expedition. . to the territory of Nebraska to collect fossils. That adventure set Hayden on a path that had him exploring geological sites along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers until the late 1850s.

Ferdinand V.  Hayden

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden was born in Westfield, Mass., in 1828 or 1829.A third party submitted

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Hayden enlisted in the Union Army as a “volunteer surgeon”, the only time in his life he practiced medicine. He rose to chief medical officer of the Army of the Shenandoah and was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

After the war, Hayden accepted a position as professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania. He held this position for seven years, mostly in absentia, as he spent his time studying and reporting on his findings in the Nebraska Territory and the Rocky Mountains.

In 1867, he was appointed chief geologist of the US Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. Hayden is credited with discovering America’s first dinosaur fossils and spent nearly two years in the field with geologist and paleontologist Fielding Meek. During his research, the Sioux resident nicknamed Hayden “the man who picks up rocks while running.”

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In 1871, Hayden was selected to lead the first federally funded geological survey into what was then known as Yellowstone Valley. Congress appropriated $40,000—almost $110,000 by today’s estimate—that Hayden used to assemble his 36-member corps of discovery.

Specialists included botanists, meteorologists, zoologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, agricultural statisticians, entomologists, topographers, secretaries, physicians, ambulance drivers, hunters, wagon drivers, drivers, cooks, waiters, photographers, including William Henry Jackson, and artists including Thomas Moran. Two army officers were assigned as a military escort.

1871 Hayden's Yellowstone Expedition

Members of the Hayden Expedition of 1871 gather around a table at a camp in the Yellowstone Valley in 1871. Survey leader Ferdinand W. Hayden sits on the right, in front of the tent.A third party submitted

In addition to tents and stoves, Hayden requisitioned 21 mules, 27 horses, five wagons, two ambulances, wet and dry bulb thermometers, aneroid and mercury barometers, clinometers (for measuring the angle of inclination), sextants, prismatic and odometer compasses .

For six months, members of the expedition explored the region gathering “extensive collections of geology, mineralogy, botany and all departments of natural history,” Hayden said. He cited “unique opportunities for observation and study” and extolled Yellowstone’s virtues on the lathe as “an ideal outdoor laboratory.”

In one report, Hayden wrote that Iceland’s geysers would “sink into insignificance compared to the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole basins.” In late August 1871, Hayden wrote: “We have completed our exploration of the Upper Yellowstone. Our success is complete.”

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Supported by Jackson’s large-format photographs and Moran’s paintings, Hayden submitted to Congress his “Preliminary Report of the United States Geological Survey for Montana and Portions of Adjacent Territories.” That book, and the pictures of Jackson and Moran, were instrumental in persuading members of Congress to pass the Yellowstone Protection Act. It was signed by President Ulisses S. Grant March 1, 1872 The first national park was born, and the designation sparked an international movement to protect wild places for their “intrinsic and recreational value.”

Thomas Moran painting Yellowstone

Thomas Moran’s painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was among the works submitted to Congress to support Ferdinand Hayden’s efforts to preserve the area that became the world’s first national park. (SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN MUSEUM)Thomas Moran / Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1871, at the age of 43, Hayden married Emma C. Woodruff, the daughter of a merchant from Philadelphia; they had no children. A year later, he resigned his professorship at the University of Pennsylvania to devote himself to government work. Hayden was elected to the American Philosophical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, became a foreign member of the Geological Society of London and served for many years as a geologist with the US Geological Survey.

Afflicted with locomotor ataxia, a progressive disease of the central nervous system, Hayden was forced to abandon his research and resigned from government service in 1886. A year later, on December 22, 1887, he died at the age of 58 in Philadelphia and was buried in Woodlands Cemetery.

His name lives on in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley. The town of Hayden, Colorado is named after him, as are several mountain peaks, two subspecies of snakes, a land snail, and Hayden Hall at the University of Pennsylvania.

Norm Roy, a retired editor for The Republican, lives in Florida and travels in a camper. He is eager to hear from readers about their own travel adventures. His e-mail address is: [email protected]


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