The Hapless Explorer Who Helped Create the National Park System

In 1870, a group of prominent citizens of the Montana Territory set out on an expedition to map the area known as the Yellowstone country. The Washburn Expedition hoped to confirm or disavow the tall tales of geysers, boiling lakes, and other wonders. Among their number was one Truman Everts, who was very nearsighted and totally unsuited for a wilderness experdition.    

A desk-jockey all his life, Everts had run the Montana Territory’s Internal Revenue department in Helena for the past five years. The Grant administration wanted its own man collecting taxes in Montana, though, and by the summer of 1870, the taxman had been unemployed for seven months. Enamored with the idea of exploring the unknown with Montana’s fellow leading citizens, the middle-aged widower enthusiastically joined the Washburn Expedition. The jaunt into the unknown was to be “sort of a between-jobs vacation for him,” Whittlesey says. Little did Everts know his holiday would become a comic wilderness odyssey—think The Revenant meets National Lampoon’s Vacation—of grit, luck, and utter incompetence that would, against all odds, help lead to the creation of the nation’s first national park.

The first thing Everts did was fall behind the group and become lost. Then his horse ran away with his supplies. The rest of the expedition looked for him for a week, then decided he must have frozen to death. With neither tools nor supplies, Everts continued the best he could. When a prospector found him 37 days later, Everts weighed only 50 pounds. The story of his terrifying time alone in the wilderness, strangely, aided the push to make Yellowstone the United States’ first national park in 1872. Read about Everts’ ordeal at Outside.  

(Image credit: Erin Wilson)

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