Two hardy Vermont men, Truman Everts and Henry Washburn, helped fight the battle to conquer the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, but it’s hard to say which side won. The park killed one of the men and nearly killed the other.
In 1864, Truman Everts of Burlington was appointed tax assessor for the Montana territory. The 1861 income tax, the nation’s first, launched an army of tax assessors and collectors across the nation that kept busy until 1873.
Everts went west and began the process of collecting taxes, informing businesses that they needed to pay fees to the government and adjudicating disputes over how much was owed and by whom.
Everts was a Republican backer of Abraham Lincoln, and after Lincoln’s assassination his brand of Republicanism fell out of favor. The radical Republicans took the majority in Congress and nearly chased Andrew Johnson out of the presidency. The ensuing turmoil disrupted the futures of lots of Republican appointees.
Along with Everts, the Montana tax collector Nathaniel Langford had also run into political difficulty. President Johnson had nominated him to become governor of Montana, but his career was also torpedoed by the Republican changing of the guard.
Another former Vermonter, however, was on the rise. Henry Washburn, originally from Windsor, had been a Civil War general and Republican congressman from Indiana. Ulysses Grant, who led the radicals into control of the White House in 1868, had appointed him surveyor general of Montana.
Arriving in Montana, Washburn was determined to conduct an expedition to Yellowstone. David Folsom, who had explored Yellowstone in 1869, worked for Washburn and told him about what he had seen while exploring the area. The region’s geysers, hot springs, lakes and mountains made a strong impression on Washburn.
With a small contingent of army soldiers, and privately raised funding, Washburn began to put together his own expedition. It included Langston and Everts, and the group set off on August 17, 1870. With two sons of Vermont on board, what could go wrong? Plenty.
It would be charitable to say Everts, the tax assessor, was an unlikely choice as an explorer. He was extremely near-sighted, with no hope of seeing without glasses. And at 54 years old, he was the oldest in the group by far.
Everts’ first trouble was sickness. August 24th and 25th he was laid up and unable to leave camp, and was exhausted just keeping up with the group. But it was just a preview of what was to come. On September 9, he got lost. Separated from the group, and its army escort, he proved a hapless woodsman.
His first step, upon discovering himself lost, was to climb to the rocks for a better view to see if he could get his bearings. However, he did not bother to tie up his horse while he did this, and he caught his last sight of the animal as it ran off into the woods carrying all his weapons, bedding, tent and supplies.
While all accounts of the trip talk of an almost limitless bounty of fish and wildlife, Everts was powerless to catch anything to eat other than a bird. At night, he slept near the hot springs to stay warm, which worked well enough until one night he rolled into the boiling spring and it badly scalded him.
After 11 days, it occurred to Everts to try to use his field glasses lens to start a fire. With the fire at his disposal, he gathered up thistle roots, which he boiled and ate.
Armed with a supply of boiled roots and his fire for warmth, he expanded his range in hopes of finding a way out. The fire posed its own challenges to Everts, however. One night he started a forest fire and burned down his shelter, scorching himself in the process.
He would go days without eating, and despite being in an area crisscrossed with lakes and streams, he would also go for days without finding water. He lost his glasses, was treed by a mountain lion and was down to a reported weight of 55 pounds when his rescuers found him. Everts’ companions, who had given up hope for finding him themselves, posted a reward for anyone who could bring Everts back.
Two miners took the job of tracking Everts, and on October 10 he was found, delirious and skeletal.
Despite Everts dramatic ordeal, the journey was actually harder on his fellow Vermonter Washburn, though his story was less dramatic. The rigorous trip and the cold weakened him, and he died the year after it ended. Friends said he never recovered from the trip.
In the aftermath of the expedition, several participants published their story. Everts published a detailed account of his odyssey in Yellowstone in Scribner’s Magazine. In it he described his hallucinations, his run-ins with animals and his desperate efforts to survive. Despite the bizarre nature of his adventure, his story helped build support for turning Yellowstone into a park.
With his health restored, Everts continued his political intrigues. He declined the unsalaried offer of becoming Yellowstone’s first superintendent, an offer than Langsford accepted. Instead, Everts took an active role in Republican politics, working for Horace Greeley’s quixotic 1872 effort to oust President Grant.
Everts did finally find a way back on to the government payroll, however, in the more sedate capacity working for the post office in Hyattsville, Md.
Everts was not remembered as a gracious man by his rescuers. First, he refused to pay the reward that his friends had promised on his behalf. And later in life, when one of his rescuers met up with him, he was so rudely received that he said he wished he had let Everts find his own way home.
Visitors to Yellowstone will encounter three reminders of Vermonters Everts and Washburn. Mount Everts , at 7,900 feet, was named because of its proximity to the spot where Everts was located, though he never got near to climbing it. The Everts Thistle, the plant that he lived off, was named for him and can still be found in the park.
And of course the Washburn Range and Mount Washburn are named for Henry Washburn, leader of the expedition.