Review of: Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, by Megan Kate Nelson

As a child, one cartoon that habitually had me glued to our black and white TV set was the Yogi Bear Show, which spun a recurring comedic yarn starring that eponymous suave if mischievous anthropomorphic bear and his best bud Boo-Boo who routinely sparred with a ranger as they poached picnic baskets. It was set in Jellystone Park, a thinly veiled animated rendering of Yellowstone National Park. As I grew older, I wondered what it would be like to check out the natural wonders of the real Yellowstone, but many decades later it yet remains an unfulfilled checkbox on a long bucket list. Other than passing views of documentaries that splashed spectacular images of waterfalls, geysers, and herds of bison across my 4K screen, I rarely gave the park a second thought.

So it was while attending the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College that I learned with no little surprise that there was to be a scheduled segment on Yellowstone. I was puzzled; beyond the scenic imagery recalled from episodes of Nat Geo, what little I knew about Yellowstone was that it was established as our first national park in 1872—seven years after Lee’s surrender! What could this possibly have to do with the Civil War?

Fortunately, I got a clue at the conference’s opening night ice cream social when I was by chance introduced to Megan Kate Nelson, author of Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America [2022], who was slated to give that very presentation. As we chatted, Megan Kate—almost nonchalantly—made the bold statement that without the Civil War there never could have been a Yellowstone Park. Agnostic but intrigued, I sat in the audience a couple of days later for her talk, which turned out to be both engaging and persuasive. I purchased her book along with a stack of others at the conference, and it turned out to be my first read when I got home.

History is too frequently rendered in a vacuum, often isolated from the competing forces that shape it, which not only ignores key context but in the process distorts interpretation. In contrast, and hardly always immediately apparent, every historical experience is to some degree or another the consequence of its relationship to a variety of other less-than-obvious factors, such as climate, the environment, the prevalence of various flora and fauna (as well as pathogens), resources, trade networks, and sometimes the movements of peoples hundreds or even thousands of miles away. It is so rewarding to stumble upon a historian who not only identifies these kinds of wider forces in play but capitalizes upon their existence to turn out a stunning work of scholarship. In Saving Yellowstone, Megan Kate Nelson brilliantly locates a confluence of events, ideas, and individuals that characterize a unique moment in American history.

The Civil War was over. The fate of the disputed territories—the ill-begotten gains of the Mexican War that sparked secession when the south’s slave power was, by Lincoln’s election, stymied in their resolve to spread their so-called “peculiar institution” westward—had been settled: the Union had been preserved, slavery had been outlawed, and these would remain federal lands preserved for white free-soil settlement. This translated into immense opportunities for postwar Americans who pushed west towards what seemed like a limitless horizon of vast if barely explored open spaces, chasing opportunities in land or commerce or perhaps even a fortune in precious metals buried in the ground. Those in the way would be displaced: if not invisible, the Native Americans who had occupied these places for centuries were irrelevant, stubborn obstacles that could be either bought off or relocated or exterminated. Lakota Sioux chief Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, also known as Sitting Bull, would have something to say about that.

Ulysses S. Grant, the general who had humbled Lee at Appomattox, was now the President of the United States, and remained committed to a Reconstruction that was on shaky ground largely due to the disastrous administration of his predecessor, Andrew Johnson, who had allowed elites of the former Confederacy to regain political power and trample upon the newly won rights of the formerly enslaved. The emerging reality was looking much like the south had lost the war but somehow won the peace, as rebels were returned to elective office while African Americans were routinely terrorized and murdered. Postwar demilitarization left a shrunken force of uniforms stretched very thin, who could either protect blacks from racist violence or white settlers encroaching on Native lands—but could not do both.

Meanwhile, the landscape was being transformed by towns that seemed to spring up everywhere, many connected by the telegraph and within the orbit of transcontinental railroads that would perhaps one day include the Northern Pacific Railway, a kind of vanity project of millionaire financier Jay Cooke that nearly destroyed him. All of this sparked frenetic activities that centered upon exploration, bringing trailblazers and surveyors and scientists and artists and photographers west to determine exactly what was there and what use could be made of it. One of these men was geologist Ferdinand Hayden, who led a handpicked team on a federally funded geological survey to the wilderness of the Yellowstone Basin in 1871 and charted a course that led, only one short year later, to its designation as America’s first national park.

More than six hundred thousand years ago, a massive super volcano erupted and begat the Yellowstone Caldera and its underlying magma body that produces the extreme high temperatures that power the hydrothermal features it is well known for, including hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles, and more than three hundred geysers! Reports of phenomena like these preceded Hayden’s expedition, but most were chalked up to tall tales. Hayden sought to map the expanse and to separate truth from fantasy. Unlike white men on a quest of discovery, of course, there was nothing new about Yellowstone to neighboring Native Americans, who had inhabited the region into the deep mists of time.

The best crafted biographies employ a central protagonist to not only tell their story but also to immerse the reader in a grand narrative that reveals not only the subject but the age in which they walked the earth. Nelson’s technique here, deftly executed, is to likewise write a kind of biography of Yellowstone that lets it serve as the central protagonist amid a much larger cast in a rich chronicle of this unique historical moment. A moment for the United States, no longer debased by the burden of human chattel slavery, that on the one hand had it celebrating ambitious achievements on an expanding frontier that boasted not only thriving towns and cities and industry and invention but even the remarkable triumph of posterity over profit by creating a national park and setting it aside for the benefit of all Americans. But not, on the other hand, actually for all Americans. Not for Native Americans, certainly, who at the point of the bayonet were driven away, into decades of decline. And not for African Americans, who in the national reconciliation of whites found themselves essentially erased from history and forced to live under the shadow of Jim Crow for a full century hence. Later, when the “West was Won” so to speak, both blacks and Native Americans could very well visit Yellowstone Park as tourists, but never on the same terms as their white counterparts.

Saving Yellowstone is solid history as well as a terrific adventure tale, attractive to both popular and scholarly audiences. There are times, especially early on in the narrative, that it can be slow-going, and the quantity of characters that people the storyline can be dizzying, but as the author lays the groundwork the momentum picks up. You can perhaps sense that Nelson, as a careful historian, is perhaps sometimes holding back so that the drama does not outpace her citations. But it is, after all, a grand theme, and such details only enrich it. This is the rare book that will keeping you thinking long after you have turned the last page. Oh, and for Civil War enthusiasts, I should add: it turns out that Megan Kate was absolutely correct—for both better and for worse, without the Civil War there indeed never could have been a Yellowstone Park!

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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