Review of: Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, by David Silkenat
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Review of: Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, by David Silkenat
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
For several days we traversed a region, which had been deserted by the occupants—being no longer worth culture—and immense thickets of young red cedars, now occupied the fields, in digging of which,
Those are the recollections of Charles Ball, an enslaved man in his mid-twenties from Maryland who was sold away from his wife and child and—wearing an iron collar shackled to a coffle with other unfortunates—was driven on foot to his new owner in Georgia in 1805. As he was marched through Virginia, the perspicacious Ball observed not only the ruin of what had once been fertile lands, but the practices that had brought these to devastation. Ball serves as a prominent witness in the extraordinary, ground-breaking work, Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South , by David Silkenat, professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, which probes yet one more critical yet largely ignored component of Civil War studies.
Excerpts like this one from Ball’s memoir—an invaluable primary source written many years later once he had won his freedom—also well articulate the triple themes that combine to form the thesis of Silkenet’s book: southern planters perceived land as a disposable resource and had little regard for it beyond its potential for short-term profitability; slave labor directed on a colossal scale across the wider geography dramatically and permanently altered every environment it touched; and, the masses of the enslaved were far better attuned and adapted to their respective ecosystems, which they frequently turned to for privacy, nourishment, survival—and even escape. And there is too a darker ingredient that clings to all of these themes, and that was the almost unimaginable cruelty that defined the lives of the enslaved.
The men who force-marched Ball’s coffle as if they were cattle no doubt viewed him with contempt, yet though held as chattel, the African American Charles Ball was more familiar with the past, present, and likely future of the ground he trod upon than most of his white oppressors. Frequently condemned to a lifetime of hard labor in unforgiving environments, often sustaining conditions little better than that afforded to livestock, this sophisticated intimacy of their natural surroundings could for the enslaved prove to be the only alternative to a cruel death in otherwise harsh elements. And, sometimes, it could—always at great risk—also translate into liberty.
Those who claimed ownership over their darker-complected fellow human beings were not entirely ignorant of the precarious balance of nature in the land they exploited, but they paid that little heed. Land was, after all, not only cheap but appeared to be limitless. As the Indigenous fell victim in greater numbers to European diseases, as militias drove the survivors deeper into the wilderness, as the British loss in the American Revolution removed the final barriers to westward expansion, the Chesapeake elite counted their wealth not in acreage but in human chattel. Deforestation was widespread, fostering erosion. First tobacco and later wheat sapped nutrients and strained the soil’s capacity to sustain bountiful yields over time. Well-known practices such as crop rotation, rigorously applied in the north, were largely scorned by the planter aristocracy. The land, as Ball had discerned, was rapidly used up.
Already in Jefferson’s time, “breeding” the enslaved for sale to the lower south was growing far more profitable than agriculture in the upper south. And demand increased exponentially with the introduction of the “cotton gin” and the subsequent boom in cotton production, as well as the end of the African slave trade that was to follow. Human beings became the most reliable “cash crop.” Charles Ball’s transport south was part of a trickle that grew to a multitude later dubbed the “Slave Trail of Tears” that stretched from Maryland to Louisiana and saw the involuntary migration of about a million enslaved souls in the five decades prior to the Civil War. Many, like Ball, were forced to cope with new environments unlike anything they had experienced before their forced resettlement. What did not change, apparently, was the utter disregard for these various environments by their new owners.
For those who imagined the enslaved limited to working cotton or sugar plantations, Silkenet’s book will be something of an eye-opener. In a region of the United States that with only some exceptions stubbornly remained pre-industrial, large forces of slave labor were enlisted to tame—and put to ruin—a wide variety of landscapes through extensive overexploitation that included forestry, mining, levee-building, and turpentine extraction, usually in extremely perilous conditions.
The enslaved already had to cope with an oppressive collection of unhealthy circumstances that included exposure to extreme heat, exhaustion, insects, a range of diseases including chronic ringworm, inadequate clothing, and an insufficient diet—as well as an ongoing unsanitary lifestyle that even kept them from washing their hands except on infrequent occasions. All this was further exacerbated by the demands inherent in certain kinds of more specialized work.
Enslaved “dippers” extracted turpentine from pine trees which left their “hands and clothing … smeared with the gum, which was almost impossible to remove. Dippers accumulated layers of dried sap and dirt on their skin and clothes, an accumulation that they could only effectively remove in November when the harvest ended. They also suffered from the toxic cumulative effect of inhaling turpentine fumes, which left them dizzy and their throats raw.” [p70] Mining for gold was an especially dangerous endeavor that had the additional hazard in the use of “mercury to cause gold to amalgamate … leaving concentrated amounts of the toxin in the spoil piles and mountain streams. Mercury mixed with the sulfuric acid created when deep earth soils came into contact with oxygen poisoned the watershed … Enslaved miners suffered from mercury poisoning, both from working with the liquid form with their bare hands and from inhaling fumes during distillation. Such exposure had both short- and long-term consequences, including skin irritation, numbness in the hands and feet, kidney problems, memory loss, and impaired speech, hearing, and sight.” [p24] There were dangers too for lumberjacks and levee-builders. Strangely perhaps, despite the increased risks many of the enslaved preferred to be working the mines and forests because of opportunities for limited periods of autonomy in wilder locales that would be impossible in plantation life.
In the end, mining and deforestation left the land useless for anything else. Levees, originally constructed to forestall flooding to enable rice agriculture, ended up increasing flooding, a problem that today’s New Orleans inherited from the antebellum. All these pursuits tended to lay waste to respective ecosystems, leaving just the “scars on the land” of the book’s title, but of course they also left lasting physical and psychological scars upon a workforce recruited against their will.
What was common to each and every milieu was the mutual abuse of the earth as well as those coerced to work it. Ball mused that the quotient for cruelty towards those who toiled the land seemed roughly similar to the degree that the land was ravaged. Indeed, cruelty abounds: the inhumanity that actually defines the otherwise euphemistically rendered “peculiar institution” stands stark throughout the narrative, supported by a wide range of accounts of those too often condemned to lives beset by a quotidian catalog of horrors as chattel property in a system marked by nearly inconceivable brutality.
Beatings and whippings were standard fare. Runaways, even those who intended to absent themselves only temporarily, were treated with singular harshness. Sallie Smith, a fourteen-year-old girl who went truant in the woods to avoid repeated abuse, was apprehended and “brutally tortured: suspended by ropes in a smoke house so that her toes barely touched the ground and then rolled across the plantation inside a nail-studded barrel, leaving her scarred and bruised.” [p78]
Slaveowners also commonly employed savage hunting dogs or bloodhounds that were specially trained to track runaways, which sometimes led to the maiming or even death of the enslaved:
“One enraged slave owner ‘hunted and caught’ a fugitive ‘with bloodhounds, and allowed the dogs to kill him. Then he cut his body up and fed the fragments to the hounds.’ Most slave owners sought to capture their runaway slaves alive; but unleashed bloodhounds could inflict serious wounds in minutes … Some masters saw the violence done by dogs as part of the punishment due to rebellious slaves. Over the course of ten weeks in 1845, Louisiana planter Bennet Barrow noted in his diary three occasions when bloodhounds attacked runaway slaves. First, they caught a runaway named Ginny Jerry, who sought refuge in the branches before the ‘negro hunters … made the dogs pull him out of the tree, Bit him very badly’ … Second, a few weeks later, while pursuing another truant, Barrow ‘came across Williams runaway,’ who found himself cornered by bloodhounds, and the ‘Dogs nearly et his legs off—near killing him.’ Finally, an unnamed third runaway managed to elude the hounds for half a mile before the ‘dogs soon tore him naked.’ When he returned to the plantation, Barrow ‘made the dogs give him another overhauling’ in front of the assembled enslaved community as a deterrent. Although Barrow may have taken unusual pleasure in watching dogs attack runaway slaves, his diary reveals that slave owners used dogs to track fugitives and torture them.” [p52-53]
That such practices were treated as unremarkable by white contemporaries finds a later echo in the routine bureaucracy of atrocities that the Nazis inflicted on Jews sent to forced labor camps. For his part, Silkenat reports episodes like these dispassionately, in what appears to be a deliberate effort on the author’s part to sidestep sensationalism. This technique is effective: hyperbolic editorial is unnecessary—the horror speaks for itself—and those well-read in the field are aware that such barbarity was hardly uncommon. Moreover, it serves as a robust rebuke to today’s “Lost Cause” enthusiasts who would cast slavery as benign or even benevolent, as well as to those promoting recent disturbing trends to reshape school curricula to minimize and even sugarcoat the awful realities that history reveals. (Sidenote to Florida’s Board of Education: exactly which skills did Sallie Smith in her nail-studded barrel, or those disfigured by ferocious dogs, develop that later could be used for their “personal benefit?”)
I first encountered the author and his book quite by accident. I was attending the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College2, and David Silkenat was
Silkenet’s lecture took an especially compelling turn when he spoke at length of maroon communities of runaways who sought sanctuary in isolated locations that could be far too hostile to foster recapture even by slave hunters with vicious dogs. One popular refuge was the swamp, especially unwholesome but yet out of reach of the lash, another underscore by the author that enslaved blacks by virtue of necessity grew capable of living off the land—every kind of land, no matter how harsh—with a kind of adaptation out of reach to their white oppressors. Swamps tended to be inhospitable, given to fetid water populated with invisible pathogens, masses of biting and stinging insects, poisonous snakes, alligators, and even creatures such as panthers and bears that that had gone extinct elsewhere. But for the desperate it meant freedom.
A number of maroon communities appeared in secluded geographies that were populated by escapees mostly on the margins of settled areas, with inhabitants eking out a living by hunting and gathering as well as small scale farming, supplemented by surreptitious trading with the outside world. The largest was in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, where thousands managed to thrive over multiple generations.
But not all flourished. In Scars on the Land, Silkenat repeats Ball’s tragic tale of coming upon a naked and dirty fugitive named Paul, an African survivor of the Middle Passage who had fled a beating to the swamp. On his neck, he wore a heavy iron collar that was fastened with bells to help discourage escape. Ball assisted him as best he could clandestinely, but could not remove the collar. When he returned a week later to offer additional assistance, his nostrils traced a rancid smell to the hapless Paul, a suicide, hanging by his neck from a tree, crows pecking at his eyes. 3 [p124]
1Charles Ball. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War. (NY: John S. Taylor, 1837) Slavery in the United States
2 For more about the CWI Summer Conference at Gettysburg College see: Civil War Institute at Gettysburg Summer Conference 2024
3The illustration of Paul hanging from a tree appears alongside Ball’s narrative in this publication: Nathaniel Southard, ed. The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1838, Vol I, Nr 3, The American Anti-Slavery Society, (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 13, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1838
Note: I reviewed this book about a well-known maroon community here: Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin
Review of: Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War, by Dennis E. Frye
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Most people only know of Harpers Ferry as the town in present day West Virginia where John Brown, a zealous if mercurial abolitionist, set out to launch an ill-fated slave insurrection by seizing the national armory located
Those in the know will also point out that the man in overall command when they took Brown down was Colonel Robert E. Lee, and that his aide-de-camp was J. E. B. Stuart. And perhaps to underscore the outrageous twists of fate history is known to fashion for us, they might add that present for Brown’s later execution were Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, Walt Whitman, and even Edmund Ruffin, the notable Fire-eater who was among the first to fire actual rather than metaphorical shots at Sumter in 1861. You can’t make this stuff up.
But it turns out that John Brown’s Raid in 1859 represents only a small portion of the Civil War history that clings to Harpers Ferry, perhaps the most quintessential border town of the day, which changed hands no less than eight times between 1861 and 1865. Both sides took turns destroying the successively rebuilt Baltimore & Ohio bridge—the only railroad bridge connecting northern and southern states across the Potomac. Harpers Ferry was integral to Lee’s invasion of Maryland that ended at Antietam, and had a supporting role at the outskirts of the Gettysburg campaign, as well as in Jubal Early’s aborted march on Washington. There’s much more, and perhaps the finest source for the best immersion in the big picture would be Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War , by the award-winning retired National Park Service Historian Dennis E. Frye, who spent some three decades of his career at Harpers Ferry National Park. Frye is a talented writer, the narrative is fascinating, and this volume is further enhanced by lavish illustrations, period photographs, and maps. Even better, while the book is clearly aimed towards a popular audience, it rigorously adheres to strict standards of scholarship in presentation, interpretation, and analysis.
West Virginia has the distinction of being the only state to secede from another state, as its Unionist sympathies took issue with Virginia’s secession from the United States. But it had been a long time coming. The hardscrabble farmers in the west had little in common with the wealthy elite slaveholding planter aristocracy that dominated the state’s government. This is not to say those to the west of Richmond were any less racist than the rest of the south, or much of the antislavery north for that matter; it was a nation then firmly based upon principles of white supremacy. For Virginia and its southern allies, the conflict hinged on their perceived right to spread slavery to the vast territories seized from Mexico in recent years. For the north, it was about free soil for white men and for Union. West Virginia went with Union. But back then, when John Brown took his crusade to free the enslaved to Harpers Ferry, it was still part of Virginia, and while some residents might have feared for the worst, most Americans could not have dreamed of the scale of bloodletting that was just around the corner, nor that the cause of emancipation—John Brown’s cause—would one day also become inextricably entwined with the preservation of the Union.
Harpers Ferry is most notable for its dramatic topography, which has nothing to do with its armory and arsenal—the object of Brown’s raid—but everything to do with its persistent pain at the very edge of Civil War. Strategically situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where today the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet, the town proper is surrounded on three sides by the high grounds at Bolivar Heights to the west, Loudoun Heights to the south, and Maryland Heights to the east that define its geography and the challenges facing both attackers and defenders. It is immediately clear to even the most amateur tactician that the town is indefensible without control of the heights.
I was drawn to Harpers Ferry Under Fire by design. I had already registered for the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, and selected Harpers Ferry National Historic Park as one of my battlefield tours. While I have visited Antietam and Gettysburg on multiple occasions, somehow I had never made it to Harpers Ferry. These CWI conference tours are typically quite competitive, so I was pleased when I learned that I had won a seat on the bus. And not only that—the tour guide was to be none other than Dennis Frye himself! I have met Dennis before, at other Civil War events, including a weekend at Chambersburg some years ago with the late, legendary Ed Bearss. Like Ed, Dennis is very sharp, with an encyclopedic knowledge of people and events. I assigned myself his book as homework.
The original itinerary was scheduled to include a morning tour of the town, designated as the Harpers Ferry Historic District—which hosts John Brown’s Fort as well as many restored nineteenth century buildings that have been converted into museums—and an afternoon tour focused on the battles and the heights. Inclement weather threatened, so Dennis mixed it up and had us visit the heights first. In retrospect, in my opinion, this turned out to have been the better approach anyway, because when you stand on the heights and look down upon the town proper below, you understand instantly the strategic implications from a military standpoint. Later, walking the streets of the hamlet and looking up at those heights, you can fully imagine the terror of the citizens there during the war years, completely at the mercy of whatever side controlled that higher ground.
The most famous example of that was when, during Lee’s Antietam campaign, he sought to protect his supply line by splitting his forces and
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the Fort, where John Brown’s raid ended in disaster, ten of his men killed, including two of his sons, and the badly wounded Brown captured, along with a handful of survivors. The original structure, which served as the Armory’s fire engine and guard house, was later dismantled, moved out of state and rebuilt, then dismantled again and eventually re-erected not far from the location where Brown and his men sought refuge that day, before it was stormed by the militia. It is open to the public. Walking around and within it today, there is an omnipresent eerie feeling. Whatever Brown’s personal flaws—and those were manifold—he went to Harpers Ferry on a sort of holy quest and was martyred for it. The final words he scribbled down in his prison cell—”I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”—rang in my ears as I trod upon that sacred ground.
If you are a Civil War buff, you must visit Harpers Ferry. Frye himself is retired, but if you can somehow arrange to get a tour of the park with this man, jump on the chance. Failing that, read Harpers Ferry Under Fire, for it will enhance your understanding of what occurred there, and through the text the authoritative voice of Dennis Frye will speak to you.
A link to Harpers Ferry National Park is here: Harpers Ferry National Park
More on the CWI Summer Conference is here: Civil War Institute at Gettysburg Summer Conference 2024
NOTE: Except for the cover art, all photos featured here were taken by Stan Prager
Review of: The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, by Katharine Hepburn
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
One of my favorite small venues for an intimate, unique concert experience is The Kate—short for The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center—in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a 285-seat theater with outstanding acoustics that
Hepburn was a little girl when she first stayed at her affluent family’s summer home in the tony Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, just a year after the opening of the then newly constructed Town Hall that today bears her name. She later dubbed the area “paradise,”
Now, full disclosure: I am a huge Bogie fan (my wife less so!). I recently read and reviewed the thick biography Bogart, by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax, and in the process screened twenty of his films in roughly chronological order. My wife sat in on some of these, including The African Queen, certainly her favorite of the bunch. If I had to pick five of the finest Bogie films of all time, that would certainly make the list. Often denied the recognition that was his due, he won his sole Oscar for his role here. A magnificent performer, in this case Bogart benefited not only from his repeat collaboration with the immensely talented director John Huston, but also by starring opposite the inimitable Kate Hepburn.
Hepburn’s book, The Making of the African Queen, showed up under the tree last Christmas morning—the original hardcover first edition, for that matter—and I basically inhaled it over the next couple of days. It’s an easy read. Hepburn gets the byline but it’s clear pretty early on that the “narrative” is actually comprised of excerpts from interviews she sat for, strung together to give the appearance of a book-length chronicle. But no matter. Those familiar with Kate’s distinctive voice and the cadence of her signature Transatlantic accent will start to hear her pronouncing each syllable of the text in your head as you go along. That quality is comforting. But it is nevertheless plagued by features that should make you crazy: it’s anecdotal, it’s uneven, it’s conversational, it’s meandering, and maddingly it reveals only what Hepburn is willing to share. In short, if this were any other book about any other subject related by any other person, you would grow not only annoyed but fully exasperated. But somehow, unexpectedly, it turns out to be nothing less than a delight!
If The African Queen is a cinema adventure, aspects of the film production were a real-life one. Unusual for its time, bulky Technicolor cameras were transported to on-location shoots in Uganda and Congo, nations today that then were still under colonial rule. The heat was oppressive, and danger seemed to lurk everywhere, but fears of lions and crocodiles were trumped by smaller but fiercer army ants and mosquitoes, a host of water-borne pathogens, as well as an existential horror of leeches. Tough guy Bogie was miserable from start to finish, but Hepburn reveled in the moment, savoring the exotic flora and fauna, and bursting with excitement. Still, almost everyone—including Kate—fell terribly ill at least some of the time with dysentery and a variety of other jungle maladies. At one point Hepburn was vomiting between takes into a bucket placed off-screen. The running joke was that the only two who never got sick were Bogie and director Huston, because they eschewed the local water and only drank Scotch!
Huston went to Africa hoping to “out-Hemingway” Hemingway in big game hunting, but his safari chasing herds of elephants turned into a lone antelope instead. He seemed to do better with Kate. The book does not openly admit to an affair, but the intimacy between them leaps off the page. Hepburn proves affable through every paragraph, although sometimes less than heroic. Readers will wince when upon first arrival in Africa she instantly flies into a fit of rage that has her evict a staff member from an assigned hotel room that to her mind rightly should belong to a VIP of her caliber! And while she is especially kind, almost to a fault, to every African recruited to serve her in various capacities, there is a patronizing tone in her recollections that can’t help but make us a bit uncomfortable today. Still, you cannot detect even a hint of racism. You get the feeling that she genuinely liked people of all stations of life, but could be unrepentantly condescending towards those who did not, like her, walk among the stars. Yet, warts and all—and these are certainly apparent—Kate comes off today, long after her passing, as likeable as she did to those who knew her in her times. And what times those must have been!
A link to The Kate: The Kate
A link to the The African Queen on IMDB: IMDB: The African Queen
My review of the Bogart bio: Review of: Bogart, by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax
NOTE: My top five Bogie films: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny—but there are so many, it’s difficult to choose…
Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
In yet another fortuitous connection to my attendance at the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, I sat in on an enlightening presentation by the historian David Silkenat1 on the
My next out of state trip subsequent to Gettysburg brought me to a small town in southern Vermont that one lazy afternoon found me exploring a used bookstore—housed in, of all places, a yurt2—where I stumbled upon The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community , by Matthew J. Clavin. Silkenet’s fascinating talk about maroons rang in my head as I bought the book, and I started reading it that very day.
Southern planters often held competing, contradictory notions in their heads simultaneously, while sidestepping the cognitive dissonance that practice should have provoked. On the one hand, they deluded themselves that their enslaved “property” were content in their condition of servitude. At the same time, they held them inferior in every sense and thought them nearly helpless, unable to successfully function independently. Slaveowners also dismissed the idea that African Americans could possibly make good soldiers, even though they did manage to fight on both sides during the Revolution. On the other hand, whites nursed a deep visceral fear of slave uprisings by armed blacks, whom despite their apparent contentment and incompetence might somehow team up and murder them in their sleep.
This heavy load of contradictions got hoisted menacingly above them to cast an ever-lengthening shadow when numbers of escaped slaves recruited into service by the British in what was then the Spanish colony of East Florida during the War of 1812 opted to remain behind after the Treaty of Ghent in a military fortification on Prospect Bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River heavily stocked with cannon and munitions and bolstered with support from allied Native Americans. These were not handfuls of fugitives out of reach in an unknown, inaccessible swamp somewhere, like most maroon settlements; this was a prominent, fully equipped, self-sustaining, armed camp, which even had the temerity to continue to fly the Union Jack—the so-called “Negro Fort.” This was an invitation to fellow runaways. This was not only a challenge to the white man’s “peculiar institution,” this was a thumbing of the nose to the entire planter mentality. This was an unacceptable threat. They could not bear it; they would not bear it.
The Battle of Negro Fort is very well-written, but it takes on an academic tone that makes it more accessible to a scholarly than a popular audience. But it is hardly dull, so those comfortable in the realm of historical studies will be undeterred. And it is, after all, a stirring tale that leads to a dramatic and tragic end. Just as the Venetians blew up the Parthenon in 1687 by scoring a hit on the gunpowder the Turks had stored there, a gunboat’s cannonball struck the powder magazine located in the center of the fort, which exploded spectacularly and obliterated the structure. Scores (or hundreds, depending upon the source) were killed, the leaders who survived executed, and those who failed to make their escape returned to slavery.
The author’s thesis underscores that the chief motive for the assault on the Negro Fort by Jackson’s agents in 1816 was to advance white supremacy rather than as part of a greater strategy to dominate the Floridas, which strikes as perhaps somewhat overstated. Still, Clavin cites later antebellum abolitionists who reference the Negro Fort with specificity in this regard, so he may very well have a point. In any case, this contribution to the historiography proves a worthy addition to the literature and an understanding of this less well-known period of early American history will be significantly enhanced by adding it to your reading list.
1Note: David Silkenat is the author of Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South.
2The used bookstore in the yurt is West End Used Books in Wilmington, VT
3Note: I reviewed the referenced Alan Taylor book here: Review of: American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Alan Taylor
Review of: Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, by Megan Kate Nelson
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
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
So it was while attending the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College that I learned with no little surprise that
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 , 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.
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!