In her latest, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, released in the year of the park’s sesquicentennial, she narrows the aperture, examining the 1871 expedition that mapped the region and prepared the designation of the country’s first national park. But it’s difficult to read Saving Yellowstone without seeing it as a lesson from a national history that is “both beautiful and terrible.”
She tells Yellowstone’s 1870s history stories through the actions of three men wanting different outcomes: geologist-explorer Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who led a team to catalog its wonders within; Jay Cooke, a financier pushing the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad; and Sitting Bull, the Lakota leader intent on preserving his people’s rights to their land.
Their stories unfolded during the Reconstruction era, when United States President Ulysses S. Grant sought to bring free enslaved people into the body politic while also subjugating the Indigenous peoples of the West. “I don’t like riding over and shooting these poor savages,” Grant told a newspaper reporter. “I want to conciliate them and make them peaceful citizens.” The contradiction between the two policy goals was lost on white Americans at the time. Indeed, on consecutive pages, Nelson presents how Grant could hold both notions in his head:
It was imperative, Grant argued, that Congress pass legislation to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments where state governments had abandoned their duty to do so. […] Indigenous peoples were doomed, they determined, “by the irrepressible conflict between a superior and an inferior race.”
After a Northern victory in the Civil War, the United States government could have demanded equality for all but turned away from that ideal. Grant’s administration stepped off the gas in their pursuit of the Ku Klux Klan, and the better part of a century would go by before another major push for civil rights. Indigenous peoples weren’t granted citizenship until 1924, and legal recognition of rights to ancestral lands has only recently begun to emerge. The failure was not just evident in a botched Reconstruction but also in the Western territories. Nelson writes:
Yellowstone was a site of contention and a perfect symbol of what the United States had become by 1871: a nation whose “best idea” required Indigenous dispossession and whose white politicians embraced but then quickly abandoned the cause of racial justice.
By his second inaugural in March 1873, Grant was saying, “My efforts in the future will be directed to the restoration of good feeling between the different sections of our common country.” His party had begun to fracture, with mainline Republicans having to negotiate with a small, high-leverage group of moderates who expressed their belief in civil rights but also wanted the occupation of Southern states to end. The will to use federal power to promote public good waned, and by the middle of that decade, Grant and the Republicans saw the West as a way of shoring up their foundering political influence, a bargain that came at the expense of Indigenous peoples.
All three of Nelson’s characters struggle against their desires. Hayden endured the rigors of the backcountry, the political gauntlet, and the challenge of keeping a 32-person expedition focused on its task. But he emerges with a key insight: “The Yellowstone Basin proved for Hayden that it was both eruption and erosion that explained America’s geohistory.” Cooke had fashioned an image of himself as “God’s chosen instrument” to save the Union during the war, but he hit a wall of frustration in trying to finance the Northern Pacific and extend it through Lakota lands: Sitting Bull and his people “would rather die fighting the Northern Pacific than die of starvation because of it.”
Because this is history and not fiction, the actors don’t always end up with what they deserve. Hayden, afflicted with syphilis, lived until 1887, long enough to see the park established. Cooke lost his money in the Panic of 1873, but he made another fortune and by 1891 was taking a victory lap aboard the railroad he championed, one that lives on today:
My sensations as day after day I passed over this road and through this wonderful country, now so rapidly developing[,] […] were such as few have ever experienced. […] I felt that I was justified, and those who were so full of doubts long ago now gladly acknowledge that I was right.
Sitting Bull, shot dead in 1890, got the worst end of it:
It was a bitter end, to be killed by his own people. But Sitting Bull died as he had lived, standing in defense of his kin and his homelands. The Lakota, along with other Indigenous peoples across the West, the South, and the East, have continued to claim their lands for themselves, in defiance of U.S. government policies.
Yellowstone abides, a pillar of national pride and a symbol of what unites and divides us. If you’re inclined to see progress, a recent news release about the park’s 150th year kept the Indigenous connections front and center. If you visit the Little Bighorn site today, you will see the Indigenous perspective told alongside that of George Armstrong Custer and his men, a distinct change from 35 years ago when I first visited as a 17-year-old on a family vacation. Still, that comes across as thin gruel in light of what was taken. Land acknowledgments seem impotent without a full accounting of the damage done. Beautiful and terrible, indeed.
Early on in Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, Megan Kate Nelson invokes Thomas Cole’s 1836 observation about the visual appeal of waterfalls to describe the awe that Hayden’s group felt at the falls of Yellowstone, but it also speaks to the tangled nature of the country that now claims the park: “[A] single existence in which we perceive unceasing change and everlasting duration.”
Craig Lancaster is the author of nine novels, including And It Will Be a Beautiful Life (2021) and 600 Hours of Edward (2009). He lives in Billings, Montana, with his wife, novelist Elisa Lorello, a dog named Fretless, and Spatz the cat.