On 150th anniversary, new book looks back at the founding of Yellowstone National Park

By: - March 1, 2022 2:00 pm

“Saving Yellowstone” by Megan Kate Nelson (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

When educators cover American history, the Civil War period usually gives way to the westward expansion. Often, Reconstruction, the period directly following the Civil War, is glossed over or only presented as a movement in the U.S. South.

However, Megan Kate Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize nominee for history, has tackled the period, taking aim at the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Her latest book, “Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America,” demonstrates that the idea of changing America and rebuilding it in a better image didn’t just happen in the South, but was part of a larger Republican ideal that led to the founding of America’s first national park.

And yet, the book is told from three perspectives, including that of explorer Ferdinand Hayden, who saw illustrations and paintings of Yellowstone and wanted it preserved as a testament to the country. Meanwhile, railroad magnate and financier Jay Cooke saw the park as a tourist destination and economic engine for railroads. And Sitting Bull, the powerful Lakota leader, saw the land as desperately needing protection from the hordes of settlers who would otherwise lay claim to the area, which had held deep religious significance for generations of different Native tribes.

The book illustrates how different motives and interests led to an ultimately conflicted view of the park, which has been dubbed the “crown jewel” of the country’s national park system.

“The Civil War period with its battles and violence really continued into the Western expansion and ‘Indian Wars,’” Nelson said. “A lot of educators bolt through Reconstruction to get to the West. The Western expansion is more compelling, but it shouldn’t be. Four million people got new freedom, and there was pushback, which needs to be explored.”

Part of that pushback and freedom involves questions of why settlers went West and what happened as they encroached on Native lands.

And yet, the nascent idea of creating Yellowstone National Park was meant to be an act of unity.

“This is a Republican Party, which is asserting new ideals and trying to bring people back together again. This was supposed to give all Americans something to be proud of. This was supposed to be ‘Nature’s Nation.’ While we didn’t have claim to Roman ruins, we had these amazing natural wonders like Niagara Falls, Yosemite and Yellowstone,” Nelson said.

But these Republicans would shape the nation by more than just creating national tourist attractions.

“These ‘Radical Republicans’ also gave us the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which were galvanizing events that helped to fight the growing racial threats in the South like the Ku Klux Klan,” Nelson said.

And even though the Ulysses S. Grant administration ran on a platform of peace, for people of color, including Native Americans, it was anything but peaceful.

“They were fighting for emancipation and Black rights in the South while also discussing extermination of indigenous peoples in the West,” Nelson said.

It was Sitting Bull who also had an outsized influence in the creation of the park as hostile tribes that fought along the Bozeman Trail stymied earlier exploration of the land around Yellowstone prior and during the Civil War. Meanwhile, it was Cooke and the completion of the transcontinental railroad that helped travel to these previously remote locations possible.

“Before then, who has the time and money to take that kind of vacation?” Nelson said.

Yet, with the completion of the railroad, going from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean could happen in less than a week.

“And people saw all these amazing landscapes,” Nelson said. “And they had never seen anything like it.”

Because of that, Cooke invested heavily in creating a more robust western railroad.

“He really believed it was a good investment. It was not. There wasn’t a lot there,” Nelson said. “The investment was based on a future dream, but it destroyed him because he couldn’t let go of it.”

Throughout the book, there are circumstances of chance, places where characters keeping on popping up coincidentally, for example, Hayden and Cooke both being at the same Union League meeting in Philadelphia.

The book also helps put the Native perspective into the narrative, as most histories speak of Yellowstone National Park being “discovered” even though tribes had been attached to the area for centuries.

“It really shows the regional impact that these players had. They have an outsized influence on the story,” Nelson said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.