National Park

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

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

By DARRELL EHRLICK
Montanan Daily

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

Yet Pulitzer Prize for History nominee Megan Kate Nelson tackled the period by aiming for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. His 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 it. 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 to be preserved as a record of the country. During this time, railroad magnate and financier Jay Cooke viewed the park as a tourist destination and an economic engine for the railroads. And Sitting Bull, the powerful Lakota chief, saw the land as desperately in need of 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 conflicting 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 the ‘Indian Wars,'” Nelson said. “A lot of educators are going through Reconstruction to get to the West. Westward expansion is more compelling, but it shouldn’t be. Four million people have gained new freedom, and there’s had a setback, which needs to be explored.”

Part of this repression and freedom involves questions about why settlers went West and what happened when they encroached on Indigenous lands.

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

“It’s a Republican party, asserting new ideals and trying to bring people together. It was supposed to give all Americans something to be proud of. It was supposed to be the “nation of nature”. Although we didn’t claim the Roman ruins, we had these amazing natural wonders like Niagara Falls, Yosemite and Yellowstone,” Nelson said.

But these Republicans would shape the nation by not just creating national tourist attractions.

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

And even though the Ulysses S. Grant administration operated 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 discussing the extermination of Indigenous people in the West,” Nelson said.

It was Sitting Bull who also had an outsized influence in the creation of the park, as the hostile tribes who fought along the Bozeman Trail hampered earlier exploration of the lands around Yellowstone before and during the Civil War. Meanwhile, it was Cooke and the completion of the transcontinental railroad that made reaching these previously remote places possible.

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

Yet with the completion of the railroad, getting from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean could be done in less than a week.

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

For this reason, Cooke invested heavily in creating a more robust Western Railroad.

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

Throughout the book there are serendipitous circumstances, places where characters keep appearing 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 story, as most stories are about the “discovery” of Yellowstone National Park, even though tribes had been tied to the area for centuries.

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