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On March 1, Scribner will release Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America by historian Megan Kate Nelson, which explores how the country’s first national park came to be. Image courtesy of Scribner

‘Saving Yellowstone’ chronicles origins of America’s first national park

On March 1, Scribner will release Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America by historian Megan Kate Nelson, which explores how the country’s first national park came to be. Image courtesy of Scribner
On March 1, Scribner will release Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America by historian Megan Kate Nelson, which explores how the country’s first national park came to be. Image courtesy of Scribner

NEW YORK — Each year, nearly four million people visit Yellowstone National Park — one of the most popular of all national parks — but few know the fascinating and complex historical context in which it was established. Vividly narrated and illuminating, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America (Scribner; on sale
March 1) by historian Megan Kate Nelson (author of the Pulitzer Prize Finalist The Three-Cornered War) shines a light on the creation of our first national park, and makes clear how frequently the grandest goals of our country precipitate the suffering and subjugation of many who called this land home, and how our most progressive visions can be warped by the reality of the American project.

In 1871, the geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists through a narrow canyon into Yellowstone Basin, one of the last unmapped places on the continent, in hopes of proving that the rumors circulating about the region — tales of majestic landscapes and untold natural wonders, but also of incomparable danger — were true. Hayden saw this mission as a means to secure his place in history, but the American government that was funding the expedition had its own goals: to give Americans a sense of achievement and unity in the wake of the Civil War, and to encourage the westward expansion of the still-forming nation.

The expedition was a success, Hayden’s team returning laden with notes and samples, photographs and sketches — and with concern (tinged with self-interest) sparked by the apparent eagerness to commercialize the land that they sensed among white settlers they encountered. Hayden urged his friends and backers in Congress to take ownership of the land
and give control of it to the Department of the Interior, an unprecedented extension of the federal government’s authority. The ensuing debate over the Yellowstone Act made obvious the extreme division between the country’s two political parties, but the overwhelming majority enjoyed by the Republicans meant that the bill was passed, and on March 1, 1872, it was signed into law by President Grant with little fanfare, belying the historic nature of the Act and the prominence that Yellowstone and other national parks would eventually hold in the American consciousness.

Saving Yellowstone does not look at this journey from unexplored landscape to national icon in isolation, however; it follows Sitting Bull, and his efforts to protect the rights and safety of the Hunkpapa Lakota who called this region home for centuries before the ever-encroaching white men sought to claim their own sovereignty. Nelson also introduces railroad magnate Jay Cooke, who also lobbied Congress to protect the lands around the Yellowstone Basin, purportedly for romantic and selfless reasons of preserving the natural beauty and wonders found there, but more accurately due to his own desire to monopolize the region through the expansion of his own railroad project, which was well underway by the time of the survey. And she details how discussion of the Yellowstone Act came to overshadow Congress’s investigations into the Ku Klux Klan in the South, and how the decision to focus on the “unifying” of the country through this symbolic act meant that newly freed Black citizens were denied the federal support the desperately needed.

A narrative of adventure and exploration, Saving Yellowstone is also a story of Indigenous resistance, the struggles of Black southerners to bring racial terrorists to justice in a country that just wanted to move on, the way technology — the railroad, photography, mass publishing — can alter human history, and how the government tests the reach of its power across an expanding and divided nation.