An interview with 'Saving Yellowstone' author Megan Kate Nelson
"I think this was a moment when the federal government reached for something higher."
One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law “[a]n Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park,” completing a whirlwind effort to establish unprecedented federal protections for a vast area that the government had only comprehensively surveyed a little over seven months earlier.
It wasn’t quite the first time Congress had acted to preserve an iconic Western landscape — eight years earlier, the Yosemite Grant Act had accomplished the same goal with a bequest to the state of California — but the Yellowstone Act’s historic exercise of federal power has become the rare piece of the nation’s history that is almost universally treasured. Today, almost as often as you hear someone describe the majestic beauty of Firehole Canyon or the Great Falls themselves, you hear praise for the foresight and ambition it must have taken to inaugurate what Wallace Stegner, c/o Ken Burns, called America’s “best idea.”
Historian Megan Kate Nelson’s Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, available in bookstores today, doesn’t reject this self-congratulatory mythology, but it does deepen and complicate it. America’s first national park, Nelson writes, was “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.” Like Nelson’s previous book, The Three-Cornered War — a 2021 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History — Saving Yellowstone weaves into its narrative an immersive account of the struggle against white settlement waged by the Lakota people under the leadership of Sitting Bull in the lands just east of Yellowstone in the early 1870s.
Should these often-overlooked links to the Black Hills War later that decade, or the debt that Yellowstone’s creation owes to the savvy P.R. ploys of a Gilded Age financier and would-be railroad tycoon, diminish one of the first great blows struck for conservation and public ownership in the West? How should we balance the scales between, as Nelson puts it, “the nation’s peculiar combination of the sublime and the terrible”?
With Yellowstone’s 150th birthday approaching, I spoke with Nelson about some of these questions last week, and our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows below.
A lot of your background has been in Civil War history, and that’s a field where historians can spend years and years, just doing work within the confines of 1860 to 1865. So what drew you to expand the scope of your work a bit to this period and the founding of Yellowstone?
It’s true, the Civil War can really suck you in. It doesn’t like to let you go. But when I was writing The Three-Cornered War, there’s a protagonist in the book, John Clark, who was Surveyor General of the New Mexico Territory. And when I was researching his life and his work, because I was doing broader research in the history of surveying in America, I ran across Ferdinand Hayden’s scientific survey of Yellowstone in 1871, and realized the 150th anniversary of the Yellowstone Act is coming up. Anniversaries are such important moments where we take stock of different places, different events in American history, and try and figure out why they were important then, and how they’re still important today. So that was a major motivating factor.
And I also had just finished writing a book where I was looking at the Civil War from a really unexpected place, the Southwest — and I thought about how the expedition and the preservation of Yellowstone in 1871 and 1872 is right in the middle of Reconstruction, which is not a period that we usually associate with the West. We usually talk about Reconstruction almost entirely in the South, right? And for good reason, because politically the country’s trying to come back together, the Confederate states are trying to reenter the union, four million Black southerners are trying to figure out their new roles and their lives after emancipation. But I was wondering, you know, what, then is happening in the West during this period? Is it serving the same kind of purpose it did in the Civil War? And what would happen if we looked at Reconstruction from an unexpected place like Yellowstone? Would that make us think differently about Reconstruction, and would it make us think differently about Yellowstone?
You do cover a lot of what was going on in the South in this book, and obviously its subtitle refers to Reconstruction. What are the points of connection there that make this a Reconstruction story, as opposed to just something that happened to occur during Reconstruction?
This was a moment where the federal government is really expanding its reach across the nation. It’s expanding its reach into the South, especially with the campaign against the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. But it’s also expanding its reach in the West, building transcontinental railroads, getting the Homestead Act up and running, and also accelerating campaigns against Indigenous peoples — refusing to make treaties with them any longer, changing U.S. Indian policy to be much more aggressive, much more focused on removing Native people to reservations, to get them out of the way, really, for white settlement of the West.
And I think those projects are related. They seem so contradictory to us now, but they are related in that the Republican Party is really trying to exert control nationwide. They are pushing for this larger vision of a nation of free labor and free development. That means both providing for Black southerners and Black Americans across the country, and then also dispossessing Native people of their lands, and possibly providing an avenue to citizenship for them in the future. So those goals for them were not contradictory, they were twin goals for Republicans at this moment. It was interesting to think about Reconstruction in that context, as a national political project. And then there was a cultural project, too, where Americans were trying to come back together after a really destructive and traumatic civil war, and to believe in the country again, as an exceptional nation. And Yellowstone gave them the opportunity to do that.
Both in this book and in The Three-Cornered War, you take a lot of care in presenting the perspectives of the Indigenous people who are part of these stories. I can imagine that, whether it’s because of a lack of primary sources or just because so much history has excluded those perspectives, there can be challenges in doing that. What is that process like for you?
As a non-Native historian, I always want to be mindful that Native history, first of all, belongs to the Native people who lived that history and have been telling that history for thousands of years. So I try to privilege Native sources whenever I can find them. For the projects I’ve undertaken in the past and then for Saving Yellowstone, the individuals who I have been writing about, I’ve been very lucky that Indigenous historians have been writing about them, and produced books and collections of primary material and oral histories, and have published those, so that I as a non-Native historian can benefit from those and use those sources to tell the story. It is a challenge, but I’ve been helped by the fact that there is a thriving culture of Indigenous history, both within individual nations, and then also among historians.
There’s a lot of great work out there that I was able to use to situate Sitting Bull in this moment, which I do think has been overlooked by historians who tend to write about Sitting Bull, who are looking at it almost always from a military perspective. They sort of miss this moment in 1871 and 1872, when Sitting Bull is starting to bring his allies and his kin together to fight the U.S. government. To me, this really is the start of the road to the Battle of Greasy Grass, or Little Bighorn — their amazing victory in that battle, but also a real turning point for the Lakota people.
You have three primary characters in the book. Sitting Bull is well-known, and Hayden is somewhat well-known for this expedition. The third is probably the least familiar to readers today. Who was Jay Cooke, and how does he fit into this story?
Yeah, you wouldn’t think that an investment banker from Philadelphia was going to be a major player in the story of the Great Northwest, or in Yellowstone proper. But Jay Cooke is a fascinating figure. He’s born in Ohio, to very ambitious father who’s a lawyer. He was very smart, very good at math, had a sort of intuitive sense of business, and ended up starting his own investment bank in 1860. The Civil War came, and he made millions of dollars selling war bonds to raise money for the Union war effort. And then in the years after the war, he was sort of casting about for a project, and he hit upon the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was meant to be the second transcontinental — it was called the Centennial Line, because they wanted to finish it in 1876. And so he thought, “Oh, here’s another patriotic project, I can sell bonds, I can get people to invest in this national effort.”
So he became very interested in Hayden’s expedition, because he thought it would help him advertise the Northern Pacific. Because Cooke was also quite prescient in that he was one of these early business guys who understood the power of advertising. He knew that if he could get some really good images of Yellowstone, and get some people to write about it, he could convince investors to give him money to keep building the track, which he intended to go about 15 miles north of Yellowstone Basin. But he did not anticipate the resistance that he got from Sitting Bull. It’s unclear if Sitting Bull knew that Hayden was in the area, but he definitely knew that that Jay Cooke’s Northern Pacific surveyors were in the region east of Yellowstone.
They wanted to run track right through Lakota territory, and he was having none of it.
As far as the genesis of the idea of preserving the park goes, perhaps understandably, there have been some conflicting accounts, maybe there was some parallel thinking going on. And then Congress ended up acting pretty quickly to get this done. What’s your sense of how close we came to having a private resort or a bunch of speculators laying claim to what became the park?
I think it came pretty close. I mean, there were already people in the park, planning on building private hotels and health resorts for people to take the waters and heal themselves — in the geysers of Yellowstone, which I would not recommend. Very unwise.
But I think it was a confluence of factors. When Hayden chose to go to Yellowstone in 1871, he was propelled by the fact that there had been some amateur explorers rooting around, and he wanted to make his mark. He was enabled by the completion of the transcontinental railroad two years before, that enabled him to get actually get out to Utah really fast, and he didn’t have to go through Lakota country, either. Then he had Jay Cooke interested in his venture — and it was, in fact, Jay Cooke’s P.R. man, A.B. Nettleton, who suggested to Hayden in November 1871 that when he was writing his report to Congress, he might want to suggest the preservation of Yellowstone as a national park. I don’t think Hayden had been thinking that up to that point, but he immediately saw the utility of it. And then it was right at a time when Republicans had President Grant and a very comfortable majority in Congress. The Republican Party really believed in federal supremacy, they believed in federal power, and using federal power for the common good, and they saw this opportunity to preserve a place that Hayden had convinced them was unique in all the world.
But this was a new idea — this idea that you would take land from Wyoming Territory, and then a little bit of Idaho and a little bit of Montana, and give it to the Department of the Interior. It would become a federal space, but not to survey and sell to people, to keep it out of development. That was a new idea, and it was not a given. I mean, 89% of Republicans voted for the Yellowstone Act and 70% of Democrats voted against it. So it was bipartisan, but it was not unanimous.
And as you write, other than a tiny 1,000-acre park established on Mackinac Island in Michigan in 1875, it took almost two decades after the Yellowstone Act before the next national park was created.
Most people say, “Oh, it must have been unanimous, you know, now we’ve got 63 national parks, and they’re all amazing.” But the main complaint was that if we take these lands and give them to the people for their benefit, for recreation or for science, you were taking away the land rights of white settlers. And those were really seen to be paramount. This is the whole source of Jeffersonian agrarianism, it’s the source of the American Dream, it’s propelled by the Homestead Act — Americans, especially white settlers, are supposed to be able to take possession of land or buy land from the federal government for cheap and develop it. This was considered a sacrosanct right, especially in the American West. So to have this federal land taking, many Democrats opposed it in this moment, and even some Republicans opposed it.
But I think it has everything to do with the fact that the federal government had grown by leaps and bounds during the Civil War, and was continuing to grow during Reconstruction and taking on new responsibilities. And the country was also looking to come back together not only politically, but also in a cultural sense, and have a unifying moment. And Yellowstone, which seems so unique and so amazing, and provided that space for Americans to really believe in themselves again.
And there’s a sense in which that’s still true, right? I mean, everybody loves visiting Yellowstone, and we value the land itself, but we also like to tell ourselves what a great idea this was, and what a great country are we are for having this idea. What do you make of that kind of mythology of Yellowstone’s creation?
Americans at the time believed this, too. They believed that, as one person wrote to Hayden, the national park idea is an idea that could only be thought of in America. It’s part of that whole idea of American exceptionalism — and there was a real conviction that was very longstanding that America’s natural landscapes were uniquely phenomenal. There is that sense that America’s landmass, and its sheer beauty, and its sublimity, are proving something about the nation.
It’s a very deeply rooted part of the American myth, and the national park system kind of shores up that idea — that not only do we have these places, but we have saved these place so that people can continue to enjoy them. And I think it’s something that we can be proud of. I think this was a moment when the federal government reached for something higher.
Reading the book, I was thinking about some of the debates going on nationally about the meaning of our history, and which parts of that history should be emphasized or not. Maybe certain people value the simpler, more positive story about Yellowstone’s preservation. Having just written a book about how it’s a bit more complicated, and it involved Native dispossession and railroad speculators and all that — what’s the case you would make as to why we should want to understand this more complex history?
This is why I thought Yellowstone was so fascinating and why, in the book, I argue that it is a metaphor for the nation, because it is beautiful and terrible at the same time. It’s both fragile and strong. And I think that’s true about this country. We can still believe in the wonder and the beauty of Yellowstone and understand that it has a hard history, that saving it required Native land dispossession. We can hold those two ideas in our heads at the same time.
I think we’re all better off when we know the fullness of history, whether it be a place or an event or a group of people. It helps us to understand better how a place came to be. I don’t think that that’s a problem. I don’t think it should be a problem. We can still embrace Yellowstone as a national icon, while understanding its hard history, and while acknowledging its hard history. I don’t think it takes anything away from the sublimity of Yellowstone geyser basins, its mud pot region, its amazing valley and megafauna, to know its more complex history. I think it actually enriches your experience when you visit that place.
Around four million people will visit Yellowstone this year. The park has a full schedule of 150th anniversary events throughout the summer. What should all these visitors be thinking about this place when they go?
One thing I think they should think about is that when you drive into Yellowstone, know that you are following a path that was first pounded out by Native people in the region. They used Yellowstone as a thoroughfare, they used it as a campsite, they used it as hunting grounds. They were there first. They were the stewards of the land, very effective stewards of the land, before white Americans got there. To be following in those footsteps, I think that’s a good way to think about Yellowstone when you’re a tourist there — that as you’re driving around, you are experiencing these places, not only as Hayden, as a scientist and an explorer, experienced it in 1871, but as Native people moved through it and came to understand it for thousands of years before that.