Whenever my country’s absurd politics wear me out, I remind myself that we were the first nation to have a true national park: Yellowstone. Sometimes, I’ll even drive the four hours or so south from my home to the park and simply marvel at the vast rich high-altitude caldera and its wealth of wildlife, space and cold waters. What other nation, in the late 19th century, would have had the foresight to preserve such a place? Yes, Homo sapiens clogs the nearby countryside in the summers, filling the alpine air with exhaust fumes, sewage and the stink of snack foods. But Yellowstone National Park, all 1 million or so acres of it, is larger by far than any traffic jam or even the number of corpulent tourists sent airborne on the blunt horns of a bison bull. The early Western editorialists called it “Wonderland.” It was every bit of that, and it still is.
George Black, a fly-fishing writer and the editor of OnEarth magazine, has written Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone, a worthy historical doorstopper detailing exactly how the park came into existence. Why was the Yellowstone caldera so mysterious, so untouched, until long after the Civil War? The answer lies with the Blackfeet Nation, whose creation story commanded the tribe to prevent any trespass on its territory, a mandate that it followed with terrifying efficiency for centuries. Intrepid scouts like Kit Carson and Jim Bridger told campfire tales of geysers, brimstone, and scalding garishly colored springs, but until the Blackfeet were vanquished, the Upper Yellowstone was simply too dangerous to explore.
As Black makes clear, the history of Yellowstone is inextricable from the violence required to conquer the territory surrounding it. In the decade following the Civil War, campaigns against Indians and outlaws consumed leaders of both commerce and the military alike. Black explores a fertile territory here: These upstanding pioneers, some of the most brutal men in the history of the West, were also the leading proponents of preserving the wonders and beauties of the Yellowstone country. Among them was Nathaniel Pitt Langford of Helena, who led Montana’s infamous Vigilantes, hanging the unrighteous and the suspect from the goldfields of Bannock to the windy prairies of the Sun River Valley. Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, who would head the first hardscrabble expedition to explore the legends of the caldera and remain obsessed by the upper Yellowstone country for the rest of his life, commanded troops at the horrific Baker Massacre of Chief Heavy Runner’s band of Blackfeet on the Marias River in the winter of 1870. Haunted and deeply intelligent, Lt. Doane is one of the West’s most tragic characters, and Black deftly captures the contradictions that marked his life.
Contradiction, as Empire of Shadows makes clear, defined the nature of the West’s settling from the mid-1860s through the mid-’80s. The United States was a nation in wild ferment, roiled by waves of immigrants and an increasingly corrupt, roller-coaster economy. The Civil War with its preternatural level of violence (an estimated 620,000 dead) colored every aspect of those decades. Civil War veterans like Gen. Phil Sheridan applied the “deadly arithmetic” of Sharpsburg and Chickamauga to the last recalcitrant Native Americans, issuing orders to exterminate both the bison and the Blackfeet, even while writing letters that celebrated the beauty of the forests and plains. The wholesale slaughter of wildlife was accelerated, and the first conservation movements were born almost simultaneously. As the wilderness was ruthlessly eviscerated, a new idea, that nature’s wonders might be preserved rather than destroyed, swept the nation.
Once the Yellowstone region was mapped, President Ulysses S. Grant declared it a public park on March 1, 1872. Few openly opposed the declaration. Yes, the impulses were partly mercenary — a railroad, tourism, hotels, and kickbacks were already in the works — but Black goes beyond this fascinating historical and political maelstrom to examine the more complex and enduring American impulses to both vanquish and preserve. Empire of Shadows will resonate with any reader who loves the West and hopes to preserve its Wonderlands, which still survive despite the rampant energy development, sprawling subdivisions, and devouring homogeneity of modern America.
Empire of Shadows is available for $23 from Amazon.
In affiliation with High Country News.
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.