Many Americans consider Yellowstone National Park a national treasure. From the heights of Eagle Peak, to its rainbow hued hot springs, to its burgeoning wolf population, Yellowstone holds many natural wonders. But while the park’s waters may be pristine, the history of its formation is full of contradictions about the meaning of freedom, opportunity, and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the United States. Megan Kate Nelson’s Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America dives into the uneasy history of the formation of this iconic national park.
The book centers on the stories of three men in the early 1870s: geologist Ferdinand Hayden, railroad tycoon Jay Cooke, and Huηkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Each story presents different interests in the Yellowstone basin. Hayden believed that establishing a park could further scientific research in geology, flora, and fauna. Cooke saw financial opportunity in Yellowstone’s potential to attract visitors, specifically around his plans to build the Northern Pacific Railroad, a vision that complemented Hayden’s. In contrast, Sitting Bull saw the region as part of his people’s ancestral homelands, trespassed on by the US army and White settlers.
As a result of Hayden’s scientific expedition and Cooke’s lobbying, Congress designated Yellowstone as the country’s first national park in 1872.
Through her retelling of how these men’s efforts played out, Nelson demonstrates that creating Yellowstone resulted in the further erasure of Indigenous populations from their own lands, whether through willful removal of Native peoples from their homes or the insistence that Indigenous cultures be assimilated into mainstream White society. This erasure can in many ways be traced to Hayden’s 1971 Yellowstone expedition. As Nelson aptly writes:
“Through its scientific data, visual images, and survey narrative, the 1871 Yellowstone Expedition would lay claim to this unique landscape on behalf of the federal government and the American people. Using this information, Congress could wrest Yellowstone’s lands and waterways away from Indigenous nations who claimed them as part of their homelands. It was settler colonialism, rooted in science.”
In other words, science is not neutral.
The formation of Yellowstone National Park also necessitated an expansion of federal powers. The federal government needed to take ownership of the park land and bestow management responsibility to the Department of the Interior. Opponents protested that the legislation creating Yellowstone gave too much power to the Department of the Interior. Others objected to the power grab over individual rights; the 1862 Homestead Act gave (White) Americans the right to develop “empty” land.
The expansion of federal power during this period in American history did not end with the creation of Yellowstone. In addition to the stories of Hayden, Cooke, and Sitting Bull, Nelson explores the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, during which President Ulysses S. Grant strove to expand federal power to protect the rights of Black citizens in the South and prosecute the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, Grant and other members of the government believed that Indigenous populations needed to be “civilized” and brought onto reservations.
In other words, the federal government used its power to protect Black communities on the one hand, but used it as a cudgel against Indigenous populations on the other. This inconsistency is evidenced by the carefully worded 14th Amendment, which granted equal rights to African Americans but “excluded ‘Indians, not taxed’ from citizenship.”
If the book falls short, it is in its incorporation of Sitting Bull’s perspective. While it is absolutely necessary to have an Indigenous story in this history of Yellowstone’s founding, the narrative around Sitting Bull felt a bit disconnected from the larger story. Perhaps this disconnect was tied to practical limitations, but some further connection between Sitting Bull and the creation of Yellowstone would have been helpful.
Ultimately, Nelson argues that the creation of Yellowstone reveals an essential part of the US’ tortured history of mistreatment of non-White peoples even as scientific marvels were found. And she makes a good case that Yellowstone represents a great symbol of the good and bad of this country.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.