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Saving Yellowstone

Saving Yellowstone Summary

Saving Yellowstone Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America: 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. In late July 1871, the geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists through a narrow canyon into Yellowstone Basin, entering one of the last unmapped places in the country. The survey’s discoveries led to the passage of the Yellowstone Act in 1872, which created the first national park in the world.

Now, author Megan Kate Nelson examines the larger context of this American moment, illuminating Hayden’s survey as a national project meant to give Americans a sense of achievement and unity in the wake of a destructive civil war. 

Saving Yellowstone follows Hayden and two other protagonists in pursuit of their own agendas: Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader who asserted his peoples’ claim to their homelands, and financier Jay Cooke, who wanted to secure his national reputation by building the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Great Northwest. Hayden, Cooke, and Sitting Bull staked their claims to Yellowstone at a critical moment in Reconstruction, when the Grant Administration and the 42nd Congress were testing the reach and the purpose of federal power across the nation.

A narrative of adventure and exploration, Saving Yellowstone is also a story of Indigenous resistance, the expansive reach of railroad, photographic, and publishing technologies, and the struggles of Black southerners to bring racial terrorists to justice. It reveals how the early 1870s were a turning point in the nation’s history, as white Americans ultimately abandoned the the higher ideal of equality for all people, creating a much more fragile and divided United States.

About the Author

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has written about the Civil War, US western history, and American culture for The New York TimesThe Washington PostSmithsonian MagazinePreservation Magazine, and Civil War Monitor. Nelson earned her BA in history and literature from Harvard University and her PhD in American studies from the University of Iowa, and she has taught at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown. Nelson is the author of Saving Yellowstone, The Three-Cornered WarRuin Nation, and Trembling Earth.

Saving Yellowstone Introduction

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Interest of One Is the Interest of All
Washington, D.C. January 1871.

It was already dark when Ferdinand Hayden hurried out of his office at the Smithsonian Institution and across the lawns of the Mall. The gas lamps placed along Pennsylvania Avenue were tiny pinpricks in the distance. Hayden strode across a wooden footbridge that spanned the Washington Canal, its sludgy depths covered with a skim of ice. He followed the canal toward the Capitol for a few blocks, then turned left onto 9th Street.

Soon Lincoln Hall rose before him, its four stories of arched windows glowing with light. Hayden fell in with the crowd streaming into the main entrance. After presenting his thirty-cent ticket, he made his way to the auditorium and found a seat. The space was impressive, with soaring ceilings, chandeliers, and neoclassical décor. Hayden settled in and waited for the evening’s lecture to begin.

Soon a man with small eyes, furrowed brows, and a full, bushy beard stepped out onto the stage. The audience had been promised a speech from this lecturer, “describing a trip during the past season to a hitherto unexplored region at the head-waters of the Yellowstone, including discoveries of CATARACTS MANY HUNDRED FEET HIGH, ACTIVE VOLCANOES, FOUNTAINS OF BOILING WATER TWO HUNDRED FEET HIGH, and many other features of scenery, interesting and striking in the highest degree.

Nathaniel Langford did not disappoint. The Montana Territory booster recalled his expedition’s journey in the summer and fall of 1870, describing the party’s struggles through “narrow defiles, and up sharp declivities.” He held forth on the beautiful sights they beheld, including “the glowing peaks of the Yellowstone, their summits half enveloped in clouds, or glittering with perpetual snow.” The audience applauded throughout Langford’s graphic portrayals of Yellowstone’s massive waterfalls, towering basalt columns, and hot and cold sulfur springs.

Langford’s tone became more solemn, however, as he explained that one of the party, Truman Everts, wandered off near the shores of Yellowstone Lake. The team suspended their explorations for a week to search the trails and mountainsides for their lost man but could not find any sign of him. With their rations running low and storms on the horizon, Langford lamented, they gave up the search and headed back to Helena. All turned out well in the end, the speaker assured his audience. Truman Everts was found.

This was extraordinary, as were Langford’s subsequent descriptions of Yellowstone’s geyser basin, which the expedition members discovered on their return journey. These marvelous geothermal features erupted from the ground “in every direction, projecting water to various heights.

We were convinced,” Langford intoned, “that there was not on the globe another region where… nature had crowded so much of grandeur and majesty with so much novelty and strangeness.

Ferdinand Hayden listened to Langford with a mixture of interest and concern. He had already been planning a survey to Yellowstone for the 1871 season. Langford’s lecture convinced him that he must move forward, or this land of wonders would be overrun with amateur outfits. It was vital that Hayden claim the area for science—and for himself—before that happened. His mentor at the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer Baird, agreed.

You will make more capital and accomplish more for science,” Baird suggested to him, “by concentrating effort upon one region like the Yellow Stone, than by attempting to traverse an immense section of country.

If Hayden could focus on this single extraordinary area and come to understand its geology, hydrology, and geothermal features, he would establish his scientific reputation in America and Europe and become the nation’s most famous explorer. His survey would also allow the federal government to assess, distribute, and sell its lands to white settlers and entrepreneurs, changing the demographics of the region and shaping the future of the West.

A child of divorce who grew up in poverty, Hayden learned early on that he had to hustle to make his way in the world. His intelligence was evident to his family, and they managed to send him to Oberlin College in the late 1840s. There, he captivated some classmates with his intensity, his bright blue eyes flashing when he talked about his projects. Others found his nervous energy and competitiveness off-putting. He became interested in geology, and in the major debates of the day in that field: Was the earth old or young? How did geological change happen, in short bursts or long periods of change? What forces had created North America’s mountains and canyons and broad river valleys?

Because medical school was the only path available to men interested in studying natural sciences in the mid-nineteenth century, Hayden enrolled in Albany (New York) Medical College in 1851.7 His background meant he was an outsider in the elite world of American science, and he worked throughout his career to gain acceptance from his fellow scientists. He soon became interested in animal and botanical fossils, tiny specimens that could be used to establish the age of different landforms and reveal the secrets of the earth’s history. Two years into his studies, Hayden set out on his first important fossil-collecting trip to the White River Badlands west of the Missouri River.

The clay and silt hills of that region, eroded into needles of rock, exposed at least ten substrata that were packed with the fossils of ancient animals. Oglála Lakotas were likely the first to excavate these specimens, but once American scientists began to explore the region in the 1840s—without Lakota consent and in violation of several treaties the U.S. government had made with them—they claimed it as their own and called it “The Boneyard.” When Hayden arrived there, he was one of a growing group of collectors excavating fossils from these lands. They all hoped to make their reputations in the study of geology by using specimens stolen from Indian country.

In the Boneyard, Hayden discovered that he did not merely enjoy collecting fossils, he excelled at it. He had a talent for spotting important rock shards, and the speed with which he gathered them was impressive. Hayden liked to tell anyone who would listen that during a subsequent trip to Upper Missouri in 1854–55, the Lakota warriors who tracked him as he collected fossils in their lands gave him a nickname: Man Who Picks Up Stones Running. It was a likely apocryphal but useful story, one that suggested that he secured permission to hunt fossils on Lakota land (he had not), and that he also earned their admiration for his skill (he did not).

At first, Hayden believed he could make a living collecting fossils and selling them to other scientists.10 He had no family money like many of his fellow scientists, so he had to work constantly to support himself. He often dreamed of becoming wealthy from the fossil trade.

A man without money,” he told a friend, “is a bore.

But he also craved recognition in the scientific community and a more expansive, nationwide fame. To achieve these goals, Hayden thought, he would have to attach himself to the geographic surveys that were already underway in the West during the 1850s, funded by the federal government and organized by the U.S. Army.

Territorial surveys were almost as old as the nation itself. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out for the West in 1804, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the region’s rivers and find a pathway to the Pacific. They were also meant to impress upon the Native peoples of the region, particularly the Lakota who controlled access to the upper Missouri River, that the American federal government had power they could not resist.

Their two-year expedition demonstrated that the continent was massive and that it would take many more surveys to map it. Lewis and Clark’s reports also suggested that the Lakota were not particularly impressed with their demonstrations of power and would likely act to protect themselves, their river access, and their lands. The military academy at West Point trained a corps of engineers to do this work, and the wars of expansion and empire that the United States fought in the 1830s and ’40s provided them with opportunities to examine the western territories won in these conflicts.

When the opportunity arose for Hayden to join an army expedition into the northern reaches of the Rocky Mountains in the summer of 1856, he lobbied hard for a job as the expedition’s geologist and naturalist, and got it. Hayden took advantage of the army’s supply chain and protection to gather a large new collection of fossils on Lakota lands and to cultivate contacts among the U.S. territorial officials across the West.

It was on this trip that Hayden first heard stories about the Yellowstone Basin. Jim Bridger, a legendary guide who joined the expedition, claimed to have stumbled on the geysers and hot springs there during his travels.

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Saving Yellowstone

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Product details:

EditionInternational Edition
ISBN1982141336, 978-1982141332
Posted onMarch 1, 2022
Page Count320 pages
AuthorMegan Kate Nelson

Saving Yellowstone By Megan Kate Nelson PDF Free Download - Epicpdf

Saving Yellowstone Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America: 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. In late July 1871, the geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists through a narrow canyon into Yellowstone Basin, entering one of the last unmapped places in the country. The survey’s discoveries led to the passage of the Yellowstone Act in 1872, which created the first national park in the world.


Author: Megan Kate Nelson

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