cover image Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

Megan Kate Nelson. Scribner, $27 (320) ISBN 978-1-982141-33-2

Historian Nelson (The Three-Cornered War) delivers an intriguing if disjointed chronicle of the 1871 expedition that led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park and its links to the era’s racial politics. The narrative revolves between geologist Ferdinand Hayden, leader of the 1871 Yellowstone Expedition; Jay Cooke, an investment banker committed to building the Northern Pacific Railroad; and Lakota chieftain Sitting Bull, who refused to negotiate with U.S. government and military officials in the region. Nelson makes excellent use of the diaries and letters of expedition members to convey Yellowstone’s natural wonders, noting that painter Thomas Moran described the colors of Yellowstone Canyon as “beyond the reach of human art,” and that Hayden called Yellowstone Lake “one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever beheld.” However, though Sitting Bull opposed the encroachment on Lakota lands by settlers and surveyors for the Northern Pacific Railroad, other Indigenous peoples were more closely associated with the Yellowstone Basin, and a credit crunch caused Cooke’s investment bank to close before the railroad could be completed. Elsewhere, Nelson takes long detours into the politics and racial tensions of the Reconstruction-era South, including the federal government’s actions against the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. Despite its fascinating elements and eloquent evocations of the Western landscape, this kaleidoscopic history doesn’t quite coalesce. (Mar.)