The Epic Story of Yellowstone

Discover the epic story of the conquest of Yellowstone, a landscape uninhabited and inaccessible, as it was seen by the explorers carrying out the Washburn Expedition.

| August 2013

  • Geysers in Yellowstone
    The meaning of the curious sight began to dawn on them: a cheer went up; hats were thrown in the air. They had found a geyser.
    Photo By Fotolia/Tomasz Zajda
  • Empire of Shadows Book Cover
    “Empire of Shadows” comes as a radical reinterpretation of the nineteenth-century West, George Black casts Yellowstone’s creation as the culmination of three interwoven strands of history: the passion for exploration, the violence of the Indian wars, and the “civilizing” of the frontier.
    Cover Courtesy St. Martin’s Griffin

  • Geysers in Yellowstone
  • Empire of Shadows Book Cover

Empire of Shadows (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013) narrates the creation of the world’s first national park. George Black charts the history—including tales of violence and colonizing its inhabitants—of Yellowstone through vivid portraits of the lives of the explorers, soldiers, and scientists who sought to lay bare its mysteries. The following excerpt is from the prologue. 

The View from Mount Washburn

On August 29th, the eighth day out, the explorers had their first whiff of sulfur. It emanated from some bubbling springs at the mouth of a creek that plunged into the turquoise waters of the Yellowstone, through a chasm edged with “spires, pinnacles, towers, and many other capricious objects.” There they pitched camp for the night. The weather continued to display all the vagaries of the late summer season in the mountains: the snowstorm at the Three Forks had given way to ninety-two-degree sunshine at Fort Ellis, and then a soaking downpour at the Bottler brothers’ ranch, the last rough outpost of civilization. Now, a bitterly cold night had frozen the water in their buckets.

But their spirits had risen after the unsettling portents of the first few days. A bout of food poisoning had kept one man confined to his tent at the Bottlers’ ranch. Perhaps a surfeit of corn and wild berries was to blame. Or perhaps it was the canned peaches, a particular delicacy. There was a nervousness about hostiles, warnings from other frontiersmen that some of the party were likely to lose their hair. Two hunters encountered on the trail told of finding the bleached skeletons and severed heads of two miners killed two years earlier.

While the sick man lay sweating in his blankets, a band of a hundred Indians had watched the party from a high bluff across the river. To Langford especially, they had a menacing aspect. “For me to say that I am not in hourly dread of the Indians when they appear in a large force, would be a braggart boast,” he wrote in his diary. He was grateful for the party’s rifles, accurate at long range, and their plentiful supply of ammunition. But Lieutenant Doane, with wide experience of such matters, appeared unconcerned. The horsemen on the bluff were friendly Crows, he said, not the fearsome Blackfeet from the north, nor the Shoshone, both tribes cowed now by force of arms, nor the Sioux, who, despite repeated alarums, had never been known to venture this far to the west, into the valley of the upper Yellowstone. The Crows, as Langford surely knew, were more prone to horse theft than to murder.

Not that Langford himself was any stranger to violence. He had always seen himself as one of that elite of educated and ambitious men who would bring civilization to the frontier, and the frontier did not civilize easily. Tribes like the Blackfeet and the Sioux, who had ranged freely for centuries across their ancestral buffalo lands, were the most obvious impediment. But there were other obstacles, too, as men like Langford sought to build the institutions of law and order. Their methods were peremptory; in the absence of government authority in the Montana gold camps, where Langford had come to seek his fortune, those who disrupted the new civic order with robbery and murder were likely to find themselves hanging from the nearest tree. The Montana goldfields gave birth to the largest episode of vigilante violence in American history, and Langford was one of those who guided it.

With Doane invariably riding first, the explorers had found much to write about in the days since leaving Fort Ellis. They marveled at a singular formation of red rock that they mistook for cinnabar and named “the Devil’s Slide”; they picked their way across a bleak, boulder-strewn stretch of country that one member of the party called “the Valley of Desolation”; fighting vertigo, they peered down into three successive canyons, each more unfathomable than the last; and now they had stumbled upon this group of malodorous sulfur springs.

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