The Epic Story of Yellowstone

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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.
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“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.

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.

Langford and Doane kept the most detailed diaries, although most of their companions made notes of their own. Some would publish newspaper and magazine accounts of the expedition, while the jottings of others are best described as perfunctory. Langford’s business partner, Samuel Hauser, though a successful Helena banker and a future governor of Montana after the territory acquired statehood, seemed scarcely literate. Each day he scrawled a few misspelled words in a dull pencil. Contemplating the snow-capped spectacle of the Absaroka mountains, where the two unfortunate prospectors had been killed, he managed just this: “cenery supurb.”

The camp above the sulfur springs was at 6,500 feet, but the mountain they proposed to climb today towered more than three thousand higher. They broke camp at eight o’clock, though not all of them joined the trip. Among the three who stayed behind was a bright and self-effacing young Helena lawyer named Cornelius Hedges, a close friend of Langford’s and another prominent mason. He was an improbable explorer, slightly built and something of a hypochondriac. Let the others make the tiring ride up the mountain, Hedges said; he would climb instead to the top of a beetling cliff that overlooked the campsite, to savor the view of the Yellowstone and update his journal.

At the foot of the mountain, the riders diverged from the Indian trail that Lieutenant Doane had been following for the past several days. The ascent from here was steep and rough, through stands of timber, across meadows of late-blooming wildflowers where grizzly bears began to forage at this time of year for berries and whitebark pine nuts, over bare rocks and ravines, past the tree line and the snow line. At the summit, they took measurements with an aneroid barometer, although the numbers varied widely. Perhaps not all the members of the party were familiar with the workings of the instrument. Hauser, a former civil engineer with a talent for triangulation, estimated their altitude at 10,700 feet. Less, Langford said; about 9,800. Doane fixed the figure at 9,966 feet. Yet while there was disagreement about the altitude, there was no dispute about the name. By common acclaim, they dedicated the mountain to their ailing general, who had surprised them all by riding alone to the summit on the previous day. It would be Mount Washburn.

“The view from the summit is beyond all description,” Doane wrote. His whole field of vision was rimmed by mountains: to the east, the dark, white-tipped mass of the Absarokas; to the west, the forested slopes and chiseled rock faces of the Madison and Gallatin ranges; straight ahead to the south, the sheer-sided silhouette of the distant Tetons. A pellucid lake, dotted with islands, occupied the middle ground.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone cut a ragged line across the open landscape, and 20 miles beyond it, a column of smoke rose hundreds of feet above the trees. They took it for a forest fire, not an uncommon occurrence after summer lightning strikes, until someone remarked that the smoke seemed to be rising in regular puffs, as if it was being expelled from the earth with great force. As they concentrated on the sight, their senses sharpened in the cold, thin air, they convinced themselves that this smoke was also making a sound, a low roar–although at such a distance that this might have been an aural illusion. 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.

As Doane took in the view, he became aware of other plumes of white, more and more of them. Some appeared in a sudden spurt of steam; others formed lazy, drifting clouds. He was looking, astonished, at dozens of geysers and hot springs, scattered all across the great circular basin. The scene put him in mind of the Alleghenies, with the iron and coal furnaces going full blast. While the others took their measurements and raised their hurrahs, Doane alone seemed to understand the totality of what he was seeing. All this was the vast crater, the caldera, of an extinct volcano. And that meant that everything they had heard–the campfire yarns spun by Jim Bridger and the mountain men, the wild exaggerations of the gold prospectors, the tales told by the Jesuit fathers of their travels with the Blackfeet to a place they called the “land of many smokes”–all of it was true.

Over the days that followed, Doane recorded the explorers’ progress conscientiously in his journal, covering page after page in his bold, sloping hand. It was the first coherent record of the sights that tens of millions would flock to see–the canyons and falls of the Yellowstone, the shimmering lake, the mud pots and geyser basins. Doane’s report was a masterpiece of crisp, clear observation. Before the next year was out, it would be favorably compared to the journals of Lewis and Clark; within two, it would be instrumental in the creation of one of the nation’s greatest icons.

On March 1, 1872, as President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing the world’s first national park, the army was at work on its official history of the Second Cavalry. It traced each proud episode, from the hunting down of the Seminoles in the Everglades in the late 1830s, through the heroic fights against the Confederacy at Bull Run and Manassas, to the Piegan affair of 1870, in which the central role of Lieutenant Doane in destroying the hostile village on the Marias was singled out for special praise.

The history was written by an elite group of colonels and generals, but remarkably they asked Doane, a mere lieutenant, to contribute a chapter of his own in which he would recount his memories of the Yellowstone expedition. Violence, exploration, and civilization were to be woven together in the army’s salute to this young officer, as they were in the history of the West.

Doane wrote with pride:

It is something to break down the barriers of the unknown; to behold the mists of darkness fade; to marshal the videttes of the vanguard of progress; to form the crest of that wave of civilization which sweeps onward, invincible and without ceasing, through the breadth of a great continent, until it meets the reflux tide from the broad Pacific slopes.

As for Yellowstone:

When the park shall have been made accessible to the pleasure-seekers of the world, it will be a satisfaction not to be derived from wealth nor honors to have been in some degree concerned in the discovery and development of a new source of pleasure and instruction for the human race.

This was an official history, and as such it called for decorum. But in the normal run of things, this kind of modesty was not a quality that marked the lieutenant’s character. In his own mind, Doane was not “in some degree concerned” in the creation of Yellowstone; he would always be “the man who invented Wonderland.”

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstoneby George Black and published by St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.

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