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 Ulysses S. Grant Administration and the 42nd Congress were testing the reach and the purpose of federal power across the nation.
“A readable and unfailingly interesting look at a slice of Western history from a novel point of view” (Kirkus Reviews), Saving Yellowstone reveals how Yellowstone became both a subject of fascination and a metaphor for the nation during the Reconstruction era. This “land of wonders” was both beautiful and terrible, fragile and powerful. And what lay beneath the surface there was always threatening to explode.
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Chapter 1: The Interest of One Is the Interest of All 1 The Interest of One Is the Interest of All
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.1
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.2 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.”3
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.”4
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.”5
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? 6
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.8
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 the 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).9
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.”11
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.12 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.13
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.14
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.15
It was a place, he liked to say, “where hell bubbled up.”16
Hayden came close to seeing those sights for himself in 1856, and then once again in 1860, during a U.S. Army survey into the Rockies north of Colorado. That expedition, under the command of Captain William F. Raynolds, moved through Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Eastern Shoshone territory, but then stalled. They found no cut through the Wind River Range, and no safe passage up and over their ragged peaks. The heavy snows of early fall pushed them back eastward, and the expedition was forced to disband.17
These failures nagged at Hayden. He planned to go back and try again, but the outbreak of the Civil War halted all government surveys. He avoided the war at first, living in rooms at the Smithsonian with a group of young scientists and joining their Megatherium Club, a social group named after a giant extinct South American sloth.
“There is no voice for science here now,” Hayden complained. “The cry is all war! War!”18
Reluctantly joining the U.S. army in 1863, Hayden served as a regimental surgeon until the end of the war in the spring of 1865.19 After mustering out, he moved to Philadelphia, hoping to join that city’s revered scientific community. They did not know what to make of Hayden at first. His talents were obvious, but his origins were distasteful. He could be brash and resentful, and his ambition was uncomfortably obvious. To earn money, Hayden began teaching classes at the University of Pennsylvania. He found the time to head out on short collecting trips only when school was not in session.20
Hayden’s next big opportunity came in 1867. Nebraska had just entered the Union, the first state to join the postwar nation. Local boosters wanted to establish a survey to map the new state and give a full report of its natural resources. Hayden lobbied state officials, using all the western contacts that he had cultivated during his explorations before the war, and got the job.21
What started as the Geological Survey of Nebraska expanded over the next two years to encompass all the U.S. territories west of the 100th meridian. In 1869, it was reorganized into the Geological Survey of the Territories of the United States. The Department of the Interior oversaw Hayden’s survey, and in 1870, he secured a large appropriation from Congress to take a team of scientists to Wyoming, another recently created territory. Hayden was the first civilian to lead a federal government survey, a fact that pleased him immensely. He believed that his work producing scientific knowledge of the West was of national importance.22
“We have beheld, within the past fifteen years, a rapidity of growth and development in the Northwest which is without parallel in the history of the globe,” he wrote in his survey report that year. “Never has my faith in the grand future that awaits the entire West been so strong as it is at the present time.”23
As Hayden left Lincoln Hall after Nathaniel Langford’s lecture, he made plans to accelerate his organization of the 1871 survey. He had already written letters to several men who had joined him on previous expeditions to gauge their interest. He would write again to secure their services and attain the commitments of his most talented scientific colleagues to analyze and write up descriptions of the specimens the survey collected. And he would convince the members of Congress to give him enough money to make a thorough investigation of Yellowstone Basin.
During the next month, Hayden made several trips to the Capitol, a massive building whose awe-inspiring dome had been completed five years before.24 There he met with members of the House and Senate appropriations committees, describing to them the importance of funding an expedition to Montana and Wyoming. If the rumors of Yellowstone’s wonders were true, it was imperative that the scientific community and the federal government exert control over these public lands, to understand and exploit their riches.
Although he was already well known in Washington, Hayden had competition for expedition funding. The postwar years had been productive for surveyors, as Americans began to embrace science as a source of knowledge vital to the nation’s interests. In 1870–71, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell was out on the Colorado River, exploring the canyon lands of the West, while an army engineer named George Wheeler mapped the high deserts of the Southwest for the U.S. military. Hayden was particularly irked by the swift progress that fellow explorer Clarence King had made in establishing his survey of the 40th parallel. King was younger than Hayden by ten years and an accomplished mountaineer, fond of having his picture taken hanging from rocks or looking over precipices high in the Sierra Mountains of California. He was also a talented writer, and as adept as Hayden at cultivating patrons in Congress.25
The halls of the Capitol were busy in the early months of 1871, teeming with politicians and their staff as well as lobbyists like Hayden hoping for an audience. There were only a few weeks left in the final session of the Forty-First Congress, and everyone was trying to push their pet projects through to the floor. As had been the case since the end of the Civil War, it was hard to find money for these ventures while also paying government officials, funding the army and navy, and improving infrastructure across the nation.
Making matters more complicated was the fact that three of the final four states of the former Confederacy (Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas) had finally met requirements to rejoin the Union: they repealed their secession laws, ensured that their citizens would not be taxed to pay the debts of the former Confederacy, and ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (the latter securing the right of Black men to vote). After rewriting their state constitutions and submitting them for readmission, these states held elections and elected representatives and senators to send to Washington, D.C. In March 1871, when Georgia’s senators and congressmen traveled to the nation’s capital to be seated for the first session of the Forty-Second Congress, the United States would be politically reunited.
This could be good news for Hayden, or bad. Southern senators and congressmen were mostly moderate Republicans, but some were Democrats. Republicans were likely to back Hayden’s survey plans; they usually favored federal projects that they believed would benefit the nation in some way. Democrats were a harder sell. Even in the wake of the Civil War they continued to argue for the supremacy of states’ rights over federal power. It was up to Hayden to convince them that the scientific exploration of Yellowstone would benefit their constituencies as well.26
While Hayden made his rounds lobbying members of Congress, President Ulysses S. Grant was working in his office at the Executive Mansion. He did not know the particulars of Ferdinand Hayden’s Yellowstone Expedition plan, but he had always supported this aspect of the federal government’s work. Early in his military career, when he served at forts along the Pacific coast, he outfitted several army surveys for their explorations of the towering stands of redwoods and wide, roiling rivers of California and Oregon Territory. Some were sent out to establish railroad routes through the Cascades, and others were mapping the region’s natural resources. Grant had supplied them all, providing pack animals and provisions for their travels through the wilderness.27
As the General of the Armies in the years after the Civil War, Grant continued to approve requests for government survey supplies, some of them submitted by Ferdinand Hayden.28 The military’s forts, scattered across the states and territories of the West, were useful depots and base camps for survey teams. Grant had visited some of them on a short trip in the summer of 1868, before his election to the presidency. With his most trusted friends and fellow officers, William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, he took a series of trains and stages from fort to fort in Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming, inspecting the garrisons and making sure the soldiers there were well trained and equipped for “frontier service”: guarding wagon trains and work camps along the roads and trails of the West, and riding out in campaigns against Indigenous enemies.
The 1868 trip “gave me the key to the topography of the country,” he told a good friend, “so that now when Indian hostilities are reported, or the establishment of a new post, at a particular place is recommended, I can have more distinct ideas about what should be done than can be got merely from maps.”29
Grant had taken along his oldest two sons, Fred and Buck, on that summer tour. He wanted them to see the Great Plains before its “frontier” character faded away.
“It will be something,” he wrote to his wife, Julia, “for [the boys] to know that [they] had traveled on the plains whilst still occupied by the Buffalo and the Indian, both rapidly disappearing now.”30
Grant himself did not see the contradiction between his belief that Indians were vanishing and the regular reports about Indian hostilities in the West. He continued to staff an Office of Indian Affairs, whose employees had a range of relationships with Indigenous communities across the nation.31 The many forts that Grant visited that summer had been built so that the army could monitor the activities of Native peoples in the region, negotiate treaties with them, and initiate military campaigns against them if the federal government deemed them necessary.
Despite the obvious evidence of Indigenous resistance to the encroachments of white miners and farmers in their homelands, Grant did not believe that war should be the federal government’s first response. His 1868 presidential campaign slogan, “Let Us Have Peace,” applied both to the reconciliation of northerners and southerners after the Civil War and the federal government’s relationship with Native peoples across the country.32
“I will favor any course toward [Indians],” he stated in his inaugural address in 1869, “which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.”33
That spring, Grant kept an eye on the West. He was also deeply concerned about the progress of Reconstruction in the South. The 1867 Reconstruction Act enfranchised Black men to vote in statewide elections in 1868, and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 gave them the right of franchise in national contests. After these new voters attended Republican political rallies and appeared at polling places to vote, the Ku Klux Klan donned their disguises and rode out to whip, beat, rape, and kill them in retaliation.34 Radicalized by reports of this racial violence even before he was elected to the presidency, Grant helped frame congressional legislation to protect Black southerners and their white allies in his first term as president.35
In May 1870, the Forty-First Congress had passed the first Enforcement Act, to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from gathering in the streets at night to intimidate Black voters.36 In February 1871, Grant had signed the Second Enforcement Act, which outlined a specific procedure for oversight of federal elections in southern states, and the protection of all voters who came to cast their ballots at polling places.37
By this time, Grant had fully embraced the power of the legislative and the executive branches to fight for and protect civil rights. The Republican majority in Congress did as well. But Grant was doubtful that these measures would stop the Ku Klux Klan from attacking people in their homes, in towns, or on the roads across the South. His wartime experience showed him that white southerners would defend their own power, no matter the cost. The violence that was occurring almost daily in the states of the former Confederacy would turn into another full-fledged rebellion, Grant believed, if his administration, Congress, and the U.S. military did not work to check it. There were too few days left in this final session to push another piece of major legislation on this matter. It would be up to the Forty-Second Congress, which would convene the day after the Forty-First disbanded, to pass another measure to protect Black rights across the South.
Up the hill at the Capitol, lawmakers continued their work. They turned to the annual Indian Appropriations Act and to the proposal to fund Ferdinand Hayden’s survey of Yellowstone. The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Henry L. Dawes, an influential Republican from Massachusetts, recommended financing the expedition. On March 3, the last day of the Forty-First’s final session, Congress included a line item in a bill appropriating funds for civil purposes.
“For continuing the geological survey of the Territories of the United States, by Professor Hayden,” it read, “forty thousand dollars.”38
It was an immense sum, the most ever dedicated to the production of scientific knowledge on behalf of the nation. Within two weeks, Hayden had put together his plan.
“I expect to start from Salt Lake City and go northward to Helena, Montana,” Hayden wrote to his former Oberlin geology professor, George Allen, “[and] explore the Missouri and Yellow Stone [Rivers] from their sources down.” He would outfit the survey in Salt Lake City and explore as much of Yellowstone as practicable in five months, from May to October.39
As news of the appropriation spread, letters and telegrams began to arrive at Hayden’s Smithsonian office, from established and aspiring scientists. He had to turn away more than fifty qualified applicants, but he kept a space open for Allen, who had been his mentor. Hayden believed in returning favors, and he knew Allen had always wanted to go to the West. Perhaps the geologist could help him with the mineralogical and metallurgical specimens, “testing ores, minerals, rocks, also saline waters, and as much geology as possible.” Or perhaps he could work with a young botanist Hayden was hoping to bring in. The boy was talented but inexperienced, and Allen’s wide-ranging knowledge could help him with his collecting.40
Hayden was worried, however, that the older man was not up to it. Survey expeditions could be tough going, and members of the party had to be willing to “rough it” in the wilderness for months at a time. He was not sure if Allen had even the most basic of skills—like riding a horse—for long-term work in the field. If Allen slowed down the expedition, Hayden would not hesitate to send him home.
The same policy would apply to several other men he was taking along, like an untested ornithologist from Chicago, whom Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird had championed. And the sons and nephews of congressmen who had helped secure his appropriation, for whom he had reserved several survey spots. Only one of these political appointees, the brother-in-law of Illinois congressman John Logan, had any scientific experience. Cyrus Thomas had worked on Hayden’s 1870 survey of Wyoming, and he would be collecting agricultural data and insects in Yellowstone.41 The other “political boys” would work as general assistants and, Hayden hoped, behave themselves—as much as could be expected.
In any case, their presence would make Hayden’s political patrons feel like they had a stake in the expedition and would help him retain their support. Congressional policy was to fund each survey for one year only. Within weeks of his return from the West in the fall of 1871, he would be back in the halls of Congress once again, lobbying for the 1872 expedition’s appropriation. The eyewitness accounts of Yellowstone that the political boys would contribute would help him make his case.42
By mid-April 1871, Hayden was in Philadelphia. He wrapped up his teaching responsibilities at the University of Pennsylvania and spent some time with his fiancée, Emma Woodruff, before leaving for the West. He and Emma met in the winter of 1867, when he had come back to the eastern seaboard after his first year as the leader of the Nebraska Survey. She was the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant and at twenty-four years old, eighteen years younger than Hayden. Their engagement a year after meeting surprised many of Hayden’s friends, who knew him as a man prone to rampant flirtation and whirlwind romances—and a confirmed bachelor. Most women Hayden had romanced ultimately demanded too much of him. But Emma seemed to understand Hayden’s ambition and accepted that his work required that they would often be parted. They were a good match.43
Emma and Hayden agreed from the start that they would marry once Hayden had established a national reputation. That he had secured the largest appropriation ever made for a government survey, which included a salary of $4,000 for the coming year, meant that they could finally start their lives together. They set the wedding date for November, after he returned from Yellowstone.44
From Philadelphia, Hayden completed his work organizing the survey. Eighteen scientists had signed on already, and he anticipated recruiting ten more. Added to that number would be the packers, hunters, and guides whom Hayden would hire once they reached Utah and Idaho. Then there was the military escort he hoped to secure, to give them some protection against Crow, Shoshone, Bannock—and possibly even Lakota, Blackfoot, or Nez Perce—bands, who might object to their presence in the Yellowstone.
This would be the largest survey, by far, that Hayden had ever led. His previous expedition consisted of only three fellow scientists and three artists. There would be a lot of men to keep track of, and egos and ambitions to wrangle on this expedition to Yellowstone. As he saw to the final details, Hayden felt a bit overwhelmed. Had he made the right choices? Could his fellow scientists do good work in the rugged mountains of the West, where, as he warned Allen, “all field work must necessarily be of the crudest kind”? 45
On May 1, Hayden received his official appointment as U.S. Geologist and instructions for the expedition from Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano. Hayden would be trusted to choose his own team and his own course of exploration, but Congress expected him to produce an accurate geographical map of Yellowstone and to collect as much information as possible about the country.
“You will give your attention to the geological, mineralogical, zoological, botanical, and agricultural resources,” Delano instructed him.
These details would help Congress decide how to promote and develop the region. Hayden was required to forward all specimens his team collected to the Smithsonian Institution and submit a report of the expedition with all his findings and illustrations of them with “sketches, sections, photographs, etc.” no later than January 1, 1872.
As always, Delano advised, “all your expenditures of the public funds are expected to be made with judicious economy and care.”46
Those funds, Hayden knew, would not be available until July. Until then, he would pay his scientists their wages and other survey expenses with his own money, loans from Spencer Baird, or lines of credit.47 Hayden had already sent his friend and survey manager, Jim Stevenson, out to Omaha to establish the first of the survey’s rendezvous. He sent off letters to his survey team members, informing them where they could meet Stevenson and gather their supplies.
Hayden himself needed to be in Omaha within two weeks so that the entire expedition could set off toward Salt Lake City. It was imperative that they arrive in the northern Rockies just as spring turned to summer. They needed at least four months to fully explore Yellowstone Basin before the snowstorms came rolling across the mountains in early October. Hayden said goodbye to Emma and loaded his bags onto the train. The 1871 scientific survey of Yellowstone, a project that would expand the federal government’s reach into one of the nation’s little-known landscapes, had begun.
Table of Contents
Prologue Lost 15
Chapter 1 The Interest of One Is the Interest of All 34
Chapter 2 Pulse of the Continent 56
Chapter 3 The Grandest Achievement of Our Lives 81
Chapter 4 A Wilderness of People 104
Chapter 5 No Middle Ground 137
Chapter 6 The Most Remarkable Scenery in the World 161
Chapter 7 If You Do Not Stop Them, We Will 203
Chapter 8 Order, Chaos 222
Chapter 9 To Consecrate for Public Use 256
Chapter 10 Bullets Flying All Around 291
Chapter 11 A Country Unsettled 314
Epilogue Wonderland 344