In 1871, the Smithsonian-backed geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists through a narrow canyon into Yellowstone Basin, one of the last unmapped places on the continent, in hopes of proving that the rumors of majestic landscapes and untold natural wonders were true.
Upon returning, Hayden and his team urged Congress to take ownership of the land and give control of it to the Department of the Interior, an unprecedented extension of the federal government’s authority. On March 1, 1872, with little fanfare, the Yellowstone Act was signed into law by President Grant.
Author Megan Kate Nelson draws on her new book, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, as she traces Yellowstone’s journey from unexplored landscape to national icon. Far more than a story of adventure and exploration, it exposes the conflicting interests in this wilderness of individuals ranging from Sitting Bull, who tried to protect the rights of the Hunkpapa Lakota peoples, to railroad magnate Jay Cooke, who hoped to exploit the region to expand his business.
It also recalls how the Yellowstone Act came to overshadow Congressional investigations into the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction-era South, and how the focus on “unifying” the country through this symbolic act denied newly freed Black citizens desperately needed federal support. Ultimately, the Yellowstone story reveals how the government tested the reach of its power across an expanding and divided nation.
Nelson’s book Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America (Scribner) is available for purchase.
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