Author Interview--Megan Kate Nelson (Saving Yellowstone) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

Today we feature, for a second time, Megan Kate Nelson to talk about her newest book Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, published by Simon and Schuster.

Megan Kate Nelson has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa. Besides Saving Yellowstone, she has also published The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (2020), a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in History; Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012); and Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (2005).

Megan, welcome back. Sadly our readers will not enjoy us on video in a silent corridor at the Southern this time, but you were true to your word about getting another book done and, I may say, at lightning speed, too. You have moved from the Georgia swamps to the desert of New Mexico, and now it is the geyser of Yellowstone--how did you end up in Wyoming?

MKN: Thanks so much for having me back. I am sorry for all of our colleagues that they cannot see us on video - I’m sure they will miss my wild gesticulations and ridiculous facial expressions. 

But yes. The geysers, mud pots, and waterfalls of Yellowstone! If I couldn’t actually go anywhere in reality during the pandemic, it was nice to go there in my imagination. I actually came to
Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America through The Three-Cornered War. Those of you who have read Three-Cornered War will remember John Clark, the surveyor-general of New Mexico Territory in the 1860s. While I was researching his backstory, I dug into the history of surveying in America. I realized that Ferdinand Hayden’s survey of Yellowstone in 1871 was coming up on its 150th anniversary, as was the passage of the Yellowstone Act on March 1, 1872. I started thinking about these two events as a book project, and wondering what new angles I could explore. Given that I was finishing a book that invites readers to think about the Civil War from an unexpected place (the West), I thought: what if we think about Reconstruction from Yellowstone? 

I am going to briefly follow up here, because, thanks to social media, I know you have been to Yellowstone, was it as impressive as you imagined it to be from all the things you read in these reports and saw in their images?

MKN: I was *so* happy to finally get to Yellowstone this past September. I had planned two research trips there during 2020-21, but the pandemic scuttled those plans. The last time I had been was 1982, on a summer vacation with my parents and annoying older brother. So it was wonderful to go back, especially with all the knowledge I gained about Yellowstone in the interim. 

What I concluded is that walking through and seeing the places I am researching in real life is absolutely vital for me as a methodology. The explorers’ descriptions—along with maps and images—gave me a pretty good sense of each place they visited in Yellowstone. But sometimes, I discovered, their descriptions were misleading. Or they were not quite detailed enough to give the reader a true sense of the landscape. Mammoth Hot Springs is a good example. The team members wrote about riding uphill from the Gardiner River to the “White Mountain” (as they called it) but I did not appreciate the steepness of the pitch up that hill until I was there in real life. No wonder previous explorers never saw it; if you were following the river, you would have had no idea it was there. And without really good horses and a lot of determination, you could not have made it. This was just one instance that helped me connect all the dots in the exploration accounts. And it was a good thing I was able to visit between copy edits and page proofs!—I had to make a few changes to the final text as a result.

What is your argument in Saving Yellowstone?

MKN: Saving Yellowstone argues that in 1871-72 the federal government funded the exploration of Yellowstone and passed legislation to preserve it because they wanted to exert control over the West as well as the South during Reconstruction. Just as they embraced both Black emancipation and Native extermination during the Civil War, the Republican-led federal government used its power in the early 1870s to protect the constitutional rights of freed people in the South while launching campaigns to take Indigenous homelands in the West. While they failed in the former project, they succeeded in the latter. This prompts us to think about the traditional narratives of Reconstruction (full of idealism, ultimately a failure) in a new way.

You already centered the narrative of the Three-Cornered War around individuals, and you do the same with Saving Yellowstone. How did you decide on the three individuals, Cooke, Hayden, and Sitting Bull, and what made them so intriguing as your cast?

MKN: Well, I knew Ferdinand Hayden would be a central figure, given his role in leading the Expedition and lobbying for the passage of the Yellowstone Act. He was ambitious and competitive, and passionate about his work - the perfect protagonist. Then I came across Jay Cooke, a financier who made his fortune selling U.S. bonds to fund the Civil War effort; in 1870 he took on the challenge of funding the Northern Pacific Railroad, whose tracks he wanted to run just north of Yellowstone in Montana Territory. His obsession with that project led to disaster, which made him an appealing protagonist. Cooke sent surveyors to mark the route, which ran from the Missouri River west through Lakota country. This provoked the ire of Húŋkpapȟa Lakota leader Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (Sitting Bull), who is the third major protagonist in the book. Sitting Bull was one of the most effective and powerful Indigenous leaders of his day, and his actions in this moment are vital to the history of the Lakota people and to Reconstruction. The conflicts between Sitting Bull and Jay Cooke’s surveyors in 1871-72 determined the future of Indigenous protest and U.S. Indian policy in the Great Northwest. 

As with
The Three-Cornered War, I started out with even more potential central protagonists, including President Ulysses S. Grant, the photographer William Henry Jackson, the painter Thomas Moran, the Smithsonian’s Spencer Baird, and Richard Watson Gilder, one of the editors of Scribner’s Monthly. These men and their stories are still present in the book (Grant in particular) because of the important roles they played in the struggle to control Yellowstone and its hinterlands, but they do not take center stage.

I will admit, I would have liked reading more about William Henry Jackson, he seems rather fascinating, also in regard to Mesa Verde.
Hayden’s protection-mindedness and Cooke’s tourism plans seem to be at odds, but this was the story for many other parks as well, such as Grand Canyon. How much do you see Yellowstone’s story as an archetype for the struggles to preserve natural beauty in the country?

MKN: I really loved writing about Jackson and Moran. I’m an American Studies PhD and have always used photography and art as sources in my books—but I did not really write about art production in The Three-Cornered War. So it was fun to write about artists and their work again; Jackson may show up again in my next book—we’ll see.

Today it seems obvious to many Americans (not all) that we need to save natural landscapes for their own sake, for the health of global ecosystems, or for the purposes of scientific inquiry. And we take tourism and its infrastructure for granted in national parks, wilderness areas, state forests, and other preserved landscapes. But in the early 1870s, there were many Americans from across the political spectrum who argued that all lands across the continent should be surveyed and sold instead of preserved. They believed that the government should not prevent white settlers from claiming even the most unique of natural landscapes across the continent. These were the major objections that Democrats and some Republicans had to the Yellowstone Act — and this is why the vote on the act was not unanimous, in either the Senate or the House. 
This is also why it was another 18 years before the next major pieces of preservation legislation were passed, creating additional national parks under the management of the Department of the Interior. This is also why most of Theodore Roosevelt’s preservation achievements in the early 20th century came through the use of executive orders rather than legislation.. And this is also why the Trump Administration was able to roll back many of the preservation gains from the last century—and so many Republicans supported that effort.

So yes - in a rather surprising way, the creation of the world’s first national park exemplified all of the debates about public land use that are still with us today.