Author Interview--Megan Kate Nelson (Saving Yellowstone) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

Today we continue our conversation with Megan Kate Nelson about her newest book, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, published this week by Simon and Schuster.

Part 1

One of the lines that stood out to me was your claim that creating the National Parks required the taking away of land from Native Americans. To us it seems, I hope, terrible to have such an equation, were there any voices who considered that since a National Park was going to be unused land leaving Native Americans on that land would not be a big problem?

MKN: Yes - it is a hard truth that America’s “best idea” was predicated on Indingeous land dispossession. This is not a new argument: Mark David Spence, in Dispossessing the Wilderness (1999) and Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature (2001) made this point more than 20 years ago. Indigenous people were the first caretakers of these lands, and they did an excellent job keeping ecosystems healthy and balanced.
The lands that became Yellowstone National Park were home to the Tududeka Shoshone, who herded sheep in the mountain ranges above the geyser basins, and it was a thoroughfare for many Indingeous peoples who lived in the Great Northwest. They crossed it to get to the bison herds of the Great Plains, and to trade and fight with other Indigenous peoples. When Ferdinand Hayden entered the Basin, he followed Indigenous paths that were well-trodden. 


Some of these communities had already made treaties with the U.S. (some bands of the Shoshone Bannock, and the Crow) but others had not, and continued to defend their right to pass through and hunt in Yellowstone and along the Yellowstone River valley east of the Basin. The most powerful and successful leaders who fought U.S. troops and land surveyors in the 1860s and 1870s were Očéthi Šakówiŋ (known then as the Sioux), particularly Húŋkpapȟa Lakotas under the leadership of Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (Sitting Bull). They asserted their sovereignty and ownership of these lands from the first moment Americans tried to trespass on them. 

Very few Americans defended Indigenous actions or their land rights. John Taffe, a Nebraska Republican who was a member of the Committee on Territories in the House of Representatives, suggested that perhaps the Yellowstone Act violated Očéthi Šakówiŋ rights under the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) but his concerns were dismissed. The vast majority of Americans at this time (and many now) believe that Indigenous peoples had no land rights they were bound to respect, in places reserved for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people” or for conversion into farms and ranches. 

And to follow that thought a little. It is a bit of irony, that it was not the Lakota, but the Nez Perce in 1877 who fled through Yellowstone to meet with Sitting Bull in Canada and who encountered a number of tourists in the region.

MKN: I’m not sure if it is ironic, necessarily - but it does reveal that Indigenous peoples were still in that area of the country, claiming territory and fighting the U.S. Army to determine their own futures. That the Nez Perce would choose to move through Yellowstone is not surprising, given their use of it as a thoroughfare and a hunting ground for hundreds, if not thousands of years. 

It was during Reconstruction when the U.S. government really accelerated and intensified their campaigns against Native peoples across the country, to force those not living on reservations to give up their lands and accept “civilization.” These conflicts led to Sitting Bull’s attacks on the Northern Pacific in the early 1870s, then to Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) in 1876 and Húŋkpapȟa Lakota flight to Canada the next year (where, as you note, the Nez Perce were hoping to join them). 

The U.S. government *really* wanted to settle the lands of the Great Northwest with white farmers, ranchers, and merchants in the 1870s and 1880s. Those lands included Nez Perce and Lakota territory, as well as Yellowstone.

It seems the tourism industry was standing ready to exploit Yellowstone, even before Hayden had arrived and documented the place–how was it possible that so quickly tourists could get to this rather remote part of the country. It is not around the corner even today.

MKN: What’s interesting about the Yellowstone example is that while tourism was a strong argument for preservation (especially coming from Jay Cooke), tourist visitation was minimal in the first 10 years of the Park’s existence. During that time, only around 500-1,000 people per year came to the park as tourists (including the group the Nez Perce took hostage) and most were either already in the West (civic leaders, politicians, and their families) or were European explorers who were used to traveling around the world with little to no tourist infrastructure.

Yellowstone was incredibly difficult to get to, even for travelers using the transcontinental railroad to get to Ogden, Utah, as the jumping off point. They could have gone up the Missouri River and then west, but that would have entailed traveling through Lakota country, which in the 1870s was a route dangerous for white people trespassing across it. The only gateway was through Gardiner, Montana, and it took several weeks by stage and wagon to get there from Utah. 

Tourism only began to increase in 1883, with the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad line. Travelers could board in St. Paul, Minnesota or Portland, Oregon and arrive in Livingston, Montana within the week. They then traveled south to the town of Gardiner and the northern entrance to Yellowstone. Without that kind of transportation infrastructure, tourism was almost impossible. 

Even today, Yellowstone is quite difficult to get to, compared to Rocky Mountain National Park (a 2-hour drive from Denver) or Great Smoky Mountains (accessible from most large cities in the southeastern United States). But it still attracts 4 million visitors a year, because of its iconic status. They get there, usually by some combination of plane, car, or Winnebago.

I was one of those a long time ago at this point, but it is an incredible park for sure. So let's change direction a little. You have done significant work on the Civil War West, now it is the Reconstruction West–how does the story of Reconstruction, which is usually a southern one, change by including the West?

MKN: When we look at Reconstruction from Yellowstone, I think we see something similar as when we consider the Civil War from the Southwest: that this important moment in American political, social, and cultural history was a continental moment, a truly national process. 
In the late 1860s and early 1870s the Republican majority in Congress was definitely focused on bringing the former Confederate states back into the country politically and protecting the constitutional rights of four million formerly enslaved people. But they were also interested in controlling the West and opening it to white settlement. This meant funding surveys like Hayden’s (there were three additional surveys out in the field with the Yellowstone Expedition, mapping and recording lands across the West) and, as noted above, accelerating campaigns against Native peoples in the region, to force them off of their homelands and onto reservations.

By focusing on the Reconstruction West, national conversations about federal power also come into sharper focus. There was a lot of debate between Democrats and Republicans and within the Republican party about the nature and extent of the government’s reach across the country, not just in the South. It was a national conversation—one that is still with us today.

Do you anticipate much pushback on the Reconstruction West as your and others’ work on the Civil War West generated?

MKN: Ha! No, I don’t. I am not the first to make this argument about the significance of the Reconstruction West. Heather Cox Richardson and Elliott West, two preeminent historians of the period and this region, started writing books about this in the early 2000s. As far as I can tell, historians of the American West do not find the concept of the “Reconstruction West” to be problematic. However, the Reconstruction West has not really hit a tipping point in American culture at large. Reconstruction is still an under-taught time period, and most textbooks focus solely on Reconstruction policies in the South. The chapters on “The Indian Wars” and westward expansion treat these subjects as completely separate from Reconstruction. 

I am eager to see what panels form and what conversations take place about the Reconstruction West in 2024, at the combined WHA/SHA conference in Kansas City. 

Reconstruction is oddly enough rather well covered in many older Western movies centered around veterans moving West; however, Yellowstone just got its own TV show. You said, and I quote your Tweet of December 16, “This show is not just about sexy cowboys and murder” but also many issues like “eminent domain laws (federal and state), conservation easements, and reservation land annexations.” How does the show address issues you cover in your work and how well is it done?

MKN: Ah, yes! For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, “Yellowstone” is a massively popular modern western starring Kevin Costner as the patriarch of a ranching family in Montana, whose “way of life” is threatened by capitalists, white supremacists, and Indigenous leaders. 
Historians have tended to heap scorn on this show after only watching a few minutes of the pilot. And yes - that first episode is a little overwhelming in its violence and its sweeping statements about life in the West. 

I just finished watching the fourth season and although that season was disappointing, the first three surprised me in a lot of ways. They highlight tensions over land and natural resources that have always defined the West. The depiction of Indigenous communities in “Yellowstone” is often complex and layered, and there are many women in the show who defy gender stereotypes by kicking ass in finance and law. The show is not always great, but when it is great, it is the most compelling depiction of the West on television in recent memory. 

Sadly, the show doesn’t have much to do with Yellowstone National Park - it mostly serves as a convenient place to toss a body when you want it to be found. 

I would have thought you’d use Yellowstone to make a body disappear, not have it found. To close, dare I even ask after two books in two years, do you have new plans?

MKN: Ha! Yes. As a full-time writer, I always have new plans - it’s part of the gig. My new book, The Westerners, pushes against the frontier myth that is so dominant in American culture—and which we have seen reiterated in some recent popular histories, like David McCullough’s The Pioneers. Like my previous two books, it will weave together the stories of many individuals (only one of them a white man from the East Coast) moving through the West in all directions across the nineteenth century. I’ve just started researching, and I’m hoping to get to some archives this summer (pandemic willing). This one won’t be out until 2025 or 2026, though, so I won’t be working under a short deadline. Thank goodness!