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March 7, 2022

Yellowstone National Park

One hundred fifty years ago, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act establishing Yellowstone National Park into law, making it the first national park in the United States, and a cause for celebration in a country still recovering from the devastating Civil War. Not everyone celebrated, though, including Native Americans who had called the land home for thousands of years before white trappers and explorers first experienced the wild majesty of the landscape. 

To learn more about the men who championed the creation of the park and the Indigenous resistance to it, I’m joined by historian Dr. Megan Kate Nelson, author of the new book, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The between-segment song is “The Fellow in Yellowstone Park,” written by Gilbert Fogarty and performed by Kitty Kallen, assisted by Four Chicks and Chuck, in 1949. The song is available in the public domain through the Internet Archive. 

The episode image is: “Excelsior Geyser, Yellowstone Park,” Painted by Thomas Moran in 1873. The painting is in the collect of Smithsonian American Art Museum, a gift of Mrs. Armistead Peter III, and is in the public domain.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. In today's episode, we're discussing the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the United States. Native Americans inhabited the region around Yellowstone for at least 11,000 years. The area that became the park was a place where many different cultures hunted, fished, gathered plants, and use the land in many different ways, including travel through the area on established trails. At least 27 different tribes have connections to the land, including the Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Flathead, and Nez Perce. One of the Native nations with ties to the area was the Hunkpapa Lakota led by Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull and the other Lakota chiefs had warned federal officials,  "We wish you to stop the whites from traveling through our country, and if you do not stop them, we will." When the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through Montana in 1805, they heard about the Yellowstone region, but they did not stop to check it out. One of their members, John Colter left the expedition in 1806 to join a group of fur trappers, and in the winter of 1807-1808, he did pass through the Yellowstone region. When he described his experience as "a place of fire and brimstone," people assumed he'd been delirious. Stories from later mountain men who reported on the boiling mud and petrified trees they saw were dismissed as mythical, including the reports of mountain man Jim Bridger, after an 1856 exploration. Bridger was known as a spinner of yarns. A two year survey of the Northern Rockies in 1859, nearly made it into Yellowstone, but they were prevented by heavy spring snows. The breakout of the Civil War paused future exploration. In 1869, a detailed exploration was finally made, first by the Cook- Folsom-Peterson Expedition, and then in the next year by Montana residents, including the Surveyor General of Montana, Henry Washburn, and later Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Nathaniel P.Langford. They collected specimens and wrote up their observations. Finally, in 1871, surveyor Ferdinand V. Hayden, who had been on the field expedition of 1859 convinced Congress to commission a large expedition to Yellowstone, which became known as the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871. The expedition included photographer William Henry Jackson, and painter Thomas Moran, whose images were added to Hayden's comprehensive report. Along with the images, Hayden brought back with him 45 boxes of specimens. In his report, Hayden encouraged the creation of a national park, warning that otherwise, "The vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonderland, will in a single season, despoil beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature 1000s of years to prepare." One of the people lobbying for the creation of the park was banker Jay Cooke, who had helped to finance the Union war effort during the Civil War. After the Civil War, he turned his attention to developing the Northwest.

In 1870, his firm financed the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway. Cook understood that the creation of Yellowstone National Park would be good for the Northern Pacific Railway, both to create interest in travel on the rail line, but also because it would be easier for the rail company to deal with government, rather than private landowners in Yellowstone. When Congress debated the bill, they were mostly concerned with land rights of white settlers in the area. But one congressman, Representative John Taffe, a Republican from Nebraska, did ask whether the creation of the park would interfere with the Sioux Reservation. Republican Congressman Henry Dawes from Massachusetts argued that the US had reserved the right to take Native lands. Moreover, with the Indian Appropriations Act in spring 1871, that had outlawed future treaty making with Indigenous peoples, the federal government had essentially decided to ignore Native sovereignty altogether. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act of Dedication that created the 1760 square mile Yellowstone National Park. The act read, "An act to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the tract of land in the territories of Montana and Wyoming is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. And all persons who shall locate or settle upon or occupy the same or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided shall be considered trespassers, and removed therefrom." Nathaniel P. Lankford was named the first Superintendent of Yellowstone in 1872. But with no salary, funding, or staff, he was not able to accomplish much. It wasn't until the next Superintendent Philetus Norris was appointed in 1872, that minimal funding was finally provided. Today, Yellowstone is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. Between 2007 and 2016, an average of 3.5 million visitors came to the park each year. Over 4000 employees work at Yellowstone, either directly for the National Park Services, or in the hotels, lodges, gas stations, campgrounds, and stores in the park. To help us learn more about the creation of Yellowstone National Park, I'm joined by historian Dr. Megan Kate Nelson, author of the new book, "Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America." First though, enjoy a clip from a 1949 song called "The Fellow in Yellowstone Park," written by Gilbert Fogarty and performed by Kitty Kallen.

Kitty Kallen  8:23  
"I met him. How could I forget him? The fellow in Yellowstone Park. A ranger, a big forest ranger, the fellow in Yellowstone park. Aridin', he took me aridin', a trail and the trail after dark. Akissin', I started akissin' the fellow in Yellowstone Park."

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:20  
Thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  9:22  
Thanks so much for having me. I'm delighted to be here. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:24  
Yes! I am super excited about this one. I love Yellowstone anyway, and I love learning new things. So it was a perfect combination. So my first question for you is right before this you had written "The Three-Cornered War," which was about the Civil War West and about the this combination of these nine different individuals and how it affected Native people and there were Confederates and union. So how did you think after that book, which was a runner up to the Pulitzer, how did you say, "Okay, the next thing I want to do now is this sort of more focused...," It, you know, it's not quite so many main characters, not quite the sort of broad geographic span, although we'll look into that. But, you know, how did you decide that this was the next project you wanted to do?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  10:13  
Well, I actually came to "Saving Yellowstone" pretty much directly from "The Three- Cornered War" because one of the protagonists in that book is John Clark, who was the Surveyor General of New Mexico Territory. And while I was researching his story, I was doing all the background research in American surveying the history of surveys and realized that Ferdinand  Hayden's 1871 scientific expedition to Yellowstone, it's 150th anniversary was coming up. And I was thinking, "Well, that would be an interesting topic for a book." And then, of course, that it then led to the 1872 Yellowstone Act, also having its 150th anniversary, and I had run into that the Hayden survey before in graduate school as part of an art history class. So I thought, "Oh, this could be a chance for me also to write about photography and painting, and its significance creating the Western American imagination." And I kind of looked around and I said, "You know, this, the Hayden story, and the Yellowstone Act story had been told a lot before, mostly in the context of conservation history, some in Western history, but no one had really thought about it, in terms of its context of Reconstruction, and the Reconstruction Era." And so it also is a kind of sequel to the, to "The Three-Cornered War," because in that book, I was thinking about the Civil War from a kind of unexpected place, the high deserts of the Southwest. And here, I thought, "Well, what would it look like? If I looked at Yellowstone in Reconstruction and looked at Reconstruction from an unexpected place like Yellowstone? Would it change our whole perception of this period that we think we're sort of familiar with? And would it change our perception of Yellowstone itself?"

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:04  
Yeah. So you're in the National Archives, it's March, 2020. You have a plan for how this book is gonna unfold. And then all of a sudden, of course, COVID hits and shuts down archives, shuts down all our lives everywhere. So what what was your sort of initial plan for how this would have all unfolded? And what did you end up doing to write this book?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  12:26  
Right, so the appeal of this project for me is that it was on a kind of short deadline, but I was only dealing with as you as you pointed out earlier, two years instead of, you know, eight years for my previous book, and so it was a much tighter focus. I felt like I could handle that in the amount of time that I had, I had the research trip to the National Archives scheduled, I had several trips to Yellowstone scheduled, and to archives in Philadelphia, and also parts of Ohio. And yeah, though, all pretty much all of those got scrapped. So I got one good week of research in at the National Archives before it actually shut down on me mid-trip. And I had to come home with just all the photographs that I had taken, not of documents, but microfilm screens. Because I, I was looking at those documents on microfilm, which is not ideal, but it was necessary because the documents were so fragile. But I also got to see some of the original maps and some of Henry Elliot's original sketches in the visual department of the National Archives, but that was it. And usually, you know, I love going to archives, all of my books have been very archivally based. I also it's super important to me to be able to go to the landscape that I'm writing about. So the fact that I could not get to Yellowstone until after I had written the first draft of the book was completely insane and not ideal. But it had to happen because I had this deadline. And so I ended up relying a lot on digital sources. And I just have to say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you to all the hard working digital workers, archivists, librarians, anyone who took these documents and put them in digital form and created these websites for us to access where we can search through the Congressional Record." We can, like congressional glow, we can, you know, search through all of these amazing federal archives and then use sites like, which is a paid site, a private site, but is such a rich archive for any historian doing work. And these days, I think it's really hard. It's hard for a lot of people to get to archives to do research, you know, and, you know, the pandemic was just an extra layer. But if you have other responsibilities, if you have another full time job, if you have kids, if you have elders you're taking care of, you can't get to the archives for long sustained periods. And so this was a real lesson for me in how to actually research a book responsibly from my own living room. And, you know, I was lucky that so much so many of my records were federally archived and available. And because the three main protagonists in the book Ferdinand Hayden and Jay Cooke and Sitting Bull had been written about quite a lot. And there were biographies already out there that had lots of really good meaty primary document references and quotes that I could double check and corroborate and, and then use in in "Saving Yellowstone."

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:40  
So I haven't spent a lot of time in physical archives. But to me, the appeal would be that you're sort of removed from the world, that you can sort of just put yourself into the time and place that you're reading about, because you're cut off from everything else. I remember, when I was in grad school, which was the early 2000s. I remember wanting to get a sailboat and just this was before, cellphones, with smartphones, that sort of thing. You know, and just thinking, like, "I just want to be out where nothing else can can, you know, get in my way," but I feel like doing research on your computer in your living room, that it's hard to keep the rest of the world out. Twitter is right there.

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  16:21  
Oh, yes. And and that is a huge chat.

Kelly Therese Pollock  16:24  
What does that look like, as you're trying to do that? Like, what's your process? How do I block out everything else? 

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  16:30  
Yeah, that was a real challenge for me, because I am completely addicted to Twitter, I also love popular culture, could watch a ton of television. It's very easy for me to flip over to Netflix and, and just, you know, watch a couple episodes of something while I take a break. You know, that's how I loosely define it. So that was a huge challenge to really focus and actually get work done. Part of my advantage was that I'd already been working from home for several years. And so shifting into pandemic mode actually was not as much of a break from real life as it was for a lot of people. And so I already knew what it was like to build my own schedule. You know, I write full time. So I already knew how to handle some of the temptations of Twitter. I didn't go so far as to cut myself off from the internet, because I often when I'm in the midst of writing or researching will want to look things up. And I can't be constantly trying to get back onto the web, or remember what password I gave myself to cut myself off, or whatever it was. So I just had to learn to live with with those kinds of distractions. But it was very motivating to have a hard deadline to know that I really had to write a chapter a month, in order to stay on pace, so that we could produce this book by March 1, 2022. And I mean, I don't ever want to do that again, Kelly. I mean, don't I really don't. It was effective, but it was terrible. And I would rather not replicate that experience of pandemic writing on a deadline. I will say that the weird kind of twist in the pandemic schedule was that it did, it canceled all of our travel. And we had had a trip planned to Japan for a whole month. You know, I had lots of research trips, and they all got canceled, and trips to give talks for "The Three-Cornered War." Those all got canceled. And so actually, I had more writing time at home, because I think what people what historians, we what we love about archives is that you are there with the material. And you do have that you're kind of in the zone, taking notes, and you're like grooving and finding out all sorts of cool stuff every day. But at the end of the day, you know, at five o'clock when they kick you out, you're exhausted. And you know, I always admire people who can then go back to their hotel room or wherever , or their Air B&B or something and write. I can't do that, my brain is completely exploded. And so actually being forced to stay at home, probably gave me all together about three or four more months of sustained writing time. And so that was a bizarre side effect that I was actually able, I think I was able to complete the book, partly due to pandemic conditions. I think it would have been a slightly different book, if I had not had those limitations and those restrictions.

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:40  
So in both "The Three-Cornered War," and in this book, you talk about sort of this, this tension of the what the Republicans are doing at this point, sort of in the Civil War and then in the Reconstruction Era, where they are at the same time trying to support and defend the rights of African Americans. They're freeing them from enslavement. They're for at least a very brief moment in time trying to support their civil rights. But at the same time, sort of subjugating Native Americans to all sorts of new, well, not new, been going on for a while. But you know, even more, you know, land displacement, dispossession, taking away their sovereignty. So can you talk some about that that tension that is going on? And how it is that that the Republicans don't see this as a contradiction, even though we looking back are like, "The hypocrisy is terrible," but for them, it somehow made sense?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  20:38  
Yes, absolutely. I mean, for Republicans, this larger vision that they had of the country, as this land of free labor, motivated them in their actions during the Civil War, and then also in Reconstruction, to try and provide citizenship rights to try and provide land through the Homestead Act in 1862, for Black southerners, Black Americans during this period, and to try and use the federal power to really protect all of the rights that they had given them in the 14th and 15th amendments. And then in the West, they are seeing these public, what they perceive to be not Indigenous homelands, but American public lands, that these lands really do not belong to Native people. And so they are just standing in the way they are an obstacle to that vision of this land of free labor. And so the federal government is going to exert itself in that direction, by at first trying to create peace treaties with Native people. But in this moment, you know, 1871-72, such an interesting moment in Reconstruction, because the federal government does something unprecedented by prosecuting KKK members for conspiracy to undermine the voting rights and citizenship rights of Black southerners, at the same time that they are passing a rider to an Indian Appropriations Act, cutting off all treaty making with Native peoples, which basically functionally functionally ends their recognition of, of Native sovereignty. So at that moment, they really shift into military campaigns full bore to try and force Native people onto reservations so that they can take that land, and then parcel it up and survey it and sell it to white farmers and ranchers and miners who are going to develop it in what had become, by that point, a real vision of this American way of being this, you know, land of liberty that was being farmed and ranched and produced and made productive by settlers.

Kelly Therese Pollock  22:55  
It was interesting. Shortly before I read both "Three-Cornered War" and then "Saving Yellowstone," I had read several of Heather Cox Richardson's books. And I, I don't know if this was intentional on your part, but that I felt very much like, like the books were in conversation with each other, that, like how the south won the Civil War and "Saving Yellowstone" like I felt like I understood each better for having read the other and then when I got to your acknowledgments at the end said, "Aha! They do know each other, okay."

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  23:30  
Yes, Heather, Heather is in Book Squad, and so I've known her for quite some time. And she read the prologue for "Saving Yellowstone" and gave me some great comments on it. And obviously, her work has been foundational along with Elliott West's in US history. I mean, this idea of the Reconstruction West, or what Elliott West calls greater Reconstruction, this idea that we need to think about Reconstruction as a national process, that it very definitely was about bringing the former Confederate states back into the Union politically and culturally and socially. But it was also about doing the same kind of project in the West, and bringing in that giant region and you know, necessitating then Native land dispossession, to get that work done. And so, you know, I think both Heather and Elliot have sort of have made these arguments. They've been making these arguments for 20 years. And so this is not a new concept, but I think for some reason, it just hasn't taken hold. You know, it has in western history. I think most western historians are like, well, yes, of course. But, you know, textbooks still have, you know, the coming of the Civil War, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Indian Wars. Those are all separate siloed chapters, you know, and they seem to kind of move in in chronological order, and so they influence one another, but they're not seen as a single dynamic process, where, you know, those divisions aren't are not so clear, right? They're a little more fluid. And so what I'm hoping is that "Saving Yellowstone" can kind of bring that argument to an even larger, broader general audience. I mean, I think Heather and Elliot have been writing for general audiences too, but it hasn't really made a dent in the American public consciousness of what Reconstruction is, or what it was.

Kelly Therese Pollock  25:30  
So you talk some in this book about how this particular moment, so 1871-1872 is like the moment this could have happened. Obviously, we're coming out of Civil War, it couldn't have happened much earlier. But that it can't really happen much later either. That, you know, for a while there, they sort of set this up, there's the act creating Yellowstone, and then like, nothing happens for a while, because everyone sort of loses steam. So what is it about this particular moment that makes this possible to create this act to have Yellowstone?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  26:06  
There are a couple of different forces in play. I mean, the whole idea of saving natural space for the people for their recreation had been around for a little while. This is how we get rural cemeteries, this is how we get city parks. And that really ramps up in the context of industrialization, because people really are, see a real contrast between urbanizing industrializing spaces and natural spaces. But there hadn't really been a move to officially legally preserve these places. There had been one moment where the government set aside Arkansas Hotsprings, you know, in the 1830s, but then nothing really happened after that. And then there's this interesting moment during the Civil War in 1864, when the US government gives, you know, Yosemite and Mariposa Grove to the state of California to manage. So that's the most kind of recent precedent, although that was not about taking up land and giving it to the federal government. So I think what is necessary in this moment is the growing power of the federal infrastructure, both during the Civil War, where the federal government grows tremendously, and starts to take on new different different kinds of tasks. And then Congress passes the 13th, and 14th, and 15th amendments and, you know, providing for the people and then actually promising to defend their rights, right? If the states should take them away, or just blow it and, you know, just not take any action to defend those rights. So the federal government is growing in power, and the Republicans really think they have this, this right, and this responsibility to provide for the people. And it just so happens also that in this moment, these government surveys are out in the field. And there were four of them out in the field during this point. And you know, again, surveying had been around since Lewis and Clark, and there had been land surveys also for land sales long before that as well. But in this moment, there are an increasing number of civilians like Ferdinand Hayden leading these expeditions, and not only trying to determine what kinds of natural resources there were for development in the west, but also just trying to learn things about science, right? And that science for its own sake and knowledge for its own sake. So Hayden sets out in this moment to really explore a region of America that was still unmapped, and still not known, really at all to white Americans. So it was no, Indigenous peoples who lived in this region, new Yellowstone well, and had passed through it. They used it as a thoroughfare and a hunting ground and a campsite. But not many white Americans had ever been in it and those who had, when they came out and told stories about it, no one believed, right. They thought, "What are you talking about exploding mud from below? Are you insane?" Like that just seemed like ridiculous, the stories of the geyser region. But when when Hayden went and he confirmed for the federal government and the American people that these wonders did, in fact, exist, and they were unique in all the world. You know, they knew that that geysers existed in Iceland and New Zealand, but they knew enough about that, to know that this these geyser basins in Yellowstone were enormous. I mean, 1000s of hydrothermal features, and were like, "This is unique in all the world. This is exceptional." And this is also something that Americans were looking for in 1871-72. Right? I mean, the Civil War is over. Everyone's trying to recover, get back on their feet and kind of think about themselves as Americans again So Yellowstone gives them in this moment that opportunity to do that, to kind of claim a space that is uniquely American, and then save it for the American people. So there are all sorts of interesting things happening, that lead to this moment, a lot of ideas that are already in the air, and processes that are already in motion, and then a federal government that is willing to act to really preserve this place for the American people.

Kelly Therese Pollock  30:29  
This is what the best history does. But I you know, it sort of challenges my notions of, you know, good guys and bad guys. I have little kids who are very into good guys and bad guys. And of course, I'm always telling them, everything's more nuanced. But, you know, as as someone who did a ton of backpacking in my 20s, and went to Yellowstone and backpacked there, you know, I think I would have assumed prior to digging more into this history that I, the people who want to save Yellowstone, and you know, make sure that it's not overrun by businesses and stuff, that these would be the good guys, quote, unquote. And of course, from a certain perspective, they are, but I don't often read people's quotes to them. But I'm gonna read a quote, because I can't stop thinking about it. "That the creation of America's national parks required Native land dispossession is a hard truth, and one that does not often appear in popular accounts of the movement." And it is it's a really hard truth to think about that. So I guess my question for you is, what what do we do with that, then this is this, this sort of really hard truth to wrap our brains around that these places that are so important to America and America's sense of being American, and are so important to have these places still that we can go and we can experience nature? But that to have those required dispossession of land? Like how do we sit with this? What do we do with this? You know, so I don't expect you to have all the answers. But what's your answer to that?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  32:03  
Yeah. Well, I think the first and most important thing to do is to acknowledge it, right to say, "Okay, I understand that this was part of the history. And I understand that this still allows us to enjoy backpacking in Yellowstone. Right, it still allows us to enjoy pulling over to the side of the road when you see a bison herd and just kind of marvel at that whole situation." But then also to keep those those two areas of knowledge in your brain too, that you can appreciate it aesthetically as a kind of place of natural wonder, but then also is a place that is very historically contingent and and contextual, and that, that it has a kind of dark and hard history to it. The other thing that I think is going to be necessary that is actually happening, which is wonderful, and I can't wait to see how this is going to turn out on the ground. But the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park Cam Sholly has announced that as part of the 150th celebration, the park will be engaging with more than 20 Indigenous tribes that have history in and around Yellowstone, and that they will be partnering with them in all kinds of different efforts. They are building a Native Center at Old Faithful, which is the most visited site in the park. So they are and they are doing that in conjunction with and in consultation with Indigenous activists, and historians, they are also setting up an installation at the north entrance that is going to be kind of fully run by members of the Crow Nation that will be a kind of Crow settlement and, and village that will do some educational programming. So they are actually starting to engage and acknowledge the many, many Indigenous histories over 1000s of years, you know, the the use of Yellowstone as a space, and then also the history of conservation and the cost that that had for those Indigenous communities. And I'll be really interested to see, I'm going out there in May. So I'll be interested to see how that is actually working on the ground. And then if they are going to keep those as permanent installations. And I know that there are other Indigenous activist groups that are really interested in using Yellowstone as kind of a testing ground for a couple of the other big anniversaries that are coming up, to think about, "Okay, how can we celebrate this moment and acknowledge its really problematic origins?" Because I think we can hold both of those ideas in our heads at the same time. I mean, you know, I think there's a lot of criticism of darker hard history, you know, because it quote unquote, makes you feel bad or, you know, doesn't allow you to experience joy in this moment. But I think we can do both of those things. But it is necessary to acknowledge and understand those hard truths. Because I think otherwise, you know, all you're doing is just sort of driving pell mell through Yellowstone, you know, taking photographs of charismatic megafauna and the Grand Prismatic Spring, and then you're getting out of Dodge, and you know, going and eating a burger and not really thinking about your experience. So I think a more informed tourist experience will be great for everyone involved.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:33  
You have this extended metaphor running through the book about kind of what's below the surface. And of course, that's literally true in Yellowstone as anyone who's ever been to Yellowstone knows, it's kind of a scary place, sometimes. My my seven-year-old wants to go, and he's like, "But is this volcano gonna go off?" "Sweetie, if it does, I don't think it matters if we're there in Chicago," It really doesn't. It doesn't. But um, but but you're using this too, as a metaphor for for the United States. And this idea that, that there is always sort of something under the surface ready to break through. So can you talk a little bit about that? And what you mean by that in the in the context of this story?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  36:15  
Sure. Yeah. I, you know, from the very beginning of the project, it was pretty clear to me that Yellowstone was a place. It was also an idea. But it was also a metaphor for the nation at this moment. And I think that's part of what also made it very unique. And that Americans recognized that, that these, especially the western side of the park, which is the kind of geyser basin, and I mean, there are there are other geothermal features everywhere in the park, but kind of dominating that that western side. You know, there are there are other amazing parts of the park too, the Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley and the lower falls of the Yellowstone, which gets a lot of attention and the canyon. But we've seen those features in other places, right? We have big waterfalls, we have giant, beautiful mountains and canyons in other places in the United States. So what Yellowstone's really unique nature is is this combination of those with the geothermal. And I was always so struck when I was reading the Hayden Expeditions accounts that they would, they'd be walking along or riding their horses, and they could hear the kind of echo of empty space beneath their feet. And they remarked upon it, and how terrifying that was, and they would lie down, and they could hear water boiling under their ear. And quite often, you know, Ferdinand Hayden was walking around, and he fell through. And, you know, this kind of sense of a lurking threat, and a really dynamic, volatile, violent force kind of right beneath your feet. That just seemed to me to encapsulate America at this moment in during Reconstruction. And I think today as well, right? There are, there are things lurking beneath the surface, you believe that America's one thing, and then it explodes. Right? In a moment, like January 6, for example. So, you know, this is, this was a place that I think exemplified everything that was both terrible, but also beautiful about the United States, right? Because this is what's remarkable about this moment, is that the federal government, you know, really, in a singular moment is reaching for something higher, both in the in the west and the south. They're kind of creating this, this space of preservation for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. And then they're also fighting for Black rights in a way that they had not before, and really would not, again, until the 1960s. And so there, there are things that are quite beautiful about that, but also quite terrible, and that they have a cost to them. And so Yellowstone really seemed to me to exemplify that tension that I think has always been at the heart of American culture and American politics.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:11  
So you like to drink cocktails. I'm wondering, what cocktail is the appropriate cocktail to drink while reading "Saving Yellowstone?"

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  39:19  
Well, I think it has to be something bubbly, because you know, I think you need to try to replicate some of the bubbling springs. I don't know if you really want your cocktail to explode. I think that is not to effect a geyser type effect, I think is not something you would want in a cocktail, but I have been developing some ideas mostly for the book party. I have some paired cocktails that would either have champagne as the bubbly or club soda as the bubbly. Yeah. And I do have a house cocktail that I will probably convert. It's originally called the honey badger, which is the mascot of our house because of its fierceness. but it has a quite lovely combination of St. Germain and Campari and lemon, and either I mean, if you want to go fully loaded, you do the champagne. And then that is a very effective cocktail, if you want to really get kind of soused. But then club soda, if you want to take it a little little easier on that. But it's nice. It's like a great fruity kind of cocktail, it's a little bit tart, it's not overly sweet. And it's also this beautiful kind of pinky red color, which shows up a lot in, in Yellowstone in a lot of the the natural features. And so that's my I think that's going to be my primary pairing for this. But of course, you know, as with most books on western history, whiskey is also allowable in any form in which you would like to drink it. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:51  
So speaking of reds and colors, one of the important pieces of how this is sold, essentially to Congress to pass this act is  paintings and photographs. And you mentioned that your first introduction to the Hayden Survey was in art history. Can you talk a little bit about that piece of it and the importance of that, in sort of the genius of Hayden in realizing that that was gonna be an important piece?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  41:17  
Yeah, this this was something Hayden knew pretty early on in his career as a scientific explorer and someone who needed to talk Congress out of a lot of money every year to fund these surveys, that he needed to convince them by writing excessively. So he actually wrote in a more of a popular science mode, whenever he was writing reports for them. It wasn't just kind of straight-up science. He was giving them kind of words they could understand to understand the importance of his travels. But he also from the beginning, wanted photography and illustration to for two reasons. One is proof that he had been there and that these wonders existed. Because, you know, nowadays, we're very aware of how visual images, particularly photography can be manipulated. But in this moment, photography still had that reputation as being truthful. And so photographs were seen as proof that you had been somewhere or is it or that something existed. And so he wanted it for that. But he also knew that landscape art was really America's kind of primary artistic mode at this moment in the mid 19th century. And you know, all the big painters of the time Albert Bierstadt Frederic Edwin church, they were producing these huge canvases of iconic landscapes. And so he had, you know, originally planned that when Henry Jackson would come with him, Jackson had been with him on the survey before the year before, and he loved his photographs. He thought they were very effective. And then engravers would use his photographs to create illustrations for the for the report. Thomas Moran's presence on the survey was actually not Hayden's idea. He was sent by Jay Cooke, who is an investment banker from Philadelphia, one of the protagonists in the book, who is fundraising by selling bonds for the Northern Pacific Railroad, which is supposed to its tracks are supposed to run north of Yellowstone through what is now Livingston, Montana. And he too, that was one of Jay Cook's,  sort of elements of genius, is he recognized how important visual images and advertising were to selling bonds and to making investments in public projects. And Thomas Moran was an up-and-coming painter in Philadelphia, where Jay Cook had his investment bank, he knew of him he was available. And so he actually helped him get out there helped to fund Moran's trip. So Moran just kind of showed up in the middle of July. Hayden had some warning, but he always welcomed artists, especially if they paid their own way.

He knew how important it was, and I don't think he anticipated or anyone really anticipated that it would be Moran, who would produce the most famous image to come out of the Hayden Survey and possibly the most famous image of Yellowstone. You know, he painted a lot of different features, including you know, everyone was obsessed with Mammoth Hot Springs, which is they called the White Mountain at that moment. So there are a lot of Moran sketches and paintings of that but it was really the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which he chose to be his featured piece and he in fact left the survey sort of early so he could get back to Philadelphia and start this enormous painting which is you know, eight feet by 12 feet and just glorious. Moran was his great talent was in color. And so if you've ever been to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, you know that its walls are just this amazing kind of golden color kind of mixed with blue and purple and then the you know, the waterfall is right there in the center of the scene and it really is an iconic landscape and he is responsible for really producing that image in the American mind. And that image was the title illustration for Ferdinand Hayden's article about the expedition that was published in Scribner's Monthly in February of 1872, which was a big middle class magazine. It was excerpted and reported on widely in newspapers across the nation. So that those visual images were really important in shaping the way that regular Americans saw Yellowstone before they even went there. And then they were really important for lobbying Congress to pass the act, because not only did Hayden include all of those in his survey report, but he also set up a little exhibit in the rotunda of mineral specimens and some plants and fossils and other other kinds of specimens that they gathered from Yellowstone, but then also several of Jackson's photographs and then some of Moran's sketches. And they were meant to really show the Congressmen what Yellowstone had to offer and why it was so unique to convince them to pass this act. So this it was, it was really joyful for me to write about Moran and the painting and Jackson as these two just incredibly productive and really jovial members of the expedition and they worked together a lot and Moran shows up in Jackson's photographs as a kind of figure to give you scale, the most terrifying of which is Moran out standing on the structure of Mammoth Hot Springs on one of the I think it may be I can't I don't know if it's Jupiter Terrace or Minerva Terrace, but he's out there, just leaning on the structure standing at the edge of a pool. And I was like, "Jackson, what are you doing?" If he had fallen in, he could have died, and you would have killed one of the most, you know, revered landscape painters in American history. But luckily, that did not happen. And everyone survived. But yes, this, the photography and the painting is one of the elements of this expedition that made it so special, and so exceptional in the history of surveying in America.

Kelly Therese Pollock  47:24  
All right, one more question before we tell people how to get the book. And that is, what font do you write with when you're writing your books?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  47:32  
Oh, Kelly, we're gonna be talking about this for like, another hour!

Kelly Therese Pollock  47:38  
I'll just put it into two episodes. 

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  47:40  
Yes. So I through all throughout grad school I wrote in Garamond, which I did not realize until recently, many journalists find incredibly hard to read. And so if you pitch things to them in Garamond, they have very negative feelings, but it's how it is so pretty. Metallic Garamond is gorgeous. And also 13 Point Garamond is quite nice, because it's because it's such a small font, you can actually use 13 point and it doesn't seem like ridiculous, and it's still gorgeous, yet more readable. So I would suggest that to anyone who's like I can't leave my Garamond behind. But I for a while I was writing all of my op eds, kind of blog pieces and pop culture reviews for a column I write for the Civil War Monitor magazine in Avenir, which is a kind of rounder, more modern type of text. I wrote all of "Saving Yellowstone" in Big Caslen, which has a more Western kind of look to it. I'm not sure. I'm not sure why. The serif must be like, I don't know what I don't know why it is but but one of the readers on my manuscript was like, "I hate this. It hurts my eyes!" and I was like, "Why?" because I thought it was amazing and beautiful. And of course it is incredibly offensive to me that whenever I turn anything into my editor, it comes back to me in Times New Roman, which I hate. I find just I don't know. I don't know what it is. I've never liked it. I've never written in Times New Roman .

Kelly Therese Pollock  49:21  
It makes me physically shudder.

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  49:24  
So why and why is it why is it?

Kelly Therese Pollock  49:27  
I can only assume because it's not really that different from fonts that I'm okay with. I can only assume it's sort of because of the sort of time it reminds me of when it was the default font for so very long in in Microsoft Word. And you know, that was that was probably actually when I was in grad school writing a lot and you know, I think I think it's just sort of over over use that it it feels that way. I mean, I have similar feelings about Calibri in certain settings. Like I'm perfectly fine with it in email, that doesn't bother me at all. But if I see like a PowerPoint with Calibri, I get very, very upset. Yeah, even though it's the default font in PowerPoint.

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  50:13  
Yeah, I mean, it font is so interesting. And I've started to wonder why we have such strong feelings about it. And I think part of it may be that, that this is one of the choices you make as a writer, right. And so it can feel very liberating, and you feel very attached to the font that you choose. So you you love it. Like you. It's sort of like that old story about that kids really love ketchup, like not only because it's totally has a ton of sugar in it. But because it is the first, it's usually the first thing that they are given a choice about. You're like, "Do you want ketchup or not?" And they get to choose whether they want it or not. And there's freedom in that. And so the fact that we have so many font choices, and the one we feel like the one we choose has this element of independence to it, right. And I just recently discovered Dubai, which is kind of a small font, but also a sensor font, and very clean and kind of architectural looking. But it comes with an automatic kind of space and a half, I think, like you can't actually single space, which I'm not in favor of. So I may have to go back. But I often will sit there and you know, type type a couple sentences out of something. And then I'll just go into the font thing, and I'll just convert it and see how it looks to me. And if I like it, I have a very as I'm sure you do. It's an immediate reaction to font. You either like it or you don't. Like nobody feels like meh about it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  51:49  
No other people do. I think we're unusual. 

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  51:53  
Maybe it's just writers. Maybe it's just writers or you know, people who are always thinking about these things and looking at their words, because your words really do look different in different fonts. It's very weird.

Kelly Therese Pollock  52:05  
My husband does graphic design. So we spend a lot of time talking fonts. I think our kids are a little bit sick of hearing about fonts.

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  52:14  
They're gonna rebel entirely. They're gonna, they'll probably they're just gonna be like, "I'm writing this in Times New Roman." You're gonna be like, "No, no, no!" but that will be their form of rebellion. Yeah, TNR, it's coming. I know.

Kelly Therese Pollock  52:31  
So how can people get "Saving Yellowstone?"

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  52:34  
They can find it at their local independent bookstore. They can find it online on any number of purveyors, including indiebound. And also Amazon, Barnes and Noble. And it is available for pre-order in hardcover, and also audiobook and ebook. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  52:53  
Excellent. Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  52:58  
We haven't really talked a lot about Sitting Bull and his significance to this story. Because he's, he's not really someone who gets talked about a lot in the context of Yellowstone, even though the more I started to research his actions during this period, the more I realized they were connected in interesting ways to the Yellowstone story. You know, he was a very prominent leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota. And he had kind of emerged into leadership of that band in the 1850s and had really started to resist white encroachments on Lakota territory in the 1860s during the Montana Gold Rush. And from that point on, you know, fought both traditional enemies like the Crow and US soldiers and kind of surveilled and sometimes attacked, white immigrant trains, sometimes went into forts and negotiated I mean, this was quite typical for Indigenous leaders to use a variety of tactics to try and combat these great changes coming to their communities during this period. It's unclear whether he knew about Hayden's Survey out in the field. I mean, Hayden was definitely aware of him. And, you know, obtained a second cavalry escort from Fort Ellis in Bozeman in order to protect the expedition from any possible attacks from from Lakotas. But really Sitting Bull was most concerned about those survey teams that were coming on behalf of the Northern Pacific. So this is where the stories of Jay Cook and Sitting Bull and Hayden kind of intersect. And Cook is trying to figure out where he can lay this track, basically right through the middle of Lakota territory from the Missouri River all the way to the Rocky Mountains, again, right north of Yellowstone. And through a series of attacks on those surveyors Sitting Bull was really successful in preventing the construction of the Northern Pacific in '71, and '72, and was one of the factors that really led Jay Cooke into financial ruin, and launched the country into the panic and depression of 1873. And the Northern Pacific didn't get built until, until Sitting Bull and his people had been forced onto a reservation in 1883. And that really also was the time when tourists really started to come to Yellowstone in earnest, because they couldn't get there very easily otherwise. So his story is such an interesting one, and such a powerful one, really emphasizing that Indigenous resistance was still quite strong during this period. And that the the preservation of Yellowstone and the white settlement of the Great Northwest was not a given in this period.

Kelly Therese Pollock  55:55  
Well, it's an incredible story, and everyone needs to go buy this book.

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  56:00  
Thank you. Thank you for reading it. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  56:03  
Yes, well, it's a it's a great read. So it's not just an important, interesting history, but a great read too. And people can find you on other podcasts talking about your writing. And that so I encourage them to look for that as well. But Megan, I could talk to you all day about this, but let's just tell everyone to go buy the book instead. And thank you so much for coming on and talking to me.

Dr. Megan Kate Nelson  56:28  
Kelly, thanks so much for having me. It's great to meet you in this format.

Teddy  56:32  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @unsung__history, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Megan Kate NelsonProfile Photo

Megan Kate Nelson

Hi there! I’m Megan Kate Nelson, a writer, historian, road cyclist, and cocktail enthusiast.

I am the author of The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (Scribner, 2020), which was a Finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in History.

My new book, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America will be published by Scribner in March 2022.

I am an expert in the history of the American Civil War, the U.S. West, and popular culture, and have written articles about these topics for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Preservation Magazine, and Civil War Times.

My column on Civil War popular culture, “Stereoscope,” appears regularly in the Civil War Monitor. This past year, I was also elected as a fellow of the Society of American Historians.

Before leaving academia to write full-time in 2014, I taught U.S. history and American Studies at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown. I earned my BA in History and Literature from Harvard University and my PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa.