In the summer of 1871, a team of thirty-two renowned scientists, artists, and adventurers set out to explore the uncharted territory surrounding the Yellowstone River, sampling, sketching, and photographing the region’s breathtaking wonders. At the end of their foray into the wilderness, the survey team headed east, determined to convince the United States Congress of the need to preserve the land from commercial development. Spinning “stories of wonder hardly short of fairy tales,” to quote the New York Times, they enlisted the support of influential conservationists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Frederick Law Olmsted.
This fascinating book tells the story of that journey, recounting the astonishing expedition that led to the passage of the Yellowstone Park Bill, a law that set aside over two million acres of wilderness as “a great national park for the benefit and enjoyment of people” and created a beloved vacation destination where visitors could enjoy white-capped mountain vistas and wildlife in its natural habitat.
Filled with “vivid descriptions . . . and color photographs [that] highlight Yellowstone’s dramatic geological features,” this first-of-its-kind account from a former park ranger will instill a sense of awe and wonder at America’s rich natural heritage (Publishers Weekly).
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By the time I was forty, I could see our country was changing fast, and that these changes were causing us to live very different.
— Plenty Coups, Crow chief
The absurd land that Langford described in the Scribner's article already had a name: Yellowstone. And it had been a home and destination for many people for thousands of years.
Mi tse a-da-zi, the earliest people called it. Meaning "Rock Yellow River," this name was used by Minnetaree American Indians to describe the large river in the area that coursed and coiled through bluffs of golden rock. French fur trappers, fanning out into the region to hunt beaver in the 1700s, translated the Native word they heard to "Roche Jaune." In English, the region, as well as the river that ran through it, became known as "Yellow Stone."
American Indians and their ancestors used Yellowstone as a hunting ground and home for at least ten thousand years. Archeologists know this based on primitive tools they've discovered in the area. Yellowstone offered indigenous peoples a bounty of resources: massive herds of buffalo, elk, and sheep to hunt for food and clothing; rivers and lakes teeming with trout; and hot water springs that could be tapped for cooking, medicinal purposes, and much-needed winter warmth.
A group of Plains American Indians known as the Crow lived east of Yellow-stone in parts of present-day Montana and Wyoming (where many of their descendants still reside today). Flathead and Blackfeet peoples traveled down to Yellowstone from the North, using the Yellowstone River as a guide.
These tribes created their own trails and journeyed through Yellowstone seasonally. In spring, they'd wait until the chilly tributaries of the Yellowstone River turned pink with masses of spawning cutthroat trout. In summer, they tracked large herds of buffalo, elk, and antelope that grazed in Yellowstone's lush green valleys. They also mined the region's rich stores of obsidian — a black glassy rock so coveted for its utility and beauty that it was traded as far east as the Ohio River Valley.
But one group of American Indians lived in Yellowstone year-round, despite the brutal winters that pummeled the region with snowpack, ice, and temperatures as cold as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They were a tribe of Shoshone known as the Tukudika, or Sheepeaters.
It's a beautiful stone — shiny and smooth like glass and as black as coal — rendered from one of the most violent processes on Earth. And Yellowstone is one of the few places in North America where this rock, called obsidian, is found in such great abundance.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, massive volcanoes erupted in the Yellowstone region. Once the flaming lava from these eruptions hit the surrounding air or struck nearby lakes, rivers, or icy glaciers, it quickly cooled (think of how piping-hot molasses drizzled onto snow instantly hardens). This flash-cooling effect created entire cliffs of obsidian, a kind of volcanic glass.
Native peoples in the Yellowstone region used obsidian for arrowheads and knives. They also used it as a scraping tool for cleaning hides, for sewing, and even as a surgical tool that could cut cleanly and deeply through skin.
The reach of the American Indians' obsidian trade astounds archeologists, who've discovered pieces of the rock as far east as present-day Ohio.
These semi-nomadic people lived in family groups and moved frequently across Yellowstone and the surrounding land. Their shelters, teepee-shaped "wickiups" made of propped-up limbs and sticks, could be easily relocated as families journeyed across the region. Sheepeaters never adopted the horse but instead relied on their dogs — beasts of burden as well as cherished pets — to transport foods and household goods.
Smaller than today's huskies, the Sheepeaters' dogs were a vital part of their culture and lifestyle. Even after the horse arrived on the Great Plains and was adopted by other Native tribes, the Sheepeaters continued to rely on their dogs for transportation and companionship.
Sturdy and compact, dogs could be outfitted with leather packs or tethered to a small sled or travois to haul children and supplies. The dogs were a perfect size for shuttling household goods and food from one seasonal camp to the next. Dogs were companions as well — joining in on a hunt, alerting their owners to lurking enemy tribes, and providing a source of comfort to children.
In recent years, Yellowstone park archeologists discovered the remains of a Sheepeater man, and buried beside him was a dog — likely his cherished pet.
Like our modern ecologists, the Sheepeaters knew Yellowstone across every season. They knew when the grizzly exited its wintry lair in May; when, in fall, underground bulbs of white sego lilies swelled into potato-like nuggets and were ready to be dug up and eaten; and when the roaring waterfalls of summer quieted in the deep freeze of winter.
The tribe subsisted largely on the meat of bighorn sheep — the large, curly-horned animals after which the Sheepeaters were named. But so many of Yellowstone's resources were edible for the Tukudika, including elk, deer, small mammals, and fish, as well as nuts, seeds, and berries. They also dug up plant roots, which they ground into flour and baked into cakes. In lean times, they stripped and ate the soft inner bark of pine trees.
The Tukudika knew that in the summer months, when grizzlies and wolves stalked Yellowstone's lower valleys, bighorn sheep sought refuge by dashing to the upper reaches of nearby mountains and cliffs. With their muscular legs and flexible hooves, the sheep could traverse perilous ledges out of reach of less adept predators.
The Sheepeaters used this knowledge to invent a clever hunting strategy. If they spied a herd of sheep in a nearby valley, the Natives would send their best hunters to climb the adjacent cliffs. There the men would wait with their handmade bows, preparing to launch their arrows. Meanwhile, down below, the tribe's younger men and boys would start yipping and howling, imitating one of the sheep's top predators: wolves. Panicked, the grazing sheep would scramble up the nearby slopes, right into the hands of the poised and ready hunters.
Osbourne Russell, a fur trapper who crossed Yellowstone in 1835, made contact with a band of Sheepeaters. "They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and sheepskins of the best quality," he noted in his journal, "and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy." Their few material possessions included an old butcher knife, a small stone pot, as well as the thirty or so dogs that carried their food, goods, and the skins with which they traded.
Russell was most impressed by the Sheep-eaters' elegant bows, made from sheep horns and adorned with porcupine quills. Ever resourceful, the Natives likely used Yellowstone's boiling springs to cook the hard horns until they were soft enough to straighten. They tipped their arrows with pointy shards of obsidian.
The Sheepeaters were master survivalists who subsisted off a land no others could. But even they could not adapt quickly enough to the changes that lay ahead.
As more and more white settlers poured into the prairies, plains, and valleys of the American West, the treasure hunters among them became increasingly enthralled with the land's oversized resources. It wasn't long before rumors drifted back east about mountains entombed with silver and copper, giant sequoia trees that pierced the heavens, and rivers that glittered with gold.
It was the gold that made men most crazy. Nuggets of the bright shining stuff danced in the imagination of the poor and rich alike. Reports of five-pound hunks of gold drifted from one frontier town to another, wooing people into bravery, brashness, and sheer stupidity.
In the blink of an eye, men abandoned their families and homes for a chance to make a fortune out West. It was an insatiable hunger — "gold fever" as some called it — that consumed people like a disease. According to one gold hunter, the lust for gold "buzzed about the brain and tickled in the stomach." The gold miners came armed with picks, axes, and butcher knives — any tool that would pry open the earth.
All types of people were drawn into the clanging chaos of gold rush towns. Fleeing hardship and despair, men, women, and children — from as far away as China and Australia — boarded disease- and rat-infested boats bound for America's western shores. In the United States, Civil War veterans, former slaves, and poor laborers joined them in the search for new lives, a livable income, and the promise of a better future.
Gold rush towns sprouted up like weeds across the western frontier and were shoddily built and exceedingly dirty. Flimsy wooden shacks served as general stores, banks, saloons, dance halls, and brothels. With no sewage systems, waste and excrement bubbled up on side streets. Locals strolled streets caked in manure. Boys as young as five played poker. Scrappy youngsters crawled outside the doors of banks and saloons, combing floorboards and carpets for flecks of gold.
Other resources, besides gold, were also sought by the incoming tide of settlers. Mountaintops were sheared off in the hopes of finding silver and copper. Forests were felled to make way for cities, farms, and railroads that would soon span the country. For every mile of railroad track, twenty-five hundred ties were needed — all made from wood.
Mark Twain, a well-known political commentator at the time, wrote satirical columns in the nation's newspapers about America's obsession with quick money:
"What is the chief end of man?
— to get rich.
In what way?
— dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must."
Americans lived by the "get what you can" principle, wrote another writer living in the gold rush town of Virginia City, Montana.
All of these disturbances to the natural landscape — disruptions driven by greed in many cases — sent ripples through Native peoples' homelands. The American Indians' sacred lands — places where they hunted, gathered together, and buried family members — were being transformed or utterly destroyed.
At the time, treaties were being drawn up by the US government to appease tribes, though most of them proved worthless. These official government documents were often rescinded or rewritten to benefit the large and powerful businesses of the era, such as oil, steel, and railroad companies, and Native peoples found themselves kicked out of their homelands.
As their anger grew, tribes retaliated, sometimes violently. White and European settlers feared American Indian attacks as they crossed the West on wagon and horseback. Many viewed the Natives as "savages," "beasts," and "degrades," terms used by white Americans well into the 1900s.
Settlers spoke of ridding their towns of the American Indian "pestilence." An editorial in the 1867 Idaho Statesman offered a solution to the "Indian problem":
Let all the hostile bands [of Indians] be called in to attend a grand treaty; plenty of blankets and nice little trinkets distributed among them; plenty of grub on hand; have a jolly time with them; then just before the big feast put strychnine in their meat and poison to death the last mother's son of them.
One congressman in Montana declared his hatred of Natives in the 1868 Congressional Globe:
I have never in my life seen a good Indian (and I have seen thousands) except when I have seen a dead Indian. I believe in the policy that exterminates the Indians, drives them outside the boundaries of civilization ...
Sadly, by 1871, opinions had not changed. Anti — American Indian attitudes persisted, and tribal lands continued to be trespassed upon. The US government provided few, if any, protections for the territorial lands being taken or for the Native peoples being killed.
Tribes in and around the Montana Territory watched as more white men probed the enchanted Yellowstone Valley. One group in particular was prepared to defend its beloved homeland.
WAITING FOR PROOF
"Colter's Hell" sounded so much like one of Marco Polo's yarns in a thirteenth-century Venetian drawing room.
— William H. Jackson, American photographer on the skepticism surrounding Yellowstone
WASHINGTON, DC, JANUARY 19, 1871
The crowd eagerly awaited the evening's next speaker. Sitting in plush seats beneath a twinkling glass chandelier, a group of curious Americans assembled in Washington, DC's radiant Lincoln Hall to hear about a land of freakish marvels.
They had come to learn about Yellowstone. According to the Washington Star, that evening's lecture pertained to a mysterious region in the West that fumed with "active volcanoes, fountains of boiling water." Tickets for the event cost fifty cents.
How far-fetched the place sounded to many Americans. But also, how thrilling it would be for the country if even half of the details proved true.
A powerful man, Speaker of the House James G. Blaine, took center stage. He had agreed, as a special favor, to welcome the much-anticipated guest. Blaine fulfilled his promise heartily. As the crowd clapped and gaslights softly flickered, a tall man with dark eyes and a neatly trimmed beard stepped forward.
"I appear before you this evening," the stranger began, "to tell you of wonders that I have seen."
The speaker, whom the packed auditorium had come to see, was none other than Nathaniel Langford, back from his recent trip to the mysterious Yellowstone region.
Langford admitted to the crowd that months ago, he would have been too embarrassed to speak of a place as absurd-sounding as Yellowstone, for fear of losing his reputation. But now, he declared, there was no denying the place existed: he'd seen its astonishing sights with his own eyes.
Langford went on to tell the rapt audience — which included politicians, dignitaries, university professors, and curious citizens — about his team's harrowing journey and how it all began.
Shortly after moving to Montana Territory, Langford started hearing "strange and marvelous" stories about the region to the south. Old timers in town, grizzled mountain men who'd roamed the western Rockies decades before mining towns had been established there, referred to places with names such as Hot Spring Brimstone, Burnt Hole, and Devil's Slide.
Many of these men were fur trappers, caught up in the intense, multinational hunt for beaver that swept across the western United States in the 1830s and '40s. Most of them worked for British, French, and American fur companies that competed with one another to net the most furs and pelts.
The reason the beaver was so coveted — and almost hunted to extinction in the country — was its unique fur. Not only was the fur soft and downy, capable of being woven into a fine silklike material, but it was also durably waterproof. The fur that kept beavers insulated and dry in their damp underwater homes was soon recognized worldwide as the finest hat material.
The Price of Fashion
When it came to mid-1800s headwear, satiny top hats were all the rage.
But the trend had rippling impacts. The fur for the hats, prized for its softness and water-repellency, came from beavers. As a result, these animals, in both Europe and North America, were nearly hunted to extinction.
There was also a human toll associated with the fashion icon. Transforming the thick fur into silky hat material was grueling work, often performed by women laboring in dangerous factory conditions for measly wages. For hours a day, laborers plucked away at pelts, removing all the coarser guard hairs until the fur was soft and smooth.
Later on, when chemicals, such as mercury, were used to expedite the process, workers traded tediousness for toxicity as they breathed in noxious fumes that caused headaches, respiratory problems, tremors, and even paralysis of the limbs. Mercury poisoning was also blamed for psychological illnesses including dementia and insanity, giving rise to the expression "mad as a hatter."
Excerpted from "A Weird and Wild Beauty"
Copyright © 2016 Erin Peabody.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Homeland,
Chapter 2 Waiting for Proof,
Chapter 3 Go West!,
Chapter 4 A Change in Plans,
Chapter 5 A Mammoth Sight,
Chapter 6 Tumbling Waters,
Chapter 7 Ludicrous Descent,
Chapter 8 Wonderland,
Chapter 9 Into the Dragon's Mouth,
Chapter 10 Waves,
Chapter 11 Gush!,
Chapter 12 Heading Home,
Chapter 13 Back in Washington,
Chapter 14 For the People,
It's Alive! A Guide to Yellowstone's Hydrothermal Features,