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Empire Of Shadows: The Epic Story Of Yellowstone

Author : George Black
Published : 2012-03-27

In Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone, author George Black pulls on three main threads to tell the backstory of the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

Foremost is America's 19th Century lust for exploring its new lands, a hunger to reach out into every nook and cranny of the frontier and claim the area for the year-old United States.

This hunger, of course, fosters and fuels the new nation's determination to drive Native Americans from their homelands, a topic the author spends a vast amount of time on.

And, finally, there are the political side games that were waged not only by commercial interests anxious to benefit from the park, but also by individuals hungering for notoriety they might achieve by bringing to the public the wonders of Yellowstone.

It's not altogether a pretty story. Along with another book out this year, Mr. Hornaday's War (which will be reviewed in the near-future), Empire of Shadows lays out the genocide of native societies that the fledgling United States viewed as little more than impediments to the new nation's Manifest Destiny.

As evidence of this point, Mr. Black introduces us to Lt. John Mullan, who was credited with mapping out a road through the Blackfeet country in Montana in the early 1860s.

"The Indian is destined to disappear before the white man," Mullan wrote, "and the only question is, how it may best be done, and his disappearance from our midst tempered with those elements calculated to produce to himself the least amount of suffering, and to us the least amount of cost."

The strategy for accomplishing this was the reservation, where the Indians would emerge from savagery by first learning barbarian skills such as growing vegetables and then moving on to the rudiments of civilization by sitting in rows in the schoolhouse with shorn locks and reciting their ABCs. However, for a recalcitrant tribe like the Blackfeet, the terms of the discussion were very different.

The fur trader Alexander Culbertson, with his cross-cultural perspective, urged the lieutentant to get past the stereotypical view of the tribe as "predatory and intractable savages," but Mullan was having none of it. They were "hell-hounds" and "devils," he raged. "(O)ur military force should be sent among them, put every man, woman and child to the knife, burn down their villages, and thus teach the nation that, since persuasion will not, force must and shall, effect (t)he ends we have in view." The Blackfeet "had better by far be totally exterminated, than thus left to prowl the mountains, murdering, plundering, and carrying everything before them."

In the later 1860s and 1870s, with the Civil War ended, the country's military machine turned its eyes West, and proceded with at times elaborate, and ruthless, plans for forcing the various tribes -- the Crow, Sioux, Blackfeet, Nez Perce and others -- off their lands.

And how, you might ask, does this relate to Yellowstone's evolution into the world's first national park? In short, it was necessary to quell the Indian threat to allow explorers such as Nathaniel Langford, Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, Cornelius Hedges, and others to safely venture into the landscape that today falls within the national park.

"I've always taken a very all-encompassing view of the course of history, and each of the main threads of the story of the Indian Wars seemed to me to relate directly to the big theme of the book: How the exploration, settlement, and pacification of the frontier were tightly interwoven with one another," Mr. Black explained when asked about his heavy focus on the Indian Wars.

"And the conflict with each of the individual tribes (Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Sioux, etc.) to me bore directly on the exploration of Yellowstone and/or the major characters in the book," he added. "The Blackfeet seemed to me to belong at the heart of the story because they were the tribe that had always posed the main threat to the security of whites who wanted to penetrate the upper Yellowstone, and because Doane, Langford, and Hedges were all closely involved in the sequence of events that led to the 1870 Marias massacre, which finally opened the way to a full-scale exploration."

There is, of course, more to the book than the Indian Wars. We gain insights to Langford as a person (both vigilante and something of a carpetbagger come West), but learn little of his stint as Yellowstone's first superintendent. Lt. Doane also evolves into a central character of the book, and we're treated to his apparent deep lack of self-esteem and how he came to resent Ferdinand Hayden for gaining the glory of exploring Yellowstone that he thought he himself deserved.

We hear of William Henry Jackson, the photographer, and Thomas Moran, the painter, joining Hayden on his 1871 expedition into Yellowstone, but read little of what motivated them in their efforts to capture the landscape's personality on film and canvas.

Mr. Black's story starts long before Langford and Doane, Hayden and Moran, and the U.S. cavalry. It stretches all the way back to Lewis and Clark, and a young John Colter who left the Corps of Discovery in 1806 to venture into the upper Yellowstone to see what it might hold.

Mr. Black pulls all these threads together and produces the background against which Yellowstone came into our national consciousness. But Empire of Shadows, which concludes after the Nez Perce crossed Yellowstone in their bid to seek sanctuary in Canada, revolves more on happenings on the periphery of the park than what is transpiring within it.

This is a deeply researched and heavily annotated book that brings to the surface some details that the Yellowstone generalist might have been unaware of. For instance, Doane's thirst for fame as an explorer, Langford's tendency to embellish his stories, and his ties to railroad magnate/banker Jay Cooke who saw Yellowstone as a great draw for passengers on his Northern Pacific Railroad.

Details about Truman Everts' odyssey in the landscape, which he wandered lost for 37 days, make his survival even more amazing: he scalded a hip when "he rolled over in his sleep" and broke through the crust and into a hot spring, burned a hand falling into a campfire, and even started a forest fire.

In the end, Empire of Shadows is as much, if not a bit more, a book about the military's and federal government's approach to the Indian Wars as it is about the arrival of Yellowstone in the national lexicon back in the 1870s. That's not to diminish its rightful place in the library of Yellowstone fans, but rather to place a qualifier around the title.


Thanks for the recommendation Kurt. I just finished reading this book and it was great. Easy to read and very thorough. It was a very interesting group of men who put us on the path to our first National Park.

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