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2013-04-17 Steve Gardiner Book Review: Empire of Shadows

Take dramatic characters, involve them in dramatic events, and place them on a dramatic stage and a powerful story emerges. That's what readers get in Empire of the Shadows (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012) by George Black.

The history of Yellowstone, the world's first national park, is interesting from the very beginning. Explorers like Jim Bridger and John Colter told stories of boiling mud pots and geysers shooting water high into the air. At first, these stories were passed off as the hallucinations of weary travelers, of mountain men who spent too much time alone in the wilderness and imagined wondrous sights to tell back home.


Black's history of the Yellowstone country takes the reader through the Lewis and Clark explorations, the development of the Bozeman Trail and the Bridger Trail, the vigilante hangings in Montana Territory, the Indian Wars including the Fetterman Massacre and Custer's Last Stand, gold fever, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the congressional act that created the first national park and the ensuing wave of tourism.


It is a story of exploration, violence, revenge, ambition, and commerce. It includes many of the names that became famous as the nation expanded across the continent. In addition to Bridger and Colter, others such as Sheridan, Langford, de Smet, Doane, Carson, Washburn, Heyden, Chief Joseph, Medicine Crow played their roles in defining this era of history and the early days of one of the most interesting and amazing pieces of landscape in the world.


Black's research is comprehensive and well documented. He takes the reader through each phase of the development of Yellowstone and demonstrates how complicated it was to first reach this wonderland and then get the military and political institutions in line to create the national park status necessary to protect this environment from the crowds of people who were anxious to see the region for themselves. He takes readers along with the first organized party to conduct a systematic exploration of the region as they name mountains and valleys, measure waterfalls, and cross raging rivers.


After reading of the many struggles to reach and explore this beautiful area, if seems unlikely that any agreement might be possible regarding its future, but incredibly, as Black notes, on March 1, 1872, “President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Senate bill setting aside 'a certain tract of land lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone River' as the nation's first national park. Given the avarice, corruption, and cronyism of the time, the speed of its passage and the idealism that drove it (at least in part) were nothing short of astonishing” (p. 352).




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