The Yellowstone Myth
It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am a big fan of America’s National Parks. With all its flaws (mostly attributable to under-funding) they collectively constitute our “best idea”, and the rest of the world has endorsed the concept by copying it.
I was therefore intrigued by a book I stumbled on in a National Park Service book store (naturally) last summer. It’s not new but somehow I had missed it, and it got me to thinking about notions far beyond the subject of its title.
Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park by Paul Schullery and Lee Whittlesey. The Yellowstone Association. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
The ‘myth” of the title refers to an apocryphal camping trip which took place in 1870 at Madison Junction. As the legend goes, it was here that a blissfully altruistic conversation took place around the campfire which led to the formation of the National Park Service. While Yellowstone itself was established by Congress just two years later the NPS didn’t actually come into being until 1916, so apparently there is room for interpretation here.
I read the entire book without quite understanding whether or not this conversation ever took place, but the fact that park officials have now pulled back from endorsing this story – after touting it in park signage and publications for decades – speaks volumes. Another clue might be taken from the total absence of a written account of this alleged conversation by any of the named principals until 34 years later.
Today even the Park Service refers to it officially as “the Madison Campfire Myth”, and as my friend, the late historian Watson Parker used to say, If it ain’t true, it oughtta be! It served its purpose, even reaching legendary status, and nobody much worries about the veracity of legends.
As a historian this would ordinarily be very troubling for me, but in this case I find the back story far more intriguing than the reversal of long-standing government policy. What intrigues me is the question, Why do we humans apparently have this need to believe in myths? And if historical facts don’t fill the need, we just make them up!
Yellowstone is an incredible place. So incredible in fact, that the first white man to stumble across its wildly improbable natural wonders, John Colter (previously a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition), was called a liar and worse when he described the geysers, bubbling mud pots and steaming fumeroles to his fellow fur trappers. Congress also had to be convinced that the entire place wasn’t just a mountain man’s tall tale, or merely the vivid imagination of artist Thomas Moran, and dispatched photographer William Henry Jackson to document once and for all the authenticity of Yellowstone’s natural wonders before considering creating a nation’s park. In other words, it would take the combined efforts of L. Frank Baum, J.M. Barry and Dr. Seuss to imagine such a place if it didn’t exist. But it’s real. Does Yellowstone really need a myth to support it?
But let’s go beyond Yellowstone for a moment. I live in “the West Where Legends Live”. We co-exist daily with legendary historical figures like George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull, Lewis & Clark, Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Theodore Roosevelt, Poker Alice, Buffalo Bill Cody, Deadwood Dick, Seth Bullock, Sacagawea – just to name a few. Our next door neighbor is known as Legendary North Dakota. These characters all passed this way – at the very least – and many lived out their lives here. If they had not, would we feel the need to invent them?
In addition to the legends who walked the storied streets of historic Deadwood or Virginia City, for example, there is the West itself, which is pretty extraordinary without historical characters, but after Hollywood got ahold of it, the myths fairly tumble over each other on their way to never-never land. As a Boomer who grew up on Rin Tin Tin, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Sky King, I LOVE this stuff, and in truth it is probably more responsible for my love of the West than any of the history books I have since read or historic sites I have visited! Is that a sad statement or not? I don’t know.
And then there is the nagging issue that Yellowstone, with or without its myth – wasn’t the first at all: in 1864 the US Congress officially granted Yosemite Valley to the state of California for the purpose of establishing a park!
So much for bragging rights!
This month’s Trail Talk is sponsored by
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.
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