Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park

Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park

Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park

Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park

Synopsis

Does a beloved institution need its own myths to survive? Can conservationists avoid turning their heroes into legends? Should they try? Yellowstone National Park, a global icon of conservation and natural beauty, was born at the most improbable of times: the American Gilded Age, when altruism seemed extinct and society's vision seemed focused on only greed and growth. Perhaps that is why the park's "creation myth" portrayed a few saintlike pioneer conservationists laboring to set aside this unique wilderness against all odds. In fact, the establishment of Yellowstone was the result of complex social, scientific, economic, and aesthetic forces. Its creators were not saints but mortal humans with the full range of ideals and impulses known to the species. Authors Paul Schullery and Lee Whittlesey, both longtime students of Yellowstone's complex history, present the first full account of how the fairy tale origins of the park found universal public acceptance and the long, painful process by which the myth was reconsidered and replaced with a more realistic and ultimately more satisfying story. In this evocative exploration of Yellowstone's creation myth, the authors trace the evolution of the legend, its rise to incontrovertible truth, and its revelation as a mysterious and troubling episode that remains part folklore, part wish, and part history. This study demonstrates the passions stirred by any challenge to cherished national memories, just as it honors the ideals and dreams represented by our national myths.

Excerpt

According to popular tradition as presented in countless publications and public speeches during the past seventy-five years, the idea of Yellowstone National Park originated with one man on a specific day. As this tradition has come down to us, on the evening of September 19, 1870, members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition (hereafter called the Washburn expedition or Washburn party) gathered around a campfire at the junction of the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers (called Madison Junction) in what would become Yellowstone National Park. They had just completed a tour of many of the area's most remarkable wonders, and, rather than lay claim to the region for personal gain, they had the idea of setting aside the geyser basins and surrounding country as a national park. The “campfire story, ” promoted and celebrated by several generations of conservation writers, historians, and National Park Service employees, became well established in the popular mind as the way not only Yellowstone but also national parks in general originated.

As early as the 1930s, however, historians doubted the tale or interpreted the park's creation differently. A variety of scholars have objected that the campfire story ignored known pre-1870 proposals that Yellowstone should be set aside for public use, that the process by which the national park was established did not seem to spring directly or indirectly from any such campfire conversation, and that the public-spirited sentiments attributed to the park's founders were not the only impulses driving their actions. In the 1960s and 1970s, Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines and the academic historian Richard Bartlett cast further doubt on the story by suggesting, among other things, that even the campfire conversation itself was a historically dubious episode. Their revelations set off a round of debate and reconsideration in the National Park Ser-

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