Book Review Tuesday

Empire of Shadows: the Epic Story of Yellowstone by George Black

The title of this book is slightly misleading. I expected a history of Yellowstone Park that included its discovery by Europeans; the establishment of the National Park; the building of its famous hotel, the Old Faithful Inn; the advertisement of the park to would-be visitors; and the scientific studies done on its geysers, hot springs, and wildlife populations. Of these topics, Black only discusses the discovery of the park and (slightly, at the end) the establishment of the National Park. In fact, the book does not even make it to the 20th century, ending instead with the death of Yellowstone explorer Captain Gustavus C. Doane in 1892. Black’s focus is not so much on Yellowstone Park itself, but on the events and expeditions that led to the creation of the park.

The book begins with the Lewis and Clark expedition, telling how tantalizingly close the Corps of Discovery came to “Wonderland” on their way to and from the Pacific. Black describes in detail the Native American tribes of the area – Piegan, Nez Perce, Crow, Blackfeet and others –  and spends many chapters telling of the relations between these tribes and  the white trappers, miners, and eventually, pioneers who moved into their territory in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It is, in many ways, a sad story filled with misunderstandings, murders and massacres, with both whites and natives seemingly unable to coexist with the other.

As part of this saga of interracial relations, Black introduces the settlers and soldiers who would form the first major exploration party in 1870. He describes how these principal players made their way to Montana, and what happened during their expedition in 1870. It is fascinating to read the account of this expedition, although a larger map of the area would have made the narrative more clear.

After describing the 1870 expedition, Black sums up the creation of the National Park, and comes to the conclusion that we will never really know who came up with the idea; there are too many competing claims with the same amount of evidence (which is to say, not much). He then tells the story of some of the first tourists, and of the last battle between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce, part of which took place within the current boundaries of the Park. Finally, Black gives a brief epilogue, tying up the lives of the principal players of the 1870 expedition.

This is an interesting book, filled with fascinating characters from history. While it can sometimes be difficult to keep them all straight, Black does a good job of describing their importance to the creation of the very first National Park. A more detailed map and some more photographs and illustrations would have made the book even better, but overall, this is a solid history of one particularly recognizable corner of the American West.

The library call number for this book is F722.B53 2012

Adrienne Meier, Librarian for the Social Sciences/University Archivist

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