Megan Kate Nelson, a Colorado-born graduate of Littleton High School, is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has written about the Civil War, US Western history and American culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine and others. She earned her BA in history and literature from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Iowa.
On a recent visit to Colorado, she sat down with SunLit editor Kevin Simpson to talk about her new book, “Saving Yellowstone.” The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kevin Simpson: Your background in history spans the West, the Civil War, but also environmental history, as well. Which leads me to the question: How did you arrive at the title of this book as “Saving Yellowstone”? It has an environmental feel to it, but it’s a lot more than that.
Megan Kate Nelson: We liked that verb form, because it does indicate so many different things. One part of it is preservation. And we knew we wanted to really communicate to potential readers that this is a story of the creation of Yellowstone National Park. And we knew we wanted Yellowstone in the primary title. So it was just a matter of what verb before that.
We thought that “saving” had the notion of conservation, but it also had the notion of keeping in perpetuity for the study of science. And then also from Sitting Bull’s perspective, it was a question of saving Indigenous traditions, saving his people’s future by actually keeping that region out of federal hands. So it has an interesting interplay between a couple of different meanings.
The subtitle, “Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America,” signals right off the bat that you’re looking at Yellowstone in a much larger context. How did you decide to center your book on the particular issues in play here?
The Yellowstone Act’s 150th anniversary was coming up, so that was a significant moment, creating the first national park in the world – a really pivotal moment in conservation history. But then, I was thinking that lots of people have written conservation histories. That’s when I had the lightbulb moment where I thought, “Wait a minute, this is right in the middle of Reconstruction.” And Reconstruction is a period that we normally associated with the South and only the South, that it’s a political project to bring the former Confederate states back into the nation.
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What I’m arguing in “Saving Yellowstone” is that Reconstruction was a national project, and that bringing the West into the nation was also a goal of the Republican government and the Ulysses S. Grant administration. And that the Yellowstone Act, the exploration of Yellowstone and its preservation, was part of that project.
You begin the story early in pretty dramatic fashion with a man named Truman Everts. Who was he and why is he important to this much larger narrative?
I thought readers would be pulled in by this incredible story of this man being discovered after 37 days out in Yellowstone, lost and almost dead. Truman Everts was a Montana civic official and was about to leave Montana when he joined a kind of amateur exploration outfit, organized by a guy named Nathaniel Langford, which was the largest group to ever explore Yellowstone and went out in the fall of 1870.
Everts got lost, then he was found and his story and also Langford’s account of that expedition was really the moment that launched Yellowstone into the American imagination. Before that moment, it was the only unexplored, last unmapped place in the nation. There have been all these rumors from scouts and traders, from Native peoples who had used that area for thousands of years.
But the American government had not actually determined what was there. The story of Truman Everts getting lost and then found was this great epic story. So it becomes an important moment in a lot of different ways. But I also was drawn to the drama of that moment, as a way to bring readers into Yellowstone on the ground in the early 1870s.
Your descriptions of Yellowstone in the early part of the book are so fantastic. It’s not a mystery to us today, but at that moment, what was Yellowstone in the American imagination?
It really was a mystery to people; they really didn’t know what exactly was there. There had been these rumours, but they did seem just outrageous. I mean, exploding mud volcanoes and cliffs made of glass and huge thundering waterfalls. It just seems like a bunch of lies that a trapper was telling around the campfire.
(Ferdinand) Hayden went in, and he actually documented these places. He had specimens from the mud volcanoes, from Yellowstone Lake, from the falls. He had photographs of all of the geothermal features, he had photographs of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and basically everything that they were encountering.
Here comes Hayden with William Henry Jackson’s photographs, with the sketches of the artists Thomas Moran and also Henry Elliott, with all of these measurements, all of these accounts and 45 boxes of specimens. And in that moment, Hayden – particularly when he saw the geothermal fields, when he saw what are now called the upper and lower geyser basins – understood that Yellowstone was a place that was unique in the world.
You describe Yellowstone at one point in the excerpt as “a site of contention and a perfect symbol of what the United States had become by 1871.” What did you mean by that?
I was writing this book during the pandemic, but also during the Black Lives Matter protests, and seeing what was happening to the country in the previous presidency. And when I was looking at Yellowstone, it is the landscape in its own right. One of the things that Hayden and his team always pointed out about it was that you would either walk along or ride your horse along these lands, and you could hear the echo that your feet or the hooves would make, that the land was actually hollow underneath your feet.
And you are always feeling like you’re at risk of falling in, that there were things happening underneath the surface that were dangerous, that were potentially destructive. And so I started to think of Yellowstone, as I was writing this book, not only as a place in its own right, but also a metaphor for the nation.
In this moment in the early 1870s, we have this pivotal moment in Reconstruction where the nation is kind of coming back together. The federal government makes this really amazing move in the South to protect Black rights, citizenship rights and voting rights. And they will not do so again for another 100 years, basically.
And then they were trying to bring the West in, but they were doing that by launching campaigns against Native people. So there’s a great contradiction there — that people could fight for Black rights, and then also seek to annihilate Native people in the same moment, or with the same ideology. But that was exactly what Republicans were doing and they were very comfortable in thinking in those terms.
And so the contradiction I see as a very important element of the early 1870s. But also we can see it today, especially in the context of social justice. And I was really thinking that it was an apt metaphor for the past couple of years, that a lot of what we see on the surface of American political culture in particular, we take that for granted. But really, there’s stuff going on just underneath the surface that can destroy it in a second.
Tell me about the research for this book. Did you mostly spend time in libraries with documents or were you able to visit some of the places that you described so vividly?
This is the crazy thing about this book project. I was on my first research trip for the book to the National Archives in March of 2020. And I was there for a week, looking at all of the records of the Hayden survey, because the great thing about studying a federal project is that all of that paperwork is saved.
On the Thursday of my first week there, an archivist dropped by my desk and said, “Just so you know, we’re closing tomorrow because of COVID.” And so I just frantically was running around, taking all the pictures I could of the documents that I was looking at. And that was the only week I had in the Archives for the book.
I was also not able to go to Yellowstone until I had basically finished the entire first draft of “Saving Yellowstone.” So I had to rely on a lot of digital sources. And I was super lucky that there were a lot of those, especially the federal documents that have been digitized for the Library of Congress.
So that was a very bizarre experience to write a book about an exploration from my own living room in Boston. But it was actually quite nice to be able to transport myself in my imagination to Yellowstone during the worst parts of the pandemic when we were all kind of trapped.
You alluded earlier to issues around the powers of the federal government, and it seems like you can connect the dots to issues being argued today. What sort of similarities do you see?
Today we still have this fundamental debate about preservation of public lands. I think most Americans would say the National Parks are a great idea, but we are constantly seeing efforts, usually on the part of the Republican Party, to either take apart any forest reserves, National Park lands, state park lands, take them out of preservation and turn them toward production. So that is a debate that is still with us.
The issue of what the federal government owes to the people is still with us. And we have these debates every day when we talk about health care, when we talk about civil rights, when we talk about voting rights, women’s rights. There are many pieces of legislation and many cases coming before the Supreme Court that are about this issue, about what the federal government should be doing, what it can do, what are the limits of its power.
And this was a debate that was very much prominent, I mean, it was all over the place during Reconstruction. Because fundamentally, Reconstruction was about federal power, and the exertion of it to create a kind of new vision of the nation. So we’re still arguing about these things today.
What is next on your horizon for research and writing? Is there another book in the works?
There is. In fact I was just in History Colorado at the Stephen Hart Research Center, doing some initial research for the next book, which is called “The Westerners,” and it is a much bigger, broad-sweep book, taking place from the 1790s to the 1890s – with nine major protagonists.
Basically, “The Westerners” is pushing against the notion of the pioneers as the people who created the West, instead arguing that it was Westerners – and not just white people coming from the east and moving west in the Conestoga wagons, but people moving in all different directions in the West, and coming from a lot of different communities, including Hispanic communities, Indigenous communities, Chinese immigrant communities, and also African Americans coming from the South.
So there’s a very diverse, broad spectrum of people, and many more women in this book than “Saving Yellowstone,” because the worlds are very, very different. But I’m excited. It’s a different sort of challenge to write a book with that huge time frame.