America’s Yellowstone: The Identity of a Nation
The concept of what nature is and just what is natural came into the view of Americans in the late 19th century with the formation of the first National Park-Yellowstone. At the time, nowhere else in the world could a vast plot of land be found that was solely for the purpose of the nations’ enjoyment. The park was to be utilized by all Americans, regardless of class, gender, age, race, or religion; it is for this reason that America’s national parks became a true symbol of freedom. The value of this American identity is evident in the 1878 work, Report upon the Yellowstone National Park; the report was written by Yellowstone Superintendent P.W. Norris and addressed to the Secretary of the Interior. Norris highlights the importance of Yellowstone by giving a detailed history of the park, describing the land layout, and making recommendations on how to properly manage the park for all to enjoy.
The work of Naturalists in philosophy, art, and literature acted as the inspiration for the conservation movement. Authors, such as Henry David Thoreau directly influenced men and women who were passionate about the experiences that nature had to offer, as well as the preservation of the wondrous lands, which enabled them those experiences. People, such as P.W. Norris, saw the beauty of nature, and worked diligently to maintain America’s natural beauty. In the years following the creation of Yellowstone in 1873, countless other national parks and grassroots conservationist organizations sprang up in the United States. These parks and organizations all had one thing in common; they represented the identity of America, and the American alike.
Throughout his report, Norris thoughtfully acknowledges that Indians had occupied the lands well before whites had stumbled upon them. When describing his encounter with a grand basin, that was full of geysers and hot springs, he writes, “As discoverer, and probably yet sole white visitor, I from its group of white geyser cones name it the Monument Basin” (Norris, 6). Norris also details the encounters that he and his men had with Indians. He explains that they were forced to deviate their course on several explorations within the park, due to the threat of Indian attacks. He cites that the hostile Indian group, the Bannocks, had been disrupting staff and visitors of the park, but explains that they had been nearly decimated by Federal soldiers. He assures the Secretary of the Interior that the Bannock Indians would no longer threaten the peaceful operation of the park, therefore aiding in the parks’ success. However, he suggests to the secretary that military personnel should be permanently stationed in the park for the safety of the staff and the park’s visitors from other hostile Indians. He argues that the few Sheepeater and Shoshone Indians left in the area would remain peaceful if there were a constant threat of retaliation for any violence or plunder that they committed.
The section in Norris’ report, simply titled History of the Park, provides a rich summary of accounts of the first Europeans who “discover” and nearly discover the park. He tells the now famous story of the explorer Coulter’s happenstance discovery of the park. Coulter was a member of the Lewis and Clarke westward expedition, and upon reaching the Pacific, he parted ways with the other explorers. In the Yellowstone region, Coulter was captured by the Blackfeet Indians, but was permitted a chance to flee them. He made use of his chance at freedom, and out-maneuvered all but one pursuer, whom he killed. During his time alone in Yellowstone, he came into contact with all of the natural beauty the area had to offer. When accounting what he had stumbled upon, most took his story as fiction; people began referring to Yellowstone as “Coulter’s Hell”. Norris writes that “so little credence was given (in) his descriptions, that for many years, even long after I was first upon the Lower Yellowstone… “Coulter’s Hell” was a standing camp-fire jest upon now well know realities” (Norris, 12).