Who would ever go so far as to call Yellowstone National Park an “empire of shadows?”
At first glance, there is still plenty of evidence regarding Yellowstone’s historicity. You can still see traces of Fort Yellowstone in the layout of Mammoth Hot Springs—to say nothing of the fact that most of the buildings are still standing. Both the Old Faithful Inn and Lake Hotel are over 100 years old. The Roosevelt Arch has been standing since 1903.
But not all of Yellowstone’s history is so apparent, which is what makes George Black’s Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone so essential.
Before it was the Park we know today, Yellowstone was territory. Yellowstone had no shape. And were it not for its captivating geothermal activity, it may have gone unnoticed, just another region filled with stunning valleys and mountain vistas. But it was noticed and described by a series of thoughtful expeditions to the area: the Cook–Folsom–Peterson Expedition of 1869, the Washburn Expedition of 1870, and the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey. The sum of these efforts helped create Yellowstone National Park.
In Black’s view, the expeditions played an important part, but the story wasn’t so simple as a series of mindful individuals documenting the riches of the region and bringing said riches back to Washington. The history detailed in Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone is one of context and illumination; under Black’s bright scrutiny, Yellowstone’s “shadow history” appears, one mired in the concerns of the time: Manifest Destiny, westward expansion, the Indian Wars, boosterism, vigilante justice, and Western mythos.
Before it became a national park, Yellowstone existed in relative anonymity, not ready to fill the role prescribed to it later, a place put aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” It was a region embroiled in conflict—between Native Americans and the U.S. military, between various territorial interests.
The phrase “empire of shadows” comes from Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane (one of the more prominent members of the Washburn Expedition in 1870 and one of the key players in Black’s history, pictured above), and while it may sound grandiose now, it was an apt descriptor for the region. It makes more sense when you see the full quote, which prefaces Black’s book: “It is grand, gloomy, and terrible; a solitude peopled with fantastic ideas, an empire of shadows and of turmoil.”
Violence has always been presented as an indelible part of the U.S. West. It cannot be ignored. Black certainly does not ignore it, as it is central to several of the “characters” in his drama. Doane, firstly, is presented as an ambitious cavalryman who was intent on becoming “the American Livingstone” (as Black puts it) and also participated in both the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Nez Perce War (426). Then there is General Phil Sheridan, a Civil War veteran and prominent participant in the Indian Wars, who eventually lobbied to place cavalry in Yellowstone to curb poaching and misallocation of its resources. And of course, there’s Nathaniel Langford (of the Washburn Expedition and the Yellowstone National Park’s first superintendent) who was once a vigilante.
Empire of Shadows is full of typical violence: skirmishes, conflicts, murder. But there is another violence apparent, a sort of personal, emotional violence. Anger. Resentment. Doane most clearly fits the bill here. An important proponent of the region, Doane was nonetheless overshadowed by members of the Hayden Survey and members of the Washburn Expedition.
It’s fair to say Doane is the most interesting figure in Empire of Shadows: a man of enormous potential who had an enormous ego, resentful that his ambitions were not completely fulfilled, someone fully invested in the mythology of the frontier—a mythology that, like Doane’s ambitions, consisted of shadows draping themselves long and tenebrous across the landscape.
Thankfully, Black’s book is not so shadowy. The writing is strong, the people feel alive on the pages, and there is something even cinematic in how Black charts the procession of figures through Yellowstone.
Empire of Shadows is, undoubtedly, one of the major histories of the Yellowstone region, and a major Western history as well. It presents a picture of Yellowstone National Park very different from today’s tourist destination.
You can order Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone here.