Book Review: Through Early Yellowstone by Janet Chapple

Traveling through early Yellowstone was a far different affair than it is today.

Those visitors had to contend with harsher conditions, uncertain travel times, and faced many more difficulties as they traversed the region. This was true of early tourists, but it was especially true for their predecessors: the explorers, expedition leaders, mountaineers and Native Americans who traveled in Yellowstone.

Today, we have all the convenience of spiffy autos and paved roads—to say nothing of years and years of knowledge about the Park in the form of guidebooks and maps. Guidebooks like Janet Chapple’s Yellowstone Treasures, although merely calling it a guidebook does it a disservice. Yellowstone Treasures is, well, a treasure, especially for longtime residents and repeat visitors looking to learn the most they can about the Park they love.

Now, after setting the gold standard for a book on Yellowstone, Chapple has released another winner: Through Early Yellowstone: Adventuring by Bicycle, Covered Wagon, Foot, Horseback, and Skis.

While Yellowstone Treasures has practical value for any traveler of Yellowstone, Through Early Yellowstone has particular value for more scholarly types—be they Yellowstone history fanatics or historians in their own right. In fact, in terms of value, I would put Mrs. Chapple’s volume on par with Paul Schullery’s Old Yellowstone Days, a compendium of Yellowstone essays published in 1979, drawn from visitors in the Park’s early days.

Through Early Yellowstone complements, in many ways, Mr. Schullery’s volume. Indeed, they cover roughly the same time period; Schullery attributes 1916 as the end of the “old Yellowstone days,” owing to the arrival of the automobile, which signaled a shift away from horse and wagon travel. Chapple goes a bit further, with the final story coming from 1928.

More importantly, Through Early Yellowstone takes a very different tack than Old Yellowstone Days. Whereas the latter compiled accounts from celebrity visitors (spanning the gamut from writers Owen Wister and Rudyard Kipling to President Theodore Roosevelt), the former gathers stories from people of various echelons. No presidents or Nobel Prize winners in Chapple’s lot, I gather, but her tales are on par with the crème de la crème Schullery showcased in Old Yellowstone Days.

Of the many stories Chapple brings together in this volume, three command particular attention, both for their length and for insights revealed. The first is “The Wonders of the Yellowstone” by Nathaniel Pitt Langford, one of the leaders of the 1870 Washburn Expedition. “Wonders” was published in the May 1871 edition of Scribner’s Monthly (then only in its second volume) and is still held as a seminal piece of Yellowstone literature.

The other two are probably less well-known than the Langford article, but they carry just as much import in Chapple’s eyes: “Winter in Wonderland” by Elwood “Billy” Hofer and “Yellowstone Park Illustrated” by Thomas H. Thomas.

Haynes winter expedition; Photographer unknown; Around 1887

Hofer was one of the Park’s earliest professional guides, whose claim to fame in Yellowstone history came in 1887, when he led one of the first winter expeditions into Yellowstone’s backcountry. If not the first, Chapple acknowledges, he was at least one of the most successful, since the journey produced not only a comprehensive report, it also yielded a set of stunning photos by Park photographer Frank Jay Haynes. You can see a scene from the expedition above.

Most amusingly, Hofer’s trip came on the heels of another, much more heralded trip planned by Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, a famed Arctic explorer. Alas, according to Chapple, Schwatka fell ill January 5, 1887, just a few days after setting out; he and his party were obliged to turn around.

The report is on the whole a little plain, but shot through with many interesting observations, some of which are undoubtedly prophetic:

In a short time the proprietors of the hotels will find it to their interest to encourage winter travel, for, in addition to the game to be seen, certain features of the Park are much more interesting in winter than in summer.

How right he is.

“Yellowstone Park Illustrated,” meanwhile, covers Yellowstone’s late summer, early autumn splendors. Welsh artist Thomas H. Thomas visited Yellowstone as part of an excursion with the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As a painter—and a member, later president, of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society—Thomas brought a particular eye to the Park, as seen in his article and the many watercolors he produced on the tour. These watercolors were later exhibited in conjunction with a lecture by fellow trip member Charles T. Whitmell.

Being from the United Kingdom, Thomas’ conception of a park differed greatly from what was contained in Yellowstone’s bounds, which he notes in his article:

When we call this area a Park we must allow our imagination to work freely about the term, or, at least, we must admit of great arithmetical progression. If an English park may contain with it woods, hills, meads, lakes, and ravines, and may be divided into, say, the “home” and the “deer” park, we are to find in the Yellowstone Park all these, enlarged in ratio with the area. The woods are miles of dense forest, living or dead, wherein we may ride for hours under the tottering fire- or frost-smitten trunks, or view where the cyclones have carved their roads of ruin. The hill are mountains of 4,000 feet above the Park level, the meads are prairies, the ravines are tremendous gorges, sometimes exceeding 1000 feet of depth … And as for the fountains of Uncle Sam’s Home Park, they are bigger than any in the world, and boiling to boot.

grand prismatic thomas henry thomas 1884

Thomas’ appreciation for the Park is most noted in its natural aspects. He has fewer words to say about the Park’s human constructions and their inhabitants. Of the 27 Thomas watercolors Chapple includes in Through Early Yellowstone, only two center on people: a sketch depicting smoking men grouped around a stove, and a standalone painting of a hunter, complete with finery and Van Dyke. In the rest, people are incidental; it’s the scenery, the geology that reigns in Thomas’ vision.

This vision is so uncompromising, in fact, famed Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines used Thomas’ closing words as the epigram for Volume 1 of his seminal Park history, The Yellowstone Story: “That it has been given to one to see the beauty, the grandeur, and terror of this region of “Wonder-beauty” before the tourists troop through it in unbroken procession, laus Deo.”

The rest of the stories, while not as broad or lengthy as the Langford, Hofer, and Thomas accounts, complement and, in some ways, flavor those accounts through juxtaposition. An account by Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin on descending Mount Washburn one sunny evening in 1874 bumps shoulders with a short essay by early superintendent Philetus W. Norris. An 1885 account by Margaret Andrews Allen of her “family camp” trip stands in equal measure with a solitary tale by Frank D. Lenz, recounting his solo cycling trip through the Park in 1892.

Chapple also includes “context” pieces that cover conditions and circumstances in the Park around the time. For instance, she includes the Organic Act in 1872, which established the Park in the first place. Other documents include an essay about how the LeHardy’s Rapids were named and a piece on “How Trout Got into Yellowstone Lake.”

It’s evident great care went into the selection of these pieces, which are augmented by Chapple’s commentary, which precedes each story.

As mentioned, while some of the stories may be of more interest to scholars than lay readers, Through Early Yellowstone is nonetheless an enjoyable, enlightening book.

You can order a copy of Through Early Yellowstone: Adventuring by Bicycle, Covered Wagon, Foot, Horseback, and Skis here.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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