For an American, a visit to a national park in another country can be disorienting. Where are the Winnebagos? The air-conditioned visitor center? The paved roads?

If you venture off the main highway in search of a park that is clearly marked on the map, in a place like, say, Baja Mexico, you might find that the paved road simply ends with a bump, leaving you on an unmarked dirt track with potholes the size of dinosaur footprints. That’s how you know you’re in the park: when all traces of civilization, and in some cases law and order, disappear.

Such was the state of Yellowstone National Park circa 1872, the year that great radical socialist Ulysses S. Grant signed the law protecting it forever from the forces of mining, logging and settlement that were sweeping over the West. Almost immediately, the first two parties of tourists entered the new park — and in short order, at the hands of the last roaming bands of Nez Perce, they learned some hard lessons about its painful prehistory.

The curious creation myth of Yellowstone has always held that this ancient volcanic caldera — larger than Rhode Island or Delaware — was ignored or avoided by native people. Its history, thus, lacks the taint of blood that soaked so much of the rest of the West. It wasn’t “taken” from anyone.

In these 548 epic, essential and often bloody pages, George Black, the editor of OnEarth magazine, painstakingly reveals the truth. In his telling, setting aside the upper Yellowstone Valley was made possible only by decades of conflict whose outcome — the near-extermination of the Plains Indians, along with most of the buffalo — was rarely in doubt. It began with the first contact between the natives and Lewis and Clark, but mass Anglo migration and settlement made conflict inevitable. Opening up remote Yellowstone to exploration and protection, six decades after the Corps of Discovery, meant that, in effect, the job was done.

’Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone’ by George Black (St. Martin's Press)

Far from ignoring the Yellowstone, though, the natives revered the valley, although it proved too harsh to settle. Hunting parties roamed its slopes stalking deer, elk and buffalo, taking fish from its rivers, and quarrying obsidian for their arrowheads and tools. The first white man to explore the Yellowstone was a Lewis and Clark veteran named John Colter, but he was uneducated and inexpressive, and left little record of this “last and most myth-laden white space remaining on the map of the American West.”

Then along came a trapper, trader, tale-teller and diplomat of sorts named Jim Bridger, one of the most compelling characters in a fascinating cast. A true frontiersman, married to a native woman, Bridger was as much at home among the tribes as with whites, and he did much to keep the peace, as long as it lasted. It was his amazing tales of a mysterious realm where steaming jets vented from the earth, waterfalls tumbled off vertiginous cliffs and mountains were made of black glass (obsidian) that first piqued public and political interest in Yellowstone. One early visitor remarked that the steam from the geysers reminded him of Pittsburgh.

Not everyone, though, was so excited; Back in Washington, Daniel Webster thundered that the mountain West was a “vast, worthless area, [a] region of savages and wild beasts” that should be ignored.

As the Civil War consumed the East, the frontier basically was ignored. As late as 1860, the only whites in what is now Montana were a few determined Jesuits, some enterprising fur trappers and righteous Mormon pilgrims. When gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek, though, things changed fast. By 1862 the mining town of Bannack (in what is now Montana) was thriving. It was a wild and wooly place, full of rugged individualists who cheered Confederate victories and hated all manifestations of the federal government until they required protection from the “savages.”

Enter the U.S. Army, turning its attentions westward as the Civil War wound down, and led by William Tecumseh Sherman and company. As “good” Indians were wiped out or removed, the “bad” Indians — led by the Blackfoot Sioux — hardened their resistance. Bodies littered the trailsides, and both sides perpetrated massacres, although the whites were particularly unnerved by the Sioux women’s penchant for lopping the heads and other organs off fresh corpses. Meanwhile, some officers summed up their attitudes toward native women and children with the saying “nits make lice.” In the bars of Fort Benton, Mont., you could trade scalps for drinks.

One of the most interesting aspects of this tale is how closely the public debate about the Indian “menace” echoes our current conversation about whether religious freedom and equal protection under law should apply to Muslims. Then as now, Americans were dealing with a supposedly savage Other in our midst, and found it all too easy to choose fear and violence over the high-minded ideals expressed in our founding documents. Some politicians called for outright extermination.

It was the long-term defeat of the natives that made it safe, finally, to explore the upper Yellowstone. The man sent to do that job was a flamboyant yet appealing character, Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, who helped lead the first organized expedition into the little-known area. The wonders they found confirmed Bridger’s wildest tales, which he’d been telling for nearly 50 years. Doane called it “Wonderland,” and nothing else in his life ever equaled the experience. (The book’s title comes from his ecstatic first description of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.)

Black’s history is thoroughly researched, with nearly 100 pages of footnotes and sources. But he wears his scholarship with ease, bringing the history of the Northern Rockies to life with a parade of fascinating, well-drawn characters, including con men, cowboys, wayward aristocrats and pompous martinets such as George Armstrong Custer. At times, though, he seems to get lost in the trackless woods, like his early explorers. The going is sometimes slow, but ultimately rewarding. This is a slow-burn kind of book, to be absorbed and savored, not zipped through on the beach.

By the time Yellowstone opened as the first national park in 1872, just two dozen buffalo were left out of herds that had numbered in the millions. The remaining Native Americans were soon moved to reservations or exterminated. The railroad was coming, and with it more tourists. There would be no more attacks in the park. “Empire of Shadows” reminds us that, next time we visit the place, it’s important to see not only the magnificence of what is there, but also what and who is not.

Bill Gifford , a longtime Book World contributor, has written for Outside, Wired, Men’s Journal and other publications.


The Epic Story of Yellowstone

By George Black

St. Martin’s. 548 pp. $35