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Columbusing Yellowstone

Nathaniel P. Langford  claimed in the title of his 1905 book that the 1870 tourist excursion he organized at the behest of railroad mogul Jay Cooke “discovered” Yellowstone park. By the time he published his purported diary of the Washburn-Doane expedition, Langford was an elderly man seeking to secure his legacy. At least some of what appears in his diary has been disputed, especially the so-called “campfire myth” on the last day of the expedition when, according to Langford’s account, Cornelius Hedges proposed making Yellowstone a national park. Marlene Deahl Merrill expresses a widely held view among Yellowstone historians when she characterizes Langford’s account of Hedges’ proposal as “akin to a raconteur’s tale and suggests that Langford greatly revised, if not rewrote, whatever might have been in his now-missing journal.” (1) Paul Schullery and Lee Whittlesey dedicate a whole book to parsing out legends from history about the origins of the park idea with much attention to the historical veracity of Langford’s campfire story and its enduring legacy. (2)

Discovering the already discovered

Langford’s deception, or perhaps his elderly misremembering in editing a now-absent diary, went far beyond fabricating a compelling story about proposing a national park to protect the wonders they experienced in Yellowstone. The titular claim of the “discovery of Yellowstone park,” aside from the misleading suggestion that Yellowstone was a “park” before they discovered it, repeats the longstanding colonial strategy of claiming lands through what has been called “Columbusing.” The urban dictionary describes Columbusing as “the art of ‘discovering’ something that is not new.” Journalist Ruth Hopkins (in the article “Why Scientists Can’t Understand the Tree of Life,” no longer available on the reorganized Indian Country Today website) adds that Columbusing also involves not only discovering what had already been discovered but also “stripping it of cultural context.”

Claiming lands as unoccupied is a fundamental strategy of colonization. It’s not enough simply to discover a place for yourself, but to make a claim on it requires you to extinguish the claims of others, especially those who were there when you discovered it. Europeans had several strategies for this. One was to claim that the indigenous inhabitants were not human. Consequently, racism is at the core of the colonial enterprise, a legacy we continue to suffer. Another common strategy involved some theological finessing, reading your discovery as the pious evangelical effort to fulfill the Christian god’s purpose of converting the newly discovered people to the Christian way of life. More often, though, the so-called discoverers were unable to recognize the presence of human occupations that did not conform to their own expectations of land use. In short, they saw new-found lands as empty, and therefore available for their own purposes.

Mount Washburn, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2006)

The Repurposing of Yellowstone

The plateau at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River has been there for hundreds of thousands of years, and humans had been going there for millennia before Mr. Langford and his party of Montana boosters decided to go see the place for themselves. They certainly were not the first to discover Yellowstone. To be fair, Langford acknowledges previous travelers who had passed through the Yellowstone region, and his diary indicates a constant worry about encountering Indians, an implicit recognition of an indigenous presence there.

The importance of the 1870 trip that Langford organized was not the discovery of the park, as Langford claims. Instead, its significant contribution was to strip Yellowstone of its previous cultural context in order to give it a new cultural form as a “park.” As Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf point out in the preface to Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park, those who conceived and promoted the idea of a national park “reconceived this environment as a natural Eden of pristine and pre-human existence, teeming with game, devoid of human meddling or cultural usage.” (3) Langford, Washburn, Doane, Hedges and their companions performed some old colonial magic in Columbusing Yellowstone into an appealing destination for civilized travelers who would one day come by the millions to experience this pristine Edenic land, free from any previous human habitation or use. As a park, Yellowstone lost its indigenous meanings and became instead an American place.

  1. Merrill, Yellowstone and the Great West: journals, letters, and images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition, 1999, pp. 237-238, e/n 224
  2. Schullery  & Whittlesey, Myth and history in the creation of Yellowstone National Park, 2003.
  3. Nabokov & Loendorf, Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park, 2004, p. xi (emphasis in the original) ♨

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