I have been reading about the history of Freemasonry and thinking about its role in the history of Yellowstone National Park. It would be misleading to suggest that Freemasonry played a decisive or even significant role in Yellowstone history, but it would be a mistake to ignore its role entirely. A number of key figures in the early years of the park’s history were linked through their Masonic affiliations, and at least one momentous occasion made the Masonic presence explicit.
The connection for me has to do with the larger project of Manifest Destiny. One way to read the early history of Yellowstone National Park is to regard it as an exemplary project of Manifest Destiny in the colonial justification for conquest, dispossession, and “civilizing” indigenous populations. In this way of thinking about Yellowstone, the park serves as both motive for settling western territories and as evidence for Christian claims about God’s dispensation endowing divine favor upon the American people.
Masonic influences were a key part of the Manifest Destiny that brought US civilization to the American west, although I am still puzzling over the exact role of Freemasonry in this story. In nineteenth-century Montana it certainly provided a framework for elite citizens to deploy their privilege in territorial society. This included key figures in the making of Yellowstone National Park, people like Nathaniel Langford and Cornelius Hedges who both publicly promoted the idea of a park to protect Yellowstone. Masonic connections also played a role in ritualizing Yellowstone as a sacred ground, specifically in the construction of the Roosevelt Arch as a symbolic threshold to the sacred parklands. Hedges was one of the eminent Masons who joined fellow Mason and President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt in laying the cornerstone of the arch in a Masonic ceremony on April 24, 1903.
Certainly, the Masons can claim a place in the history of Yellowstone, including its religious history. Their presence in the park also indicates their role in a larger religious history of the west as agents and evangelists for American Manifest Destiny. They joined the ranks of Protestant evangelists, Jesuit missionaries, railroad moguls, and political leaders who promoted the western expansion of America as a divine right.