Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park

In this book, Paul Schullery and long-time Yellowstone Park Historian Lee Whittlesey take on the mythology not only of the creation of Yellowstone National Park but of the entire National Park Service. For many years starting in the late 1890's, a simplistic and happily heroic tale prevailed that the idea for Yellowstone National Park originated around the campfire of a party of early explorers. The tale was told countless times for a century, only occasionally raising the eyebrows of a few professional historians. Schullery and Whittlesey trace the rise of this "creation myth" and the slow scholarly process by which historians discarded it, often in the face of considerable political pressure to preserve it. Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park replaces the storybook heroism of the myth with the much more vivid and satisfying heroism of the countless people who have worked to preserve the national parks. This is a fascinating study in institutional egotism and the often painful evolution of historical thinking.

Because this book was completed as part of the authors' National Park Service duties, all authors' royalties from this book were donated to a special research account of the Yellowstone Association, a non-profit educational partner of Yellowstone National Park

"A gem . . . One can only hope that this entertaining volume, which is as much mystery as history, will be widely read, enlightening us about both the park and the pitfalls of myths."—Robert Righter, author of Crucible for Conservation

"A fascinating, courageous, and curious little book."—Outdoor News Bulletin

"A productive and provocative exploration of the connections among national institutions, evolving ideologies, and the symbolic power of stories. It ahs much to offer those interested in the social, cultural, and scientific issues that constitute environmental studies today."—Robert E. Walls, Journal of American Folklore

Excerpt from Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park, from the "Introduction:"
According to popular tradition as presented in countless publications and public speeches during the past seventy-five years, the idea for Yellowstone National Park originated with one man on a specific day. As this tradition has come down to us, on the evening of September 19, 1870, members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition (hereinafter the Washburn expedition or Washburn party), had a discussion around a campfire at the junction of the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers, in what would become Yellowstone National Park. They had just completed a tour of many of Yellowstone's most remarkable wonders, and, rather than lay claim to the region for personal gain they had the idea of setting aside the geyser basins and surrounding country as a national park. The "campfire story," promoted and celebrated by several generations of conservation writers, historians, and National Park Service employees, became well established in the popular mind as the way not only Yellowstone but also national parks in general originated.

But as early as the 1930's, historians doubted the tale or interpreted the park's creation differently. A variety of scholars have objected that the campfire story ignored known pre-1870 proposals that Yellowstone should be set aside as a public park, that the process by which Yellowstone National Park was established did not seem to spring directly or indirectly from any such campfire conversation, and that the public-spirited sentiments attributed to the park's founders were only one of the impulses driving their actions. In the 1960's and 1970's, Yellowstone's historian, Aubrey Haines, and academic historian Richard Bartlett cast further doubt on the story by suggesting, among other things, that even the campfire conversation itself was a historically doubtful episode. These revelations set off a round of debate and reconsideration in the National Park Service over the validity of the story and its usefulness to park staff as an educational device.

In both the National Park Service and among the larger community of managers, scholars, and the public, the credibility of the campfire story has since gradually declined, though it is still often invoked, especially by public speakers and in informal publications and other media about Yellowstone. On August 17, 1997, during his speech at Mammoth Hot Springs as part of the park’s 125th anniversary celebrations, Vice President Al Gore referred to the campfire story, and, though acknowledging that there was some debate over it, invoked its symbolic power. In St. Louis, Missouri, on September 12, 2000, in a keynote address delivered to the entire national leadership of the National Park Service (more than a thousand top administrators and staff), Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and one of the most honored and distinguished conservationists in the world (hailed by Time Magazine in 1999 as one of its "Heroes of the Planet"), described the rapid expansion of world's human population and the destruction of vital resources. He then said this: "Now [it was] against this background, this kind of disappearance of the frontier and lamenting values passed in the images of Eden that we're so comfortable with, that members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition gathered around their campfire near Madison Junction in Wyoming on September 19, 1870, and laid the plans that brought congressional action just eighteen months later to create Yellowstone as our first and one of our most wonderful national parks."

Whatever historians may tell us, there is no apparent lessening in our enthusiasm for this story, especially for use on important ceremonial occasions. For all its flaws, we are still reluctant to let it go.

The persistence of the campfire story as a part of the culture of conservation should not be surprising. For one thing, though the story has been shown to be simplistic and not at all fair to the complexities of history, it has not and probably cannot be conclusively proven untrue in some of its specifics. For another, true or not, stories this deeply embedded in the thinking and self-perception of so many people do not yield themselves to easy disregard. Their existence depends upon much more than mere provability. The campfire story has become a part of the historic and even the psychic fabric of the National Park Service and of the conservation community. And, like any good story, it reveals greater complexities the harder we look at it.

Analysis of the campfire story demands that we ask a series of questions, some of which must remain unanswered until further information comes to light, which means that they may never be fully answered. In this book we will consider these questions in more or less chronological sequence, beginning with the issue of who first proposed that the Yellowstone area be set aside as a public preserve or park. Then we will examine the documentary record left by members of the Washburn party, not only as they recounted the famous campfire but also as they published their accounts of the entire expedition. We will then examine the rise of the campfire story in the culture of the conservation movement, chronicle the various scholarly challenges to the specifics of the story, and review the turmoil the National Park Service experienced as its most beloved institutional memory was reduced to folklore. We will conclude with some observations on the vitality of the campfire story even today, when its diminished factual reliability still has not undermined its symbolic power.