Re-mythologizing Yellowstone: Part 1 - True and false, history and myth
by Jim Macdonald
Essay series thesis: Many of the traditional myths about Yellowstone National Park are not only false, they are far worse: They point to ideas that are wrong about society at large, reinforcing exploitation and disempowerment. Nevertheless, Yellowstone lends itself well to myth; we should consider new ways to celebrate this magical place.
Part 1 considers some false beliefs commonly held about Yellowstone, the relationship of those false beliefs to history and myth. I argue that while myth can be at least as worthwhile as historical veracity, not all myths are worthwhile.
Some historically false things are commonly believed about Yellowstone.
Here are some things called myths that are not historically true about Yellowstone National Park.
Many people believe that Teddy Roosevelt founded Yellowstone National Park. This is not historically true; Teddy had absolutely nothing to do with the establishment of Yellowstone on March 1, 1872. Teddy did not only not found Yellowstone, he did not originally protect the lands surrounding Yellowstone, and he did not found the National Park Service, which was actually founded years after his Administration when Woodrow Wilson was president.
The national park idea, specifically Yellowstone National Park, arose from Cornelius Hedges during a campfire discussion along the Madison River during the 1870 Washburn Expedition. This is perhaps not as well known to the average person, but this story is still told by many (and is still mentioned on a plaque outside the Madison Campground Visitor's Center.) I first heard it on a bus tour in 1993 during my first full day ever in Yellowstone. For those who have studied the history of the park, the campfire story about Yellowstone proved to have powerful backers, including longtime superintendent and former National Park Service director Horace Albright. While no one knows whether the campfire story actually happened, documentation shows some version of the "national park" idea existing long before 1870 (whether one talks about England's parks, George Catlin's suggestion of turning the west into a national park, Montana Territory's acting-governor Thomas Meagher suggesting it of the Yellowstone area in the 1860s), and circumstantial evidence points to the Northern Pacific Railroad leadership in Philadelphia actually proposing and pushing the idea first. The only extant narrative describing the campfire discussions comes from Nathaniel Pitt Langford, but this narrative was not a diary but rather a journal re-written and published in 1905.
Christmas in Yellowstone, celebrated by employees every August 25, originated in the 1920s when a freak snowstorm stranded visitors at the Old Faithful Inn, who spontaneously decided to celebrate Christmas. This, perhaps to the surprise of many former employees, is historically false. I also first heard this on the same tour of Yellowstone on my first day in the park and didn't know that the tradition was false for many years. We would hand out explanations to park visitors telling them why we had decorated the store for Christmas. I have never tracked down a definitive explanation, but apparently Christmas in Yellowstone was invented in the 1950s, most likely by Hamilton Stores. In fact, there were no freak all-consuming snowstorms in the 1920s during August. It does occasionally snow on August 25; during my first summer, there were a couple morning inches on Craig Pass. All the same, a blizzard that stranded everyone on August 25 would be highly unlikely.
Yellowstone National Park gets its name from the yellow sulfur walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Many perfectly respectable people (including the Yellowstone historian Chittenden) have thought this was historically true and assumed it was true, but it's extremely unlikely. The Yellowstone River got its name from Minnetaree Indians who lived hundreds of miles away near the mouth of the Yellowstone. These agricultural people (i.e. not nomadic) apparently got the name from some sandstone bluffs near the mouth of the river. Indigenous people living nearer to the present day park did not call the river Yellowstone. The translation from the Crow, for instance, who lived along the Yellowstone and moved in and out of the park, was Elk River. Thus, the river, which gave its name to the park, did not arise from the striking yellow features in the park.
Jellystone is synonymous with Yellowstone. In all seriousness, you would be surprised how many people come to Yellowstone surprised that the stores do not sell much of anything involving Yogi Bear, Boo Boo, or Ranger Smith. I think we sold some magnets a couple of years and ultimately dropped even that product. When going to Yellowstone, many will ask how "Jellystone" was. While very few people believe that Jellystone is actually Yellowstone, the myth of a campground/amusement park like Jellystone is quite strong still in the American imagination.
There are, of course, many other things about Yellowstone that are believed but that are not historically true. Visiting the vast majority of blogs that talk about Yellowstone while compiling the Yellowstone Newspaper, you will read things that simply are not true. For instance, one blog reported that the Yellowstone fire of 1988 was the largest fire ever recorded in the United States. As reported last week, I was amazed to see on the White House Web site that someone designing trivia questions for the White House believed that Benjamin Harrison established Yellowstone National Park in 1891. Of course, that goes beyond myth, but we'll talk about that in a bit. In blogs, Yellowstone is synonymous with great size - such as in "He would have hit that out of Yellowstone Park" - but Yellowstone is not the largest national park in the United States ( a geographic, rather than historical, falsehood), though it is bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Old Faithful never used to, in recorded history, go off on the hour, every hour. It is not the largest geyser as some may think. It's not the largest predictable geyser (a geological falsehood). No one shuts Old Faithful off at night (a geological and a political falsehood). Old Faithful is not synonymous with Yellowstone National Park (another geographic falsehood). It is not true that all buffalo in the United States come from the two dozen that remained in Yellowstone at the turn of the century.
Here is a little of my own history with myth as a renegade student historian who held myth in higher regard.
Let me set aside all these historical falsehoods for a moment and relate a story (a myth, perhaps) about my own history with mythology.
Less known by those who follow me is that I didn't only major in philosophy as an undergraduate. Ultimately, I double majored in history. I found that all my electives seemed to be history electives, and so it was natural for me to follow through and complete the second major. However, I was always an outsider and renegade to the history department. Why?
I was an enigma to some of my history professors because I was and am a skeptic of historical truth. Historians reconstruct the past from evidence that exists in the present; there is nothing indubitable about the results of their various methods. The most a historian can give you is a likely story, perhaps, highly likely, of what happened. In the end, though, there is not a hard line between historical truth and the myths that many historians are at pain to make distinct from what they do. A historian will retort, however, that myth makers don't use empirical methods, the myths aren't tested, and they don't have to conform to the laws of physics. While myths at some level must be internally coherent at some level, there is never any reason to believe that the myth actually corresponds to the reality that the historian is constructing. Both may speculate, both may be dubitable, but history because of its method crafts a more likely scenario. Nevertheless, as true as all that is, "more likely" and "never the twain shall meet" are two very different kinds of distinctions. History and myth are distinct in terms of method and probability about the past, not in terms of absoluteness in respect to truth.
Being a person religiously minded, I wasn't all that interested in likely truths, in pursuing a science that was only going to tell me likely stories about the past. I found myself interested in the past as a kind of hobby, a pastime, not as something terribly important to the big questions of life. I became skeptical of the saying that those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it, realizing that whatever value judgments that are garnered from history mean nothing without the lens of reason, without being able to ascertain similarities and differences, without understanding rational principles. It wasn't history, then, that was the key to the future, but rather understanding anything (past or present) simply in terms of what could or could not be known. What was worse about history was that it stood still, that one could not engage history in a conversation, one could not test it for its wisdom, see anything more than what the historian chose to tell us. History as it is told is highly interpreted and highly censored. We only see what someone has thought it important to share. All kinds of people did all kinds of things, all kinds of beings have been actors, and yet we are all told many versions of the same kinds of stories. So, to have a likely story about something that wasn't going to give me any insights and which was highly censored based on the value decisions of the historian, was even less interesting to me.
History was one path; mythology was another. I know that there was no Zeus on Mt. Olympus, but to know about Zeus, Metis, and the Titans, gave me an insight, however unsatisfying, into the relationship of truth, deception, and power in our lives. Having rejected the universality of historical truth, I was forced to say that I didn't know for sure whether this guy Jesus I believed in actually was crucified and rose from the dead, however likely it was then to my mind that such a man existed. Yet, the story of redemption, of an actual man who was actually God, the thought of resurrection, whether 2000 years ago or 2000 years from now remained powerful for me (which lends itself to whole other volumes of discussion). The myth, its internal coherence, was more powerful and more true than the question of its historical veracity. It was freedom to realize that this historical religion, based in the acts of real people, did not depend upon proving the truth of history to prove the truth of the myth behind it.
One falsehood about myth is that it is synonymous with falsehood. Myth is simply a story that points to some other truth. It may or may not be based in historical truth; that's never been relevant. Often, myths weave elements of history and fiction in order to point to truth.
You see, I was not a very good history major (despite my good grades), not because I held onto the value of myth (many historians do, often as tools for understanding history), but for denying the value of historical veracity. If I had ever chosen to pursue graduate studies in history, I probably would have found trouble finding professors willing to shepherd me along in that discipline. It's no wonder I pursued philosophy, instead. My undergraduate professors loved me, in part because being the anti-historian, was refreshing to them. At least, I was something. At least, what mattered to them was a serious question for me. How many historians take their discipline so lightly, especially at the undergraduate level?
Not everything historically false believed about Yellowstone is mythical.
If we put these strands of this essay together, we see that I have begun by pointing out historical (and other) errors about Yellowstone, though many of these errors point mythically to a truth. We may want to believe that Teddy Roosevelt cared about the environment and left a legacy of national protection of wild resources. That to many is a useful myth. We might like to believe that altruism founded Yellowstone National Park - Hedges allegedly spoke up and aroused this altruism after a conversation where everyone talked about how they would divide up the land they had just "discovered." We might want to believe that common citizens (and a junior officer) aroused the altruism of a Congress that otherwise was consumed with pacifying the West through civilization. We might like to incorporate Yellowstone's unique weather and associate it with other traditions, like Christmas. We might like to believe that spontaneity and joy and giving and persevering in trying conditions are part of the Yellowstone experience (and some would say, part of the experience of Christmas and Christianity as well).
On the other hand, whether Yellowstone gets its name from sulfur rocks or from the mouth of the Yellowstone, that story is not mythical. It's just false. The White House telling us about Benjamin Harrison founding the park inspires nothing in us (not even a comment) because there is nothing at stake the way there's something at stake about Teddy Roosevelt. Who is Benjamin Harrison to us except an ex-President? Teddy, though, is supposedly an icon; he represents something thought to be noble in the American experience (even if the truth is a man who was hardly against and an active participant in the genocide of American Indians in his own time and the rampant environmental destruction that helped make those chapters of the genocide real).
And, like it or not, credible or not, Jellystone also is a myth, one of kind rangers, domesticated if silly bears, and of a place that is basically there for our amusement. The myth, fed by visions of bears feeding on the sides of roads, of the mythologizing of the ranger corps itself, of goofy American icons like the New York Yankee Yogi Berra, tells us something of the way many would like or would not like to view Yellowstone. No one believes in the historical reality of Jellystone--where can you even watch the old cartoons--but something of the Jellystone myth lives with a large number of people. When I was not amused by co-workers here in Washington, D.C., who told me to watch out for Yogi Bear, they noticed and wondered why I seemed to have little sense of humor about something as innocuous as Jellystone.
The Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey along with prolific Yellowstone writer Paul Schullery published in 2003 Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park. The book takes seriously the relationship of myth and history in the campfire myth. While the book comes squarely to the defense of their historian friend Aubrey Haines, who had done so much to call the campfire story into question, they also defend the myth of the creation story as one that's very useful for us. Perhaps, another time, I will comment on their specific claims, which are not handy to me at the moment (packed in a box waiting for a move to this mythical and quite real Wonderland). I mention the book only to say that I think I am going to say something different about this and the other examples that I have identified as myths than have Whittlesey and Schullery.
While I love myth and have had a defiant attitude toward the value of historical veracity, not every myth is a good myth.
I am struck, as are all students of the West, with the way that myth and history have intertwined in the West. The real life Wild Bill Hickock would wait in Kansas for passengers on trains heading West. He would meet them on the train tracks and tell them stories about himself, doing so in order to make more money. He really was some of the things he said about himself; his real history involved playing off the myths that already existed about him. The same goes for Buffalo Bill Cody who artfully weaved actual and false stories to the crowds at his Wild West shows in order to entertain and challenge them to determine what was real and what was not. P.T. Barnum's circus freaks, Ripley's Believe it or Not, and today's reality television all play with our love to figure out the puzzles of what's real and what is not. Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's record, and we want to know how many of his home runs were real, how many enhanced, and how to set the record straight. Whether we can is not as important here as the notion that our history, and peculiarly the history of the West, has been infused with a self consciousness of the myth of the West while history is happening. That's why so many were so ready to take credit for creating Yellowstone National Park. How appropriate that for so long the best storyteller, Nathaniel Pitt Langford, was the one who won.
However, as much as stories are part of the true history of the West, as much as they inspired future history that has since passed, we can't really say with a straight face that all these myths point to a good truth, can we? Do we really get a lot out of an outlaw West with John Wayne against the world, whitewashed for the world to see? If we consider the Wild West, the real Bill Cody employed - and for a provocative biography of Cody, please read Louis S. Warren's 2005 Buffalo Bill's America - many indigenous people (including Sitting Bull himself for a season) to tell the story of their demise and their domestication by the so-called superior civilizing white race. Racism was so a part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West that many of the shows began with a running of the races, where representatives of various races ran against each other. Depending on who won, a different racial morality tale would be told.
For some pretty good reasons, a lot of those myths have dropped by the wayside, though the myth makers talking about Cody have often forgotten about them. Or, on the other side, the myth makers who hate Cody sometimes have forgotten that many Lakota still think highly of the man who gave them jobs and treated them better than anyone else would.
My point is that no one really believes that all myths are equal, and so it is legitimate for us to ask whether there is any harm in believing that Teddy Roosevelt gave us Yellowstone National Park, whether there's harm in telling the campfire story about the founding of Yellowstone, whether there's harm in telling old stories about Christmas in Yellowstone, or harm in telling the Jellystone myth. If those myths are not worthwhile, and myths are in fact valuable, what myths should replace them?
Teddy Roosevelt did not establish Yellowstone National Park, but is there something noble in believing that there was a great leader in our past who was so noble that he set this land aside? Is there something great in believing that preservation is consistent with the perceived macho masculinity of a man like Roosevelt, who was a trophy hunter? What could be wrong about believing in the values of noble altruism, in someone who understood his masculinity in terms consistent with preservation? Isn't that an ideal for us all to aspire as a people, a belief about our past worthy of our children?
Here's what's to come.
That will be for me to pick up in the next part (Part 2). In short, I do think this myth is a harmful myth that should not be told. I feel that way also about the campfire myth, and to a lesser extent, I believe it about the Christmas myth, and certainly about the Jellystone myth (which is probably the least controversial but perhaps not considered with the seriousness that it deserves).
Part 3 will consider ways we might re-establish myths in Yellowstone, at least considerations that might playfully and truthfully challenge the ways we are prone to think about this magic place ("magic", eh?)
Read Part 2: Yellowstone is not Teddy's to give
Read Part 3: A new Wonderland to behold
see also of some relevance:
The Magic of Yellowstone History Guide (includes papers and small essays about the history of Yellowstone and place names)
Forthcoming Yellowstone essays (talks a little about my initial thoughts concerning these essays)
Tell Bush that Benjamin Harrison did not establish Yellowstone National Park in 1891! (about the White House's strange faux pas on a presidential trivia page)