Empire of Shadows
The Epic Story of Yellowstone
by George Black
reviewed by David Gessner
St. Martin’s Press, 2012. $35, 548 pages.
Review published in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion magazine
GEORGE BLACK’S Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone is an engaging and comprehensive history of Yellowstone, our first national park. But it is also a history of the American West. Another western historian, Bernard DeVoto, famously employed the technique of synecdoche, by which a single scene is made to represent a larger historical movement, the individual event standing in for the whole. Black’s book is a kind of grand synecdoche, the exploration and “conquest” of Yellowstone standing in for the battles for those various, ever-shifting, and much-romanticized lands we called the frontier.
Black brings to life the violence, rapacity, and excitement of survival along the edge of the explored and unexplored. He is particularly adept at balancing an acceptance of his characters as creatures of their age—trapped in their time like bugs under glass—with a sharp-eyed refusal to let them off their large and frequently bloody hooks. We feel his admiration for the extreme, even preposterous bravery of the early explorers, Jim Bridger in particular, who by horse and by foot daily explored places that no white man had ever seen. But this is counterbalanced by the understanding of the fact that these men were the first wave of what would soon become a real, old-fashioned genocide. Even readers who come in with what they believe is a clear-eyed, unromantic view of the frontier will be struck by just how raw and violent the business of conquest was, how common were vigilantism, cries for Indian “extermination,” and the massacres that often followed those cries.
Black reminds us that the process of civilizing was never a particularly civilized one, and ends a chapter on the outbreak of vigilantism in Helena, Montana, with the defense of such violence by one of the town fathers, Nathaniel Langford: “Let those who would condemn these men try to realize how they would act under similar circumstances.” As Black reveals the often sociopathic violence of the settlers, he occasionally unleashes a withering wit. Of an early mishandled Indian negotiation, he writes: “Telling someone that you have just agreed to arm and unite their mortal enemies is not generally the best way to win their trust.” And in portraying Malcolm Clarke, an early player in the Yellowstone drama, he speaks of “his exaggerated sense of personal honor, which flared easily into violence.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this great human drama takes place on the most dramatic of stages, one filled with burbling colored waters, sulfurous holes, geysers, and jagged peaks. The very last of the continental American places to be explored, Yellowstone had long been known only vaguely through the stories of Native Americans and early mountain men like Jim Bridger. But if the place has given the author this advantage, the facts of history have also dealt him a challenge. While the otherworldly location remains consistent, the dramatis personae, with the exception of Bridger, keep shifting during the early years. This makes it hard at first for the reader to get a narrative grip, and what pulls us along mostly is sheer comprehensiveness and historical scope, the sense that we are learning on every page. But once Langford takes center stage and, along with the brave cavalry lieutenant Gustavus Doane and the Ivy League–educated writer Cornelius Hedges, launches the famous 1870 expedition into the heart of Yellowstone, sheer narrative momentum takes over. Soon we feel we are inside a kind of nonfiction version of The Fellowship of the Ring, discovering geysers and boiling lakes and getting lost and found with the rest of the party, and we realize that for all the violence and ugliness that preceded it, the journey itself is filled with pure wonder and delight. This is our payoff. We discover that a book of momentous historical research just happens to also be a great story.