From historian and critically acclaimed author of The Three-Cornered War comes the propulsive and vividly told story of how Yellowstone became the world’s first national park amid the nationwide turmoil and racial violence of the Reconstruction era.

Publication Date: March 1, 2022

Each year nearly four million people visit Yellowstone National Park—one of the most popular of all national parks—but few know the fascinating and complex historical context in which it was established. In late July 1871, the geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists through a narrow canyon into Yellowstone Basin, entering one of the last unmapped places in the country. The survey’s discoveries led to the passage of the Yellowstone Act in 1872, which created the first national park in the world.

Now, author Megan Kate Nelson examines the larger context of this American moment, illuminating Hayden’s survey as a national project meant to give Americans a sense of achievement and unity in the wake of a destructive civil war. This Strange Country follows Hayden and several other protagonists in pursuit of their own agendas: Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader who asserted his peoples’ claim to their homelands; financier Jay Cooke, who wanted to secure his national reputation by building the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Great Northwest; and Ulysses S. Grant, a Reconstruction president who saw the federal government as a power to be exerted on behalf of its citizens.

A narrative of adventure and exploration, This Strange Country is also a story of Indigenous resistance, the expansive reach of railroad, photographic, and publishing technologies, and the struggles of Black southerners to bring racial terrorists to justice. It reveals how the early 1870s were a turning point in American history and in Reconstruction, as Americans ultimately abandoned the promise of the Grant Administration’s vision, creating a much more fragile and divided United States.