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.

2023 Spur Award for Best Historical Nonfiction Book

Top Ten History Books of 2022, Smithsonian Magazine

2023 Reading the West Book Awards Longlist: Nonfiction

2022 History Book Club featured selection

50 Books of the West, Colorado Sun

Publication Date: March 1, 2022

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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. Saving Yellowstone follows Hayden and two other protagonists in pursuit of their own agendas: Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader who asserted his peoples’ claim to their homelands, and financier Jay Cooke, who wanted to secure his national reputation by building the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Great Northwest. Hayden, Cooke, and Sitting Bull staked their claims to Yellowstone at a critical moment in Reconstruction, when the Grant Administration and the 42nd Congress were testing the limits and the purpose of federal power across the nation. 

A narrative of adventure and exploration, Saving Yellowstone 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 the nation’s history, as white Americans ultimately abandoned the higher ideal of equality for all people, creating a much more fragile and divided United States.



Praise for Saving Yellowstone

“Megan Kate Nelson’s great gift as a historian and as a writer is finding the connected threads of the sprawling story of the place we call the United States.” — Los Angeles Review of Books

“A fresh, provocative study of the origins of Yellowstone National Park … departing from well-trodden narratives about conservation and public recreation.” — Booklist, starred review

“Deeply informative, while being a joy to read … One of the book’s strengths is Nelson’s telling of the story from both the white and Native points of view … That Nelson covers so much history in relatively few pages is testament to her mastery of the subject and storytelling skill.” — Natural Resources Management Today

“Scrupulously researched and written in appealing journalistic style, this book should attract enthusiasts of Western and U.S. history.” — Library Journal

“The author displays her strong commitment to including the Native presence in any account of Western history … A readable and unfailingly interesting look at a slice of Western history from a novel point of view.” Kirkus Reviews

“Fascinating elements and eloquent evocations of the Western landscape … Nelson makes excellent use of the diaries and letters of expedition members to convey Yellowstone’s natural wonders.” — Publishers Weekly

“There is a fine balance between enough documentation and too much. Here we have that knife-edge navigated with skill. There is also a joy in the telling that comes through in indefinable ways, but it is clearly evident that this author likes what she does. That is good for us, since the result is a pleasure to read.” — Reading the West

“Vividly narrated and illuminating.” — Live Auctioneers

“Readable, well researched and carefully documented … Anyone interested in Yellowstone will learn much from Nelson about the evolution of the park while also appreciating the dynamics of 19th-century America … this work is revelatory of our shared history.” — America Magazine

“A detailed account of paths crossing at a historical juncture, Saving Yellowstone aims at a larger story of how northern Republicans’ egalitarian and assimilationist impulses created a post-Civil War moment that was at once generative, ambivalent, and fleeting.” — Journal of Arizona History

“Nelson’s book expertly weaves together explorations of Native sovereignty, environmental preservation and racial tensions in Reconstruction America.” — Smithsonian Magazine

“In Saving Yellowstone, Megan Kate Nelson has accomplished something truly pathbreaking. She has written a new history of Reconstruction, one that shows how the exploration and conquest of the American West intersected with the ill-fated attempts to establish an interracial democracy in the South. While these two strands of American history are often thought of as parallel, Nelson reveals startling new connections. A masterful storyteller, Nelson’s prose is as captivating as the landscapes she describes. This book is a must-read for anyone who appreciates deep research and powerful narrative.”
—Carole Emberton, author of Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War

“Megan Kate Nelson has a remarkable ability to take an unfamiliar event and not only bring it to light, but also use it as a lens for viewing much larger and more familiar events in new ways. In Saving Yellowstone, she presents the making of the first national park as a multi-dimensional story of exploration and conflict and as a new vantage point on the meaning of Reconstruction.”
—Steven Hahn, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Nation Under our Feet