March 4, 2022

Megan Kate Nelson

Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes historian MEGAN KATE NELSON—the celebrated author of Trembling EarthRuin Nation, and The Three-Cornered War—for a discussion of her latest book, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America. She will be joined in conversation by VIRGINIA SCHARFF, Distinguished Professor of History Emerita at the University of New Mexico.


 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 reach 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 the higher ideal of equality for all people, creating a much more fragile and divided United States.

About Author(s)

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has written about the Civil War, US western history, and American culture for The New York TimesThe Washington PostSmithsonian MagazinePreservation Magazine, and Civil War Monitor. Nelson earned her BA in history and literature from Harvard University and her PhD in American studies from the University of Iowa. Nelson is the author of Saving YellowstoneThe Three-Cornered WarRuin Nation, and Trembling Earth.

Virginia Scharff is Distinguished Professor of History Emerita at the University of New Mexico and Chair of Western History at the Autry Museum of the American West. Her books include Seeing Nature Through GenderThe Women Jefferson Loved, and Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West. Under the name of Virginia Swift, Scharff is also author of four Mustang Sally mystery suspense novels, published by HarperCollins.