Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park by Erin Peabody

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

A Weird and Wild Beauty

In early 1871, the readers of Scribner’s Magazine, one of the best-selling periodicals in the United States, were treated to an article about a mysterious land south of the Montana Territory.  According to the article, there was a place of geysers that shot steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, where mud pools exploded on a regular basis, and trees were encased in stone.  This was the first widely-published  account of the Yellowstone, and many dismissed it as an absurd traveler’s tall tale.

But the Yellowstone River and its surroundings were very real.  It had been named “Mi tse a-da-zi” (Rock Yellow River) by the Minnetaree tribe, and translated to “Roche Jaune” by French trappers before English speakers gave it the present name.  Native Americans had often visited or lived there for its special properties, and stories of it were shared by the few hardy white people who’d managed to survive a visit.  They were generally disbelieved by those who had not been there.  It took a proper expedition organized by former banker Nathaniel Langford and staffed by sober, reliable citizens to show the reality.

This volume is a history of how Yellowstone became a National Park written for young adults by a former park ranger.  The primary emphasis is on the two important expeditions, first Langford’s and then a full scientific expedition led by government  geologist Ferdinand Hayden.  In addition to the hardy scientists and support staff, the expedition had two artists and photographer William H. Jackson, and their visual evidence was key in convincing Congress of the reality of the fabled wilderness.

The writing is clear and concise, rated for twelve and up, but quite readable for adults.  There are multiple sidebars about related subjects such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Henry David Thoreau, and many illustrations in both black & white and color.

The history section briefly covers what is known of the history of the Yellowstone area before the expeditions, and up to the point where the National Park bill was signed into law.  More recent events concerning the park are not covered in the main text, although some are mentioned in the sidebar.

After the history section, there’s a map of America’s National Parks and other federal preserves, then a couple of chapters on the science of why Yellowstone is a unique area.  There are endnotes, a bibliography, index and photo credits (in readable sized font!)

Part of Yellowstone’s importance is mentioned in the subtitle; it was not just the United States’ first National Park, but the world’s.  Previously, when land was set aside to preserve it, it was only for the powerful (“the King’s forest”) or the very wealthy to enjoy.  This was the first time a national government had set aside wilderness for the sake of the public at large.  And just in time, as the Hayden expedition had already run into people planning to exploit the Yellowstone area for private commercial gain.  (At this point in history, the U.S. side of Niagara Falls had already been completely privatized and commercialized!)

The book briefly touches on mistreatment of Native Americans, the extinction or near-extinction of animal species and other difficult topics, but these are not the main concern.  The bibliography contains books that go into much more detail on these matters.

Most recommended for teens interested in history and the outdoors, but also good (and affordable) for adults with similar interests.

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20 thoughts on “Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park”

    1. If people learn things from my posts, then it is likelier they’ll come back! I hope.

    1. Yellowstone’s pretty remote-one of the reasons it remained relatively unspoiled until it could be preserved.

  1. Awesome! Sounds like the perfect ‘read’ before we go. We plan seeing at least some of Yellowstone this year as we make our way across the upper US. Very excited!

  2. I’m putting this on my list – I’ve so enjoyed the series on PBS on the National Parks and feel blessed to be living in a country where the land was set aside. This inspired me to actually look up the national parks in my area – I’ve been to some, but missed many more!

  3. I’ve always wanted to go to Yellowstone, it’s on the bucket list! Didn’t know it was the first national park, thanks for the info!

  4. I’d say you’re right, Scott. It does look like this book is a hit. As with some of the other commenters I had no idea Yellowstone was the world’s first National Park. No idea. Canada has some splendid National Parks and I was fortunate to visit many of them in BC and Alberta when I was growing up.

    1. Looks like Banff, in Alberta was the first in Canada, established in 1885. According to Wikipedia, this happened because two rival interests wanted to exploit the hot springs there, and the Canadian government settled the issue by reserving the area for the public interest instead.

  5. This one is already on my list since you suggested it, but now I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I have had a national parks tour on my bucket list for quite awhile, but I don’t know much about them. Thanks for the review!

  6. Thanks for the education in your post, Scott. I was actually in Wyoming on a client trip and (dumb me) didn’t realize at the time I was close to Yellowstone. Like others commenting, I didn’t realize it was the first in the world for National Park designation.

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