Author Q&A with George Black

  • January 22, 2013

George Black is the author of Empire of Shadows, the epic story of the conquest of Yellowstone, a landscape uninhabited, inaccessible and shrouded in myth.

Empire of Shadows is the epic story of the conquest of Yellowstone, a landscape uninhabited, inaccessible and shrouded in myth in the aftermath of the Civil War. In a radical reinterpretation of the 19th- century West, George Black casts Yellowstone’s creation as the culmination of three interwoven strands of history: the passion for exploration, the violence of the Indian Wars and the “civilizing” of the frontier. He charts its course through the lives of those who sought to lay bare its mysteries, including Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, a gifted but tormented cavalryman known as “the man who invented Wonderland”; Nathaniel Langford, an ambitious former vigilante leader; the scientist Ferdinand Hayden, who brought photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran to Yellowstone; and Gen. Phil Sheridan, Civil War hero and architect of the Indian Wars, who finally succeeded in having the new national park placed under the protection of the U.S. Cavalry.

Q&A with George Black

Interview by Janice Bailey

After describing the Corps of Discovery as a well armed military expedition, you mention Chekov’s first iron law of theater: Hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, and it is sure to be fired by the final curtain. Which incident did you consider the final curtain in this reference, the incident on the headwaters of the Marias involving Lewis and Clark in 1806, the Piegan massacre on the Marias in 1870 or the surrender and final defeat of the Nez Perce in 1877?

I meant this to refer to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Going out armed into potentially hostile territory made it practically inevitable that there would be violence before the expedition was over.

You note that the members of the vigilante committee formed in Virginia City in 1863 did not consider themselves a commonplace lynch mob. Are there fundamental differences between the vigilante committee of Virginia City and the vigilante justice of current-day Nigeria, where corruption of local officials has led to a breakdown of the justice system and recent incidents of local mobs lynching suspected robbers?

That’s a really good question, and a very hard one to answer. Personally, yes, I do see a basic difference between the 1863-64 Bannack and Virginia City vigilantes and the Nigerian vigilantes today. In the latter case, you have a corrupt judicial system that’s failing to do the job for which it was established; in the former, no judicial system or any other kind of state institution yet existed, so people saw themselves as filling a genuine vacuum of authority. Also, while I don’t know a lot about what’s happening in Nigeria, I suspect that the profile of the vigilantes is different. In Montana, most of the leaders of the movement were well educated men who saw themselves as the creators of civic institutions and values. My guess is that this may not be the same in Nigeria.

Where I think the difference narrows, however, is during the revival of the Montana vigilante movement in Helena from 1865-67. By that time, you did have a federally appointed judiciary — but one that chose to stand by passively and let the vigilantes continue because they were more “efficient.” In a situation like that, the vigilante leaders, who were prominent citizens, could equally well have pushed the judges to do their job and offered them their support, as deputized marshals, for example, who could have helped strengthen the formal judicial process. But in the end, how we judge the vigilantes is very subjective. Whenever I give a talk about this, I ask the question that Langford himself posed: What would you have done in those circumstances? That always makes audiences very uncomfortable, and I honestly don’t know the answer myself.

In what ways did the Freemason values of philanthropy, philosophy and wisdom shape the life of Nathaniel Langford?

As much in the breach as in the observance. There’s no doubt that he was proud of his masonic identity and genuinely wanted to establish working civic institutions. On the other hand, he was a self-promoter and liked to boast about his adherence to those values as part of the image he wanted to create for himself. And in his business dealings, he was ethically quite a slippery character.

Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane wrote about “the wave of civilization that sweeps onward, invincible and without ceasing.” Did the explorers and soldiers that you write about in Empire of Shadows have any impact as individuals on the civilizing and settling of the West and the discovery of Yellowstone, or is it your opinion that a similar history of the time and place would have existed with a different set of actors?

There’s no doubt that there would have been broad similarities if these men had never existed. There would still be a state of Montana, and someone else would have explored Yellowstone. Whether a different set of explorers would have suggested the idea of a national park is unknowable, although I think it’s likely, because of Yellowstone’s uniqueness. No one had ever imagined anything like it. And of course, Yosemite was already a state park in California, so the idea was in the air. At the same time, I do think there was a special quality about the Langford-Doane group. It brought together all the main elements of this embryonic new society — soldiers, business leaders, emerging politicians, vigilante leaders — in a very unusual way. I think what made it truly unique was the figure of Doane himself. There was no one else around who had both his central role in extreme acts of violence and his raging ambition to be recognized as a great explorer. That, plus the fact that he had the education and skill to write about it so compellingly and grab the whole country’s attention.

How different is the original vision from the reality of Yellowstone today?

Totally different, for the simple reason that there really was no original vision — at least at the time when the idea was first proposed in 1871. Even the word “park” didn’t really have a clear meaning (people in the 19th century used the term to refer to all kinds of wild and recreational spaces, including local cemeteries where people could take an instructive Sunday walk.) There was a general sense that the upper Yellowstone should be placed off limits to development, but mainly so that it could be preserved as a kind of natural freak show or “cabinet of wonders” for visitors (who would also offer a great opportunity for commercial interests like the railroads). After Langford became the first superintendent of the park in 1872, I think he deserves the credit for at least planting the first seeds of the modern idea that a national park had to be properly funded and managed in a professional way — you had to institute formal rules and put trained people on the spot (we’d call them rangers today) to actually stop people from killing the wildlife, chopping down the trees, etc.

If the murder in 1869 of Malcolm Clarke, who you describe as fully embraced by the Blackfeet, was due to a personal grudge held by a violent and uncontrollable young brave, why did the tribes who hid the murderer not give him up immediately and prevent the incident from escalating?

This isn’t easy to answer, because no one really knows where Owl Child went after the murder. But assuming it was to a camp of the All Chiefs band of the Piegans, to which he belonged, it’s unlikely that the head of the band, Mountain Chief, would have given up any member of the tribe to the whites. Even though Mountain Chief was personally friendly with Malcolm Clarke, he generally hated the whites. And while there were certainly cases of tribes surrendering wanted men who brought trouble upon them, it’s unlikely that a leader with Mountain Chief’s temperament would have done so in a political climate where the whites were threatening an all-out war of reprisals. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Owl Child was wandering around from place to place with the small group of friends who also took part in the Clarke murder, or that he had crossed the border into Canada. There’s no way of knowing.

Did the bands of Blackfeet and Crow living in the Yellowstone region view the handful of murders of whites and the occasional stolen horses as more consequential than the similar horse thieving and killing that had always occurred between them and their enemies?

No, I don’t think that in most cases they saw any meaningful distinction, although, of course, the white encroachment on their territory infuriated the Blackfeet even more than the competition from neighboring tribes (which was much less true of the smaller and weaker Crows, who made their peace with the whites quite quickly). But most of the robbery was for the same reason — stealing horses enhanced a young man’s prestige. And the killings tended to be tit-for-tat affairs, which was also the case with inter-tribal hostilities.

How long did it take to research and write Empire of Shadows?

Five years from start to finish.

Has the park changed a lot since you began your research?

Not to the casual visitor, perhaps, but yes, there are slow, steady changes underway, many of them related to climate change. There are more areas of forest in and around the park that are dead or dying from the inroads of the mountain pine beetle. So you see more and more gray and red hillsides instead of green ones. As more trees die, there is greater stress on the food supply for grizzly bears, because they depend heavily on the nuts from the whitebark pine to bulk up for hibernation. As grizzlies get hungry and venture more into touristed areas, there’s more likelihood of clashes, in which the bears usually come off worse than the humans. There’s also ongoing pressure from ranchers and others to curb the bison who stray outside of the park — which reminds us, of course, that the boundaries of Yellowstone are just an arbitrary set of straight lines that mean nothing to the animals that live there.

Do you have another venture in mind?

I’m always superstitious about talking about new projects, but yes, I’m exploring ideas for a book on the global gold-mining boom.

Janice Bailey has loved books since she was first introduced to Nancy Drew at age 9. More recently, she has fallen in love with the American West after a trip to fish for trout on the Missouri and Dearborn Rivers.



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