Society for the History of Discoveries

Marlene Deahl Merrill, ed. Seeing Yellowstone in 1871: Earliest Descriptions & Images from the Field. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 88 p. ISBN 13:978-0-8032-8787-7, paper.

Field trips were conducted into Yellowstone National Park as part of SHD’s 2004 Annual Meeting in Cody, Wyoming. Although field excursions like SHD’s may seem recent, they are actually one of the main reasons that Yellowstone became the nation’s first National Park in 1872. Serious tourists needed serious guidebooks about places featuring unique geology and awe-inspiring landscapes, and they still do. What better way to introduce modern-day explorers to Yellowstone than through the words and images of its earliest scientific expedition? Marlene Deahl Merrill introduces the modern-day reader to Yellowstone via Ferdinand Hayden’s 1871 expedition. The Hayden expedition represented both a scientific and promotional tour de force. It involved several talented members whose names are immortalized in either the history of scientific reconnaissance in Yellowstone or the vivid imagery associated with that expedition. Among them, mineralogist Albert Peale studied the geology and wrote a series of engaging letters that were quickly published in the Philadelphia Press. William Henry Jackson’s photographs were also widely published as a record of the spectacular sights seen here, and Thomas Moran’s stunning paintings helped propel Yellowstone into the public imagination. Lesser known, Henry Wood Elliott served as the expedition’s official artist, and his landscape sketches remain as fresh today as when he sketched them nearly a century and a half ago. Seeing Yellowstone in 1871 provides an informative overview of the Yellowstone Basin using several of Peale’s letters, a selection of Jackson’s superb photographs, and Moran’s ethereal paintings — all unified by Elliott’s expansive landscape sketches.

This combination of words and images works very effectively. It not only informs the prospective park visitor about what he or she can still see in Yellowstone, but also reveals just how visionary, and talented, the members of Hayden’s expedition were. It also reminds us how closely allied art and science were in nineteenth century exploration. In addition to offering insights into the geology, Peale’s energetic narrative about landscape features like hot springs and geysers still works (“At the head of the valley stands Old Faithful, and well it deserves its name, for it spouts with great regularity every hour ….”) [p. 52]. So, too, does Peale’s prophetic prose (“When the Northern Pacific Railroad runs through this country, this will be one of the places that no tourist will think of neglecting, for it will rank with any natural curiosity that the world can produce.”) [p. 25]. Merrill’s introduction to the expedition, and her occasional correcting or updating of statements (for example, “The yellow color in the canyon walls are caused by hydrothermally-altered hyalite … and not, as Peale believed, by the infiltration of sulfur”[p. 80]), help place the expedition, and the excerpts she selected, in context. 

Well edited, carefully designed, and beautifully illustrated, Seeing Yellowstone in 1871 will help prepare future visitors for their experience, and it will also instill in those visitors an appreciation of the history of exploration.

Richard Francaviglia
The University of Texas at Arlington

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