A Weird and Wild Beauty by Erin Peabody is the first book on Yellowstone’s founding written for the middle grade set, those twelve and up. Since many people visit Yellowstone, and images from the park are widely distributed, it is time they have a chance to learn about the history of the park.
The book is full of illustrations and photographs from the park’s early years. Read the excerpt here and scroll down for further images.
A Weird and Wild Beauty is out now from Sky Pony Press. To order from Amazon, click the link in the title.
While you see and wonder, you seem to need an additional sense . . . to comprehend and believe.
—Nathaniel Langford, explorer in Yellowstone
New York City, Winter 1870–71
G. Holland sat at his desk, staring wide-eyed at the pages spread before him. Holland was an editor at Scribner’s Monthly, a popular magazine and source of news for Americans in the mid- to late 1800s.
Holland had just received the most bizarre-sounding account. It spoke of a strange land where the ground gurgled and hissed. A land where scalding waters blew from craters and vats of steaming pink mud threatened to swallow a man whole. The place, according to the man who’d recently traveled through the region, abounded with “boiling springs,” “mud volcanoes,” and “huge mountains of sulphur.”
Incredulous, Holland tried to absorb the dazzling imagery. The author, clearly spellbound by what he saw, gushed about brilliant turquoise pools and hot-water fountains. The mud volcano, the man wrote, erupted with the force of thundering cannons. Its boiling broth scalded trees hundreds of yards away.
This world of absurdities, the traveler informed Holland, was not some far-off land. It belonged to the United States.
The mysterious high-mountain region lay just south of the sprawling Montana Territory. By the 1860s, as increasing numbers of settlers infiltrated the western half of the country, this area remained one of the last unexplored pockets left in the West. Its location, if it even appeared on maps, was marked by only two haunting words: terra incognita, which is Latin for “unknown land.”
Impenetrable snow and ice, as well as fears about hostile Native tribes, had kept men from exploring this region, as had rumors about the area’s infernal boilers that supposedly belched steam, reeked of death, and harbored sinister spirits.
Scribner’s—similar to today’s Time or Life magazines—was a common fixture in American households in the nineteenth century. Readers prized its lavish illustrations (as photographs were still a rare treat) and rushed to read its latest features on history, science, religion, and art. And by the 1860s, travel writing had become popular, especially stories about America’s exotic western frontier.
To most Easterners living and working in cramped, smoke-filled factory towns, the American West—with its dramatic scenery, invigorating air, and populations of curious indigenous people—seemed unusual, enticing, and bursting with possibility.
Ever since the trailblazers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark shared the fascinating details of their daring journey in 1804 across the country to the Pacific Ocean and back, Americans had craved details about the little-known western half of their country.
Scribner’s readers tracked the progress of western adventurers such as John C. Fremont with great excitement. His gritty accounts of scaling mountains and surviving blazing desert heat appeared in the nation’s newspapers as well as the penny press, a tabloid-style paper that sold for a penny a piece and made news affordable for the working class.
City dwellers envied the freedom of explorers like Fremont. “What a wild life,” wrote poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about Fremont’s heroic rambles across the West, “and what a fresh kind of existence!”
By the 1870s, the nation was also eager to escape the dark gloom cast by the recent Civil War. Thousands of families had lost loved ones: more than six hundred thousand American soldiers had perished in the four-year war. Cities and local economies had been ravaged by the fighting. Amid all of this, the wide blue skies of the West emanated hope for the nation’s downtrodden.
Holland continued to consider the colorful account he had received. What could be more exciting to readers than details about a yet-discovered American territory where hot waters leaped from the ground and steaming, blue pools funneled deep into the Earth? Yet, how absurd it all sounded. Bubbling pink mud? Jetting fountains? Could such a place truly exist?
As a journalist, Holland also had to consider the reputation of the magazine. Should he take a chance on such sensational-sounding material?
The account’s author, Nathaniel Langford, was evidently well educated. The former banker had moved to the Montana Territory shortly after gold was struck in the region in 1863. Furthermore, Langford was joined on his journey by several other leading citizens of the Montana Territory, including a former major general in the Civil War, a journalist, and an attorney.
After much consideration, Holland decided to publish Langford’s account of the peculiar paradise near the Montana Territory. The editor ultimately believed in giving his readers the intriguing stories they desired.
By the following spring, Langford’s story, told in his own words, appeared in Scribner’s. An artist was tasked with illustrating the unusual marvels the traveler had described, but with no photographs or firsthand experience to reference, the artist relied heavily on his own imagination.
Despite Langford’s intelligent prose, the story about the wondrous region out West was rejected by many readers. Some wrote letters to the magazine’s office, mocking the paper for printing nonsense and accusing Holland of abandoning his ethics. One reader dismissed Langford as “the champion liar of the Northwest.”
Many Easterners accepted that the American West was home to surprising scenery. But, for some, the land adorned with boiling craters and rocketing fountains sounded too fantastic to be true.