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Book Review: Empire of Shadows

Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone

by George Black

St. Martin’s Press, 2012

Some readers of George Black’s new history of Yellowstone, Empire of Shadows, may be reminded of Eric Jay Dolin’s 2008 book Leviathan, about the history of the American whaling industry. Both are well-documented, both are written with flair and impeccable dramatic sense, and both tell old stories of Americana for new book-buying audiences. Both books are galleries of colorful character sketches and vivid quotes from many sources, and both authors work to bring to life a vanished chapter in the nation’s history.

The two books share something else in common, and it’s far more troubling: both of them help their stories along by turning an almost-blind (let’s say heavily cataracted) eye toward the horrifying subtext of the stories they tell. The colorful tales and historical insights in Dolin’s book rest – with only the briefest whiff of censure – on the single-minded and unrelenting slaughter of the world’s whale populations. And Black’s tale of the ‘opening’ of the Montana and Wyoming frontier (and the natural gem that is now Yellowstone National Park) to white settlers in search of discovery, adventure, or just plain gold likewise rest – with only the briefest whiff of censure – on the single-minded and wholesale slaughter of the original inhabitants of those frontier lands. Even as far back as the Lewis & Clark expedition, that aim was clear, and Black is at times admirably clear about it:

… they [Lewis & Clark] carried the largest arsenal that had ever been seen west of the Missouri. The threat of violence was implicit in the act of exploration, and certainly in Jefferson’s intent to civilize. The Corps of Discovery was a military expedition, under military discipline. The explorers were uninvited guests in an unknown land, and any tribe they encountered were assumed to be hostile until proven otherwise.

But in almost all cases throughout this long and admittedly engrossing book, such notes of frankness are followed by curious softening diversions, as in this case:

The basic truth about weaponry is that it is an enticement to violence as well as a safeguard against it. Or put another way, Lewis and Clark, and many subsequent explorations of the West, proved Chekhov’s first iron law of theater: Hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, and it is sure to be fired before the final curtain.

This is a telling re-working of Chekhov’s ‘law’ – hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, and it’s sure to be fired before the final curtain … it almost blurs all hint of agency; Chekhov’s familiar adage was that if you hang a pistol on the wall in act one, you’d better fire it before the end of the play – because if you don’t, you shouldn’t have put it there in the first place. The firing of the pistol isn’t fate, in other words – it’s theater.

It was the United States government that put the pistol on the wall in its dealings with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Piegan, Shoshone, Blackfoot, Crow, and all the other centuries-old cultures it encountered as first territorial expansion and then gold fever drew its white citizens further and further west. That stream of white citizens was flattening the ground as it went, slaughtering the game on which every indigenous people in the area depended – and slaughtering those indigenous people if they dared to object. That pistol wasn’t sure to be fired, as though everything that happened on the mid-19th century American frontier was blind (manifest?) destiny – it was intentionally fired by the greed, rapacity, hypocrisy, and racial intolerance of the men Black never misses and opportunity to praise:

 All manner of men flocked to Bannack over that winter [1863] and the following spring, and the banks of Grasshopper Creek sprouted hundreds of crude timber cabins and shanties, tents and brush wickiups. But among the hordes of unskilled, illiterate placer miners and militant secessionists, there was also the nucleus of Montana’s future elite – men who were drawn here by the promise of a quick fortune, the chance to prove their virility in this harsh corner of the frontier, and the opportunity to create a political order out of nothing. One early twentieth-century historian described the communities they built as “the ganglia of Civilization, comparable to the Roman Colonies.”

At various points during the book, as just one example, the notorious Bear River massacre of 1863 (during which U.S. soldiers fought a pitched battle with the warriors of a Shoshone encampment and then, when it was over, raped and killed almost all the Shoshone women and played games by battering out the brains of almost all the Shoshone babies) is referred to as a “trauma” or, even worse, an “incident.” Likewise the looming dangers those valiant initial settlers faced are darkened by every rumor they hear:

But there was always a thread of nervousness among the white residents. Most had traveled the Bozeman or Bridger trails and even if they had no direct experience of violence, they were likely to have witnessed its aftermath – the scapled corpses, the graves torn open by wolves. These undercurrents of anxiety curled into outright terror at the end of December 1866, when word came of the massacre of Lieutenant Fetterman and his eighty soldiers on the Bozeman Trail, with men castrated, disemboweled, eyes torn from their sockets. There was no need this time for the rumor mill to exaggerate.

The argument to be made here is that such accounts are intentionally phrased in the mind-set of those ‘residents,’ and that Black’s audience is supposed to read between the lines. Even so, how many of those readers would guess from reading such a passage that Lieutenant Fetterman – like George Custer after him – was the boastful aggressor in that ‘massacre’? Too often in Empire of Shadows, the background narrative has a quietly triumphalist history-written-by-the-winners tone. A Piegan volume of equal length covering the exact same period would be almost unrecognizably different.

Some of Black’s many vividly drawn characters sensed this even in their own time, including, amazingly, the man in charge of all this genocide, General Phil Sheridan:

… his views had mellowed over the years. Now that the buffalo were close to extinction, he was determined to preserve a few, as symbols of a West that no longer existed. Now that the Plains Indians were silenced, he became almost sentimental about the idea of the noble red man in his natural paradise. Civilization was an unstoppable force, but Sheridan wondered if perhaps the army had been too harsh. “We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this that they made war,” he said in 1878. “Could anyone expect less?”

No one could expect less – and at the dawn of the 21st century, in histories dedicated to one race of North American settlers ruthlessly supplanting another, readers might expect a good deal more … certainly more than playground cowboys-and-Indians. Thousands of Americans visit Yellowstone National Park every year and marvel at its many natural glories. Surely the only fitting admission fee for all that wonderment is to be always mindful that it was all taken by force from peoples who were marvelling at it long before the Norman Conquest? Black has written a terrifically energetic and scrupulously researched book, but it too seldom seems to realize that it’s a war-book, and that the war had losers. Empire of Shadows will be on for sale in the gift shops of the victors.

One Comment »

  • George Black says:

    Dear Steve Donoghue:

    First of all, I greatly appreciated your taking the trouble to write such a long and detailed review of my new book, Empire of Shadows, and I’m grateful for your very generous comments about those things you liked about it.

    At the same time, I have to say that I am utterly baffled by the suggestion that the book “turn[s] an almost-blind…eye to the horrifying subtext” of the story – the violent dispossession of the tribes who originally inhabited the northern Rockies – and that it has “a quietly triumphalist history-written-by-the-winners tone.” The whole point of the book is to show, in great detail, how the exploration of the frontier, and specifically the exploration of Yellowstone, was intertwined with terrible and unjustifiable acts of violence against the Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Sioiux, and other tribes.

    Four whole chapters, and much of what precedes them, are devoted to the least known of all the atrocities of the Indian wars, the slaughter of 173 Piegans on the Marias River in 1870. This is the most complete account ever written of that event, and holds back nothing in describing the horrific nature of what happened and the attitudes of those who perpetrated it. Ditto with the Bear River massacre in 1863. I can’t see how it remotely diminishes the magnitude of that event to describe it as a “trauma” – which is precisely what it was for the Shoshone. As I say quite explicitly, the perpetrators of Bear River were murderous psychopaths. The same can be said of my descriptions of Harney’s massacre of the Sioux at Blue Water, Chivington’s massacre of the Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Custer’s at Washita, etc. etc., not to mention the decades of broken treaties, deceit, and racism that stitched all these episodes of violence together. You take issue with my description of the mutilation of white soldiers in the Fetterman massacre, but it would have been completely disingenuous to leave out that passage since reports like this were fundamental in turning some of the white settlers and explorers I write about into exterminationists.

    By the same token, I fail to understand how the passage you quote about the settlers who came to Bannack looking for gold in 1863 suggests that I “never miss an opportunity to praise” men who were guilty of greed, rapacity, and intolerance. The whole point is that men who I show to have been guilty of exactly those qualities ended up, paradoxically, creating the wonder of Yellowstone National Park. And the last section of the book is all about the dark irony of attracting tourists to Yellowstone with the promise that it was free of Indians and that it had never been inhabited by them in the first place – when my whole point was to show that Yellowstone could only be explored and “discovered” after the tribes who lived in and around the area of the park had been brought violently to heel.

    Best wishes,

    George Black

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