The Cut, Montana Territory. October 1870.
The dog stopped along the trail ahead of him, growling. Yellowstone Jack Baronett reined in his horse and dismounted, taking his gun from the saddle. He soon saw what had captured the dog’s attention: an animal was dragging itself slowly up the side of the Cut, a narrow canyon through the Gallatin Mountains leading to the Yellowstone Basin beyond. A black bear, Jack thought, possibly wounded. He approached warily, his feet crunching on the hard crust of three-day snow. Drawing closer, he could see that it was not a bear. It was a man.
He was crawling on his knees and elbows and making a low, groaning noise. His clothes were in tatters, his long beard matted. His fingers curled into claws. The skin on his face and arms was thin and translucent, clinging to his bones like wet paper.
This could be the man Yellowstone Jack had been looking for. The explorer whose friends had put up a bounty for his return. The man who had been given up for lost.
“Are you Truman Everts?” he asked.
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The man looked up at Jack through half-closed eyes. “Yes,” he croaked. “All that is left of him.”
“We have come for you,” he said.
“I am saved!” Everts whispered, and collapsed on the trail, unconscious.
Six weeks before Jack found him in the Cut, Truman Everts said goodbye to his nineteen-year-old daughter, Bessie, and left the small mining town of Helena, Montana, to join an expedition to Yellowstone Basin. A fifty-four-year-old widower who was terribly nearsighted, Everts had served as Assessor of Internal Revenue for Montana Territory for several years until his term ended in February 1870. He was preparing to return to the East Coast with Bessie in July when a few friends suggested a scout of the Yellowstone country. Everts was no mountain man, but he was reasonably sure he could handle himself on the roughest of mountain trails.
And Everts was curious. In 1870, despite the arrival of thousands of Americans and European immigrants in the Great Northwest—an area extending from the western edge of the Great Lakes to the Pacific coast— Yellowstone remained beyond the reach of the territorial or the federal government. The Basin was hemmed in by four mountain ranges; slicing through them were narrow canyons like the Cut, created by rivers clawing their way from the Basin through the mountains and into the broad valleys of Montana and Wyoming.
The largest of these waterways was the Yellowstone, which rushed through the Gallatin Mountains before arcing to the north and east toward the Missouri River. Crow and Lakota peoples called the river Heȟáka (Elk), but French traders working at forts along the Missouri in the eighteenth century recorded the name that the Gros Ventre gave it: Mi-tse-a-daz-i (Yellow Rock River), after the rocks that lined its banks downstream.
For thousands of years, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, Crow, Shoshone, and Bannock bands crossed Yellowstone Basin in all seasons, on their way to hunt buffalo and elk in the Great Plains. One band of Shoshones, known as the Tukudeka (Sheepeaters) for the animals they raised, lived most of the year in the mountain ranges encircling the Basin.
In the early nineteenth century, French, English, and American trappers followed the trails that these Indigenous peoples had made. The stories they told, of thundering waterfalls and cliffs made of glass, of mud volcanoes and geysers that exploded out of the ground in huge clouds of steam and boiling water, seemed absurd. Everyone knew that trappers were inveterate liars who loved a good story. It seemed foolhardy to believe them. And yet. What if these stories were true?
In 1860 a U.S. military expedition came close to entering Yellowstone country from the southeast side, but the Wind River Range, with its saw-toothed peaks still covered in snow in midsummer, made it a physical impossibility. Local miners made plans to explore Yellowstone during the Civil War and the years after, but they had failed to raise funding or secure military escorts. In 1869, a three-man team set out on their own and returned after more than a month, confirming many of the details of the trappers’ tales. Within Montana Territory, these amateur explorations gave new credence to reports of the trappers and spurred men like Truman Everts to seriously consider, and then commit to, striking out for this purported land of natural wonders.
The 1870 expedition had come together under the leadership of Nathaniel Langford, who arrived in Montana in 1864 after prospectors discovered gold in the northern reaches of the Rocky Mountains. Langford did not have much luck in the mines, so he turned to politics. After Andrew Johnson took office in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the president chose Langford as Montana’s territorial governor. But Johnson’s subsequent battles with the Republican Congress over Reconstruction policies had delayed and then scuttled Langford’s appointment. He decided he liked Montana, however, and that he wanted to lobby for future investment in and migration to his new home. A successful expedition to Yellowstone could bring national attention and investment capital to the Territory.
Langford recruited Everts and several of Helena’s other leading citizens, including Henry Washburn, a U.S. Army veteran and the surveyor-general of Montana Territory, to join him. He hired packers to load more than forty animals carrying provisions and equipment, and two Black men to cook for the party. Nute and Johnny were part of a small community of two hundred “free colored persons” living in Montana in 1870, in a territory whose non-Native population was 90 percent white. These residents, in addition to 2,000 Chinese immigrants who had been drawn to the mining camps of the northern Rockies in the 1860s, were slightly outnumbered by the more than 20,000 Indigenous peoples living in many communities across Montana.
After a one-hundred-mile journey southeast to Bozeman, Langford’s party secured a protective detail of five U.S. Army soldiers from Fort Ellis, under the command of a young officer named Gustavus C. Doane. After leaving the fort, the expedition made its way along Indigenous trails and followed the Yellowstone River into the Basin.
At first, the expedition proceeded without a hitch. Everts, Langford, and the others came upon natural wonders at every turn. Tower Falls, its waters crashing down into a chasm surrounded by spires of light brown shale. Springs whose hot waters bubbled up in constant agitation, their banks encrusted with a white substance, thin and delicate, like porcelain.
The lower and upper Yellowstone Falls, which they viewed from above, dove into a sink of foam and spray at the bottom of a deep canyon. At first they shrank back from the edge in terror, but then they were drawn toward it by the sparkle of the sunlight on the waterfalls, and the canyon walls glowing yellow and pink. Delighted, they laughed and sang and dashed along the rim.
From there they made their way past mud springs shading from yellow to pink to dark brown, then through a dense green forest, before emerging onto the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Here, in the first week of September 1870, the expedition ran into trouble. The woods that edged the western side of the lake were full of fallen timber. As they moved into the thicket the packhorses stumbled at almost every step, and the expedition members lost the trail. The men argued about the way forward.
Everts, who was known in Helena for his hot temper, went off by himself in a huff. When darkness closed in around him that night, he was not particularly concerned. Throughout the trip, team members had wandered off and always found their way back.
Everts settled in, hitching his horse to a tree branch. He built a fire, wrapped himself in a blanket, and went to sleep. The next day, when Everts dismounted to inspect a fork in the trail, his horse bolted. The animal carried away all Everts’s food, his gun and pistols, fishing tackle, matches, blankets, and extra clothing. Taking an inventory of his pockets, Everts found only two knives and a small opera glass.
It took another few days for Everts to realize that he was really, truly lost. With that epiphany came an almost debilitating sense of destitution. He was alone and without any resources. How would he survive long enough to find his way back to the expedition team?
For the next month, Everts wandered through Yellowstone Basin, subsisting on handfuls of thistle roots and small animals he was able to catch with his hands. Everts thought he was moving northward, toward the Gallatin Mountains and home, but he could not be sure. In early October, a snowstorm set in. Everts, soaked to the skin and his feet frostbitten, sought out a group of steaming hot springs. The heat radiating up through the ground warmed his system, but while shifting in his sleep he broke through the fragile white crust along the spring’s edge and scalded his hip.
Everts’s mental state deteriorated. He hallucinated, imagining other people into being, friends and loved ones who helped guide him through Yellowstone’s forests and canyons. He lost all sense of time. When Everts found himself at Yellowstone Falls once again after weeks of wandering, he turned away, embittered. The region’s marvels had lured him to his destruction, and he could not bear to see them.
Everts had almost given up and delivered himself to fate when Yellowstone Jack found him in the Cut.
By the time Everts returned to Bozeman, the news of his survival had spread across Montana, causing a sensation.
“At last the lost man is found,” declared the Helena Weekly Herald. “The discovery of Mr. Everts, after such a lapse of time, and under the extraordinary circumstances . . . is simply miraculous.”
One month later, several of Everts’s friends threw a lavish dinner party for him in Helena. The tables in the town’s most popular restaurant sagged with the weight of elk, venison, and antelope, six different vegetables, and a huge spread of pies, puddings, cakes, and other confections. It was the kind of meal that Everts had dreamed about during his trials in Yellowstone. He gazed upon the table but found he could not eat. He walked slowly through the party, leaning on a walking stick. Everyone wanted to hear his story.
Truman Everts related his tale of suffering and salvation to family, friends, and newspaper reporters, and then to a larger American public in an article he wrote for Scribner’s Monthly. His story of survival was one of hundreds in a genre that had become well established by 1870, stories that valorized white men who went out into the wilderness and lost their way, their minds, and their humanity. Everything about them was laid bare, but they endured. These narratives erased Native peoples from the wilderness while emphasizing natural resources there for the taking. Everts’s story helped to bring Yellowstone into the American imagination as a place of both wonder and terror.
Accounts like Everts’s, of men surviving the direst of circumstances while displaying internal strength, ingenuity, and determination, were alluring for white Americans searching for unity in the years after the Civil War. Four years of unimaginable bloodshed—more than 600,000 dead men, their bodies stacked in hospitals or strewn across the fields and swamps of the eastern states and the high desert passes of the Southwest—had torn America apart.
By 1870, the nation was in the midst of a national Reconstruction, both economic and political. As the nation transitioned to peacetime after 1865 and politicians bickered about which wartime measures to continue or abandon, the northern economy slumped. The southern economy, meanwhile, was in ruins. After four years of war that destroyed croplands, railroads, and factories, and after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and then the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) freed men and women who had previously been assessed as property, most of the wealth across the South had disappeared, and the prospects for its development were grim.
The nation’s political situation was just as turbulent. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson announced his plan for the Reconstruction. It was an appeasement rather than a reckoning. The states of the former Confederacy would have to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to reenter the Union, but former Confederates could apply for pardons and the return of any property that the U.S. Army had confiscated during the war.
Encouraged by Johnson’s leniency, white southerners almost immediately reasserted power in their communities, trying to return emancipated men and women to their previous states of servitude. State legislatures across the South passed Black Codes, establishing fines and other punishments for formerly enslaved people who dared gather with one another, engage in interracial sex, or purchase firearms.
In 1866, enraged at Johnson’s disinterest in protecting Black southerners, the Republican-dominated Thirty-Ninth Congress passed a Civil Rights Act and began to draft the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared that all persons born or naturalized in the United States were citizens, and that no state could pass any law that would abridge their rights.
Southern communities erupted in violence. In 1868, the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865–66, began to spread rapidly throughout the South. Disguised in sheets and wearing elaborate headdresses, the Klan rampaged through the countryside, whipping, raping, and killing Black men and women and white Republicans, and burning down their homes.
During this early period of Reconstruction, Congress was constantly at odds with President Johnson and in 1868, voters elected U.S. Army general Ulysses S. Grant to replace Johnson. They also sent a contingent of radical Republicans to Washington, D.C., politicians intent on using the full authority of the federal government to ensure Black Americans could exercise their newly acquired rights.
The Grant administration also funded projects and promoted development schemes to bring the West more firmly into the Union, wresting control of it from Indigenous nations to settle it with white farmers, ranchers, and miners. To understand the extent of the West’s natural resources and its suitability for agriculture, mining, and other forms of production, Congress appropriated money for several geological surveys in the years after the war. These dovetailed with the Homestead Act (passed in 1862 and meant to provide land for white and Black Americans loyal to the U.S. government during the Civil War) and the construction of the first transcontinental railroad (completed in 1869) to promote settler colonialism: a process through which white Americans took Indigenous territory, removed Natives to reservations, and replaced them as settlers on stolen land.
Also integral to this process was visual and literary culture—particularly photographs, magazines, and government survey reports—that helped to connect the goals of settler colonialism with the widespread belief among white Americans that the country’s natural wonders were proof of national greatness. Large and vivid landscape paintings of grand scenery in the mountain West became popular. If these images depicted Native peoples at all, they were always on the cusp of vanishing, making way for the oncoming flood of white migrants into the heart of the continent.
In 1871, the Grant administration’s projects in the South and in the West were connected by the Republican Party’s belief in the power of the federal government to protect its white and Black citizens on the one hand, and force the assimilation of Native peoples on the other. These actions were not uncontested. Across the nation, white Americans argued about whether the federal government should interfere in state decisions regarding the rights and the protections of citizenship. In the Indigenous homelands of the West, large numbers of Native peoples from hundreds of nations, intent on asserting their own sovereignties, pushed back against federal policies that brought white Americans into their territories.
The 1871 scientific exploration of Yellowstone became part of this larger struggle over the expansion of federal power during Reconstruction. Three men shaped its course. They wielded a tremendous amount of power, which they each used to advance their interests and to assert their rights to Yellowstone.
Ambitious and self-absorbed, surveyor and scientist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden had already built a fifteen-year career bringing the landscapes of the West into the American consciousness. He had been a member of the military expedition that turned back from Yellowstone in 1860 and had chafed at that failure ever since. By 1871, he held the position of U.S. geologist with funding from the Department of the Interior to survey the western territories. He was determined to launch his own expedition to Yellowstone, a project of national importance that he felt would secure his status as America’s most renowned scientist-explorer.
Hayden’s survey would be a boon for Jay Cooke, a fiercely competitive investment banker who saw in Yellowstone a way to build his business in the rocky financial waters of Reconstruction. In 1870, he took responsibility for raising funds to build the Northern Pacific Railroad, which would cross from the Pacific to the Great Lakes. Its tracks would come within fifty miles of Yellowstone. If the railroad could transport tourists as well as prospective white farmers and ranchers to the Great Northwest, the Northern Pacific would be a financial success—and Cooke’s greatest accomplishment.
Another powerful man was working against Cooke’s and Hayden’s visions for the Reconstruction West. Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (Sitting Bull) and his band, the Húŋkpapȟa Lakota, encountered Cooke’s Northern Pacific surveyors crossing into their homelands, measuring distances, pounding markers into the ground, and attempting to claim Lakota land for themselves. Sitting Bull was determined to expel Cooke’s workers, and the U.S. Army soldiers who protected them, from his people’s territory.
Hayden, Cooke, and Sitting Bull staked their claims to Yellowstone at a critical moment in Reconstruction, when the Grant administration and the Forty-Second Congress were testing the reach and the purpose of federal power across the nation. Hayden and Cooke saw their work as part of this larger vision and lobbied Congress to pass legislation beneficial to their projects, while Sitting Bull’s actions in defense of Lakota sovereignty undermined these and other congressional aims.
Yellowstone was a site of contention and a perfect symbol of what the United States had become by 1871: a nation whose “best idea” required Indigenous dispossession and whose white politicians embraced but then quickly abandoned the cause of racial justice. In this moment, the fragile crust of American democracy and political reunification barely contained the roiling, violent forces that lay beneath.
Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has
written about the Civil War, U.S. Western history, and American culture for The New York
Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine and others. She earned her BA in history and literature from Harvard University and her PhD in American studies from the University of Iowa.