Watching over Yellowstone

The US Army's Experience in America's First National Park, 1886–1918

Thomas C. Rust

When, in 1883, Congress charged the US Army with managing Yellowstone National Park, soldiers encountered a new sort of hostility: work they were untrained for, in a daunting physical and social environment where they weren’t particularly welcome. When they departed in 1918, America had a new sort of serviceman: the National Park Service Ranger. From the creation of Yellowstone National Park to the conclusion of the army’s superintendence, Watching over Yellowstone tells the boots-on-the-ground story of the US troops charged with imposing order on man and nature in Americas first national park.

Yellowstone National Park had been created only fourteen years before Captain Moses Harris arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs with his company, Troop M of the First United States Cavalry, in August of 1886. And in those years, the underfunded, poorly supervised park had been visited freely by over-eager tourists, vandals, and poachers. Thomas C. Rust describes the task confronting Congress, military superintendents, and the common soldiers as the ever-increasing number of tourists, commercial interests, and politics stained the unruly park. At a time when the army was already undergoing a great transformation, the common soldiers were now struggling with unusual duties in unfamiliar terrain, often in unaccustomed proximity to the social elite who dominated the tourist class—fertile if uncertain ground for both the failures and the successes that eventually shaped the National Park Service’s ranger corps. What this meant for the average soldier emerges from the materials Rust consults: orders, circulars, inspection reports, court-martial cases, civilian accounts, and evidence from excavated soldier stations in the park. A nuanced social history from a rare ground-level perspective, his book captures an extraordinary moment in the story of America’s military and its national parks.

“The protection that the US Army provided to the nation’s emerging national parks system is a facet of the United States’ past that remains little known even among professional historians. Rust’sWatching over Yellowstone not only explains to readers how such a development came to pass in the divided government of the 1880s but also serves as the most detailed account of soldiers’ lives and service as the guardians of Yellowstone National Park.”

—Kevin Adams, associate professor of history, Kent State University

“A fascinating account of how soldiers struggled with an unconventional assignment while laying a solid foundation for the National Park Service that replaced them. Watching over Yellowstone is an important contribution to military history and the history of our national parks.”

—Harvey Meyerson, author of Nature’s Army: When Soldiers Fought for Yosemite

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About the Author

Thomas C. Rust is professor of history at Montana State University Billings. He is the author of Lost Fort Ellis: Frontier History of Bozeman, as well as articles in many publications, including Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Archaeology in Montana, and Military History of the West.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series