CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2009
CRM Journal

Book Reviews


Storytelling In Yellowstone: Horse and Buggy Tour Guides

By Lee H. Whittlesey. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007; 391 pp., illustrations, map, index; cloth, $27.95.

Given its age and origins, Yellowstone National Park, by default, claims “first” status in any number of topics. Yellowstone National Park historian Lee Whittlesey adds to that list the park’s role as the incubator of National Park Service (NPS) interpretation, in Storytelling In Yellowstone: Horse and Buggy Tour Guides. Whittlesey provides the previously untold “story of storytelling” in the country’s first national park, a complex 50-year history that predates the 1920s establishment of the National Park Service’s (NPS) professional interpretation program. He successfully proposes that NPS interpretation traces its beginnings to park concessioners in the 1870s and 1880s, along with an army of early storytellers, lecturers, photographers, writers of descriptive and directional material, tour guides, and even a few early federal employees.

The book makes clear that the activities of those pre-1920s trailblazers were not and could not be identical to today’s NPS interpretive discipline. Yet in their efforts could be seen a commonality with interpretive goals of the present. These include compelling storytelling—the most basic form of interpretation—information conveyance, and encouraging personal connections between resources and visitors.

Whittlesey presents his thesis in a series of clearly-defined chapters that address his primary research questions: How did storytelling begin? Who were the early park guides? What stories were told by those guides to park visitors? What were the influences on the telling of tales? And what did park visitors think of those stories? (p. 2) In some instances, the answers to his questions had to be extrapolated, based on limited accurate information. For the majority of the work, however, Whittlesey draws on a wealth of information taken from the vast Yellowstone archives, as well as from a number of universities, historical societies, and private collections.

The author begins with Native Americans as the region’s first storytellers. In the process, Whittlesey is careful to distinguish between formal Indian traditions and unsubstantiated misinformation, fabrication, and misunderstandings that long obscured this aspect of Yellowstone’s history. From there the book proceeds to a discussion on Munchausen storytellers, primarily trappers and prospectors of the early and mid 19th century who shared grandiose tall tales from their explorations of the region. While fanciful and often misattributed, these campfire “yarns” served to “paint word pictures,” spreading the word to a skeptical audience. The widespread distribution of photographs and paintings further contributed to information on and interest in the landscape. In their own fashion, these professional and amateur artists influenced public perceptions of, and interest in, the park. Likewise influential were a cadre of lecturers who presented Yellowstone’s natural wonders to audiences across the country.

Moving beyond these initial influences, Whittlesey settles into the meat of his topic to examine those most involved in informing and educating the park’s earliest visitors. Primary among these were Philetus “Windy” Norris and George Legg Henderson, whom Whittlesey considers the first real interpreters of Yellowstone National Park. Norris, the park’s second superintendent, and Henderson, an assistant superintendent, were matchless educators, tour guides, storytellers, and information and resource managers.

Of the few federal employees at the park, these two stood out for their interest and support of interpretive efforts. Far outnumbering them were park concessionaires, who supplied the bulk of tourism services. The concessionaires hired or were the “horse-and-buggy tour guides,” (nearly always men) stagecoach drivers, and walking guides who undertook interpretive chores from 1878 to 1916. Whittlesey goes into some detail documenting stories from the “halcyon days of Yellowstone stagecoaches” and distinguishes not just between these storytellers and other guides, but between interpretation at specific park locations. Numerous first-hand accounts by visitors reveal their impressions of their guides, the quality and type of information provided, and experiences of Yellowstone’s Grand Tour.

Whittlesey acknowledges that the book is not a comparative analysis of interpretation development at other parks, although locations such as Yosemite predated Yellowstone as a tourist destination. Hopefully this work will inspire others to undertake a greater study of park interpretation (federal or otherwise) nationwide, for a greater understanding of this aspect of America’s tourism history. Future researchers would do well to emulate Whittlesey’s use and assessment of numerous primary sources. A potential benefit of the author’s comprehensive discussions is that they may assist in identifying previously unattributed information. For example, of the many photographers known to have worked in the Yellowstone area, only a fraction of their work has been identified.

Appropriate to the interpretive topic, it is not difficult to consider this book the product of the author’s own personal connection to Yellowstone. He served as a park concession tour guide in the 1970s, and his continuing enthusiasm for the park and the topic is clearly evident. This includes making occasional personal observations. While such editorials might not be encouraged in typical NPS publications, Whittlesey makes clear that the book was produced independently. It began from a work assignment, expanded to serve the requirements of a master’s program, and finished as this publication.

The one disappointment with the book was the lack of detailed maps showing the natural and man-made features so frequently described by Whittlesey and his historic sources. As a reader who enjoys cross-referencing text with graphics, I found it difficult to distinguish early road beds and landscape features in the one map included in the book, the 1895 Hiram Chittenden map showing the park’s Grand Loop. This shortcoming is more than compensated by the series of appendices, detailed footnotes, and bibliographic essays. Included is a full reprint of a rare written tour from Yellowstone’s stagecoach days, a biography of an early “geyser gazer” (a geyser enthusiast), and a petition to retain Norris as park superintendent. The bibliographic essay is Whittlesey’s analysis of the best books about Yellowstone, which continues the tradition by early guides and interpreters to provide the best knowledge and science to park visitors.

Dena Sanford
National Park Service