Taming the West by stringing ’em up

Author George Black: Yellowstone’s first superintendent and a Montana vigilante, Nathaniel Pitt Langford of St. Paul

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MPR’s Dan Olson interviews author George Black

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Author George Black has a fly fishing obsession, and we are all better informed about a colorful Minnesotan because of it.

Black spends lots of hours in the western states’ streams and rivers admiring the region’s natural wonders and was inspired to write a book about the creation of Yellowstone.

Nathaniel Pitt Langford, pictured above courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, buried in Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul, was the first superintendent of Yellowstone the world’s first national park.

Langford was a businessman, federal tax collector, explorer.

And vigilante.

In his new book, “Empire of Shadows, The Epic Story of Yellowstone,” Black introduces us to the main actors and a supporting cast of gold seekers, American Indians and others playing out their roles in the 1860s and ’70s in the Montana territory gold fields.

Langford left his home state of New York in the 1850s for St. Paul seeking fame and fortune.

He acquired a measure of both.

Langford made some money in business in St. Paul, and then he caught the gold bug, not as a prospector but as a sawmill and transportation company owner and as a civil servant.

Langford’s reaction to the absence of law and order in the gold fields upon his arrival in 1862 in the Montana territory gold fields sparked what Black describes as this country’s largest vigilante movement.

In a span of a few years, Langford and his vigilante cohorts who had assigned themselves to bring justice to the area had summarily executed 52 people.

The expedition he helped lead in 1870 set the stage for the 1872 creation of Yellowstone. Langford won appointment as the first superintendent.

But along with not paying him a salary the federal government didn’t give him a budget to protect the new park. The result was a spurt of vandalism and poaching that disheartened Langford.

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By the time this photo in the MHS collection was taken, he had returned to St. Paul and burnished his profile as a leading citizen.

There are Langford descendants in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. One of them appears in my story today during All Things Considered along with comments from author George Black.

You’ll also enjoy hearing my conversation with Black about his book. He’s a great talker with an informed analysis of one the country’s most dynamic and troubling chapters of history.

Or as Kirkus Reviews describes his book, “An admirable, warts-and-all history of a milestone in environmental preservation.”

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