Transforming the American west from wilderness to civilization had devastating consequences for indigenous peoples who resided there before white settlers arrived. This regrettable history was on the mind of Rev. Edwin J. Stanley, a Methodist minister serving Montana Territory, when he visited Yellowstone in the summer of 1873, little more than a year after Congress created the national park.

The Irrepressible Conflict

The approach to the national park southward along the Yellowstone River took Rev. Stanley and his party past an Indian reservation situated on the opposite bank, which prompted the minister’s thoughts on the inevitability of Manifest Destiny. “I could not help thinking,” he writes,

what a picture of the ‘irrepressible conflict’ between advancing civilization and sullen savagery was now before me! The white man crowding the Indian back toward the setting sun, reclaiming his wilderness to useful tillage, exterminating his game, subduing his forests, converting his rivers into commercial arteries, his valleys into fields of golden grain, mining his mountains, and extending the arts of civilized industry all over the country—the whole picture was here epitomized along the banks of the wildest of all the rivers of the continent. The soft sentimentalism which romance has thrown over the untutored tribes of the forest melts away like morning mists before the demands of a brighter and better civilization, and we pity the victims of savage life who must be destroyed because they will not be subdued and civilized.”

As their party continued to travel upriver through the Yellowstone Valley, Stanley ruminated further about the plight of the Indians suffering under the onslaught of civilization. He acknowledges that this territory “during ages past has been the undisputed abode of the wild red-man,” but, although regrettable, their time had passed. He concludes, “these streams, on the banks of which he was born, and by the side of which he was reared; these plains, over which he roamed at will with the wild beasts that he loved to chase—all must soon come under the influence of civilization, and yield to the scepter of the irrepressible white man.”

A More Effective Savagery

In retrospect, the distinction between “advancing civilization and sullen savagery” is not so clear as Rev. Stanley supposes. His Christian God’s saving grace apparently was incapable of rescuing the so-called “victims of savage life” who faced destruction in the unmerciful progress of advancing civilization. Rev. Stanley’s journey made him a witness to “the scepter of the irrepressible white man” as it inflicted its genocidal racial supremacy with impunity and a self-congratulatory confidence in the divine right of Manifest Destiny.

Like nearly all white settlers moving into the American west in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Rev. Edwin Stanley did not regard the heartless violations involved in conquest as savagery. Their belief in a divinely sanctioned destiny to bring “civilization” to “savage” lands blinded settlers to their own savage ways. Yet, as I reflect on the history of racial violence in America, whether in the displacement and destruction of indigenous societies, in the brutalities of slavery, in the long history of state-sanctioned and violently enforced apartheid, or in the de facto segregationist realities of contemporary America, I realize that the conquering civilization’s only real triumph has been in employing a more effective savagery than the people they have vanquished. ♨


[Quotations are from Edwin James Stanley, Rambles in Wonderland: Or, up the Yellowstone, and among the Geysers and Other Curiosities of the National Park (D. Appleton, 1878), pages 12-13 and 20]

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