Several summers ago, I was with a group of my students doing research in the historic archives at Mammoth, in Yellowstone National Park. We’d been hard at it all week, and by Friday we were pretty restless but the weather was lousy, so we moped around the archives. About mid-afternoon the archivist took pity on us. He rolled out the VCR and suggested we watch a movie. He had just the thing for us, he said.

It was a 1936 Universal Pictures B-movie called Yellowstone, starring Andy Devine, Alan Hale, Sr., some square-jawed generically handsome but very bad actor who never made it out B pictures, and a Jean Harlow wanna-be.

The movie opens with a group of tourists arriving in Yellowstone National Park, riding in one of the famous yellow touring buses. As the bus pulls up to the entrance gate a shrill-voiced spinster with an unfortunate chin—a sort of thin Eleanor Roosevelt—leans over to flirt with the handsome ranger.


This opening exchange is funny because it parodies what by 1936 had become an import part of Yellowstone’s popular image—the idea that Yellowstone, much like Niagara Falls, was a place particularly suited to romantic adventure. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yellowstone evoked in people’s minds not simply images of boundless wildlife, strange hot pools, and dazzling geysers. Yellowstone brought to mind a vision of romance, a vision of romantic encounters between men and women played out against the park’s unique natural setting. Yellowstone, in other words, was a place for falling in love and being in love and that was one reason why people went there.

Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first national park, was established by Congress in 1872, largely as a result of the Northern Pacific Railroad company’s desire to develop the unique region as a tourist destination. It was not until the early 1880s that the railroad succeeded in building a line to the park, but from the 1880s through the 1930s, the railroad promoted tourism to Yellowstone through colorful and creative advertising. Tourism promoters enticed people to Yellowstone not just with the prospect of the unusual sights, but with the idea that tourists would have an adventure. It was the experience of being a tourist that the promoters sold and the idea of romantic adventure was a predominant theme in promotional literature.

And the promoters weren’t just making this up. There is good evidence, from the diaries and letters written by tourists, that they thought of Yellowstone as being an especially romantic place and they came looking for—and sometimes finding—romantic adventure. FJ Haynes, who ran a touring company in the late 19th and early 20th century, claimed that fully 60% of his customers were “women without escort,” that is single women.

This evening, I want to share with you one particular body of evidence about the popular image of Yellowstone as a place of romantic adventure—romance novels. Yes, there were a number of romance novels written in the late 19th and early 20th century set in Yellowstone. I have found 15 such novels written from the 1880s to the eve of World War I. Now, these were Victorian-era romance novels, not the bodice-buster novels you find on today’s supermarket book racks.

Victorian romance novels were very chaste—they were not about sex, they were about marriage, or more precisely the process of courtship leading to the marriage of two, true soul mates. These Yellowstone romance novels merge the literary convention of tourist narratives with the conventions of Victorian romance novels. That is, they juxtapose the story of an unfolding romance on a narrative of a tour through the park. In these novels Yellowstone’s scenery and wildlife serve as metaphors for what people of the Victorian era saw as the proper form of courtship and the meaning of marriage.

To illustrate this point, I want to focus tonight on just two of my favorite Yellowstone romance novels: Chaperoning Adrienne by Alice Harriman-Browne, published in 1907, and Six Weeks on Horseback through Yellowstone Park by Louise Elliott, published in 1913.

Chaperoning Adrienne and Six Weeks on Horseback are typical of Victorian-era romances which are filled with men and women pretending to be who they aren’t, with innocent young women rejecting the attentions of a boorish suitor in favor of a “true love,” and the interplay of wealth and status with virtue and devotion. Much of the action in these romance novels revolves around the ritual of teasing and testing which was the core of 19th century courtship practices. Victorian courtship typically involved an escalating sequence of flirtations and provocations. These served to bring a couple to increasing emotional intimacy and allowed partners to periodically reassess each other’s suitability as marriage mates. The goal of the courtship ritual was to produce a couple who accepted their respective gender roles yet were united as one spiritually.

Thus, in Victorian romance fiction the potential marriage partners meet, flirt, and then engage in a series of disagreements, misunderstandings, and misadventures which, temporarily drive the lovers apart but which, when resolved take their relationship to a higher plane. There is always a point in these novels, an epiphany, when disguises are unmasked, misunderstandings corrected, and the lovers realize that they are soul mates.

Let me show you how this works by giving a brief plot synopsis of these two novels.

Chaperoning Adrienne is the story of two romances, that of Adrienne, a beautiful, rich young woman, and her aunt Annabella, a middle-age, but still very lovely, widow. Adrienne is in love with a handsome but impoverished poet. Her parents do not approve. They pack Adrienne off on a tour of Yellowstone for the express purpose of forgetting about that silly poet fellow. Now, Adrienne’s parents don’t expect that the fresh air alone will purge her of her poetic infatuation. They also make arrangements for what they consider a more appropriate suitor to go along on the trip—a fat, pompous but very rich and powerful Senator. Aunt Annabella joins them as chaperone. On the train trip to the park, the three strike up a friendship with a distinguished military officer and his companion, a rather large and homely young woman named Miss Siggins. The General, it turns out, is Aunt Annabella’s long lost love. He had been a dashing, but poor young soldier whom her family forbade her to marry. Miss Siggins, of course, is none other than the Poet in disguise. As the progresses, the obnoxious Senator is discredited as a coward and a fool, Adrienne and the Poet conduct a surreptitious but happy courtship, and the General wins the hand of the widowed Annabella.

These same character-types appear in Six Weeks on Horseback through Yellowstone Park—not a very romantic title but really quite a good little book. This is the story of Violet, the lovely daughter of a good Ohio family fallen on hard times who takes a job as a school teacher in Wyoming in order to earn enough money to put younger sister through finishing school. Violet determines to spend her summer vacation touring Yellowstone, but because she hasn’t sufficient money to do so, she signs on as a cook for a private touring party. Actually, the guide has just taken pity on the sweet, innocent Violet—when she tries to help out with the camp work, he refuses, saying, “Law sakes, Miss Violet, do you think I’d let a high born school ma’am soil her fingers?”

The touring party Violet joins consists of a wealthy, arrogant Boston spinster; a vain, rich young man from a well-known New York merchant family; a common but beautiful young Irish lass named Maud O’Brien; a common but handsome young ranch hand; and a young bank clerk, Orville, from Brooklyn with “honest, twinkling eyes” who speaks often and lovingly about his dearest mother. As the party progresses through the park, a complex courting ritual unfolds—Orville, the bank clerk, adores Violet but she mistakenly believes him to be a cad; the New Yorker tries to court Violet, but she is oblivious to his advances; Maud sings love songs in a sweet, Irish soprano to the ranch hand; and the Boston spinster grumps through it all. In the end, Violet learns that she has misunderstood Orville, a noble fellow after all who also happens to be not a bank clerk but the owner of a bank and much valuable real estate as well. At a log altar, they pledge their love to each other, and Violet writes her mother to begin putting together her trousseau.

What is so striking about these Yellowstone romance novels is how the park itself becomes part of this courtship ritual. Nature appreciation, for example, becomes a test of character, a way for the female lead to distinguish a suitable mate from an unsuitable one. The way in which various characters react to the natural world, to Yellowstone’s wonders, signals their worthiness as a marriage partner. The plot device through which this process of assessment takes place is the false romance—a potential but ultimately inappropriate mate with whom the female character is initially paired. The Senator in Chaperoning Adrienne, for example, whose unworthiness is signaled, in part, by his oblivion to the beauties of the scenery and his panic at seeing a bear.

In Six Weeks on Horseback, Violet is initially attracted to the rich young man from New York but she grows weary of him because he “spends so much time looking into the glass to see himself instead of the sights which surround us.” Orville, who, remember wins Violet’s hand in the end, in contrast, reveals to Violet a deep knowledge of and appreciation for the park—he escorts her around the geyser basin describing the workings of the geysers to her and has the good sense to keep quiet while viewing an especially inspiring site. “He seems to feel intuitively when I am sensitive to impressions and inspirations,” Violet muses, admiring his tact in ending his chatter at just the right moment. Appreciation of nature indicates a sensitivity of character. As Violet says, “If I ever seriously contemplate marriage I shall plan a camping trip with my betrothed as one of the party for that is the quickest and best way to learn one’s true disposition.”

Another thing that is very striking about these novels is how this process of discovering love parallels the emotional formula of a Yellowstone park tour. From very early on, about the mid-1880s, the act of touring Yellowstone was very prescriptive—very carefully staged to evoke certain emotional responses to the landscape in a particular sequence. People did not just go to Yellowstone and wander around. Whether traveling on commercial tours or on their own, tourists visited a series of identified sites—Mammoth Terraces, the Geyser basins, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellowstone’s grand loop road, mirroring very closely the conventions of 19th century park architecture as epitomized in New York City’s Central Park, transported people from site to site in an organized circular pattern.

The tour had an emotional rhythm to it, building from a point of transition between the ordinary world and the extraordinary world of the park to a climax of excitement and inspiration, followed by a denouement in which the tourist prepared to return to the ordinary world. Guide books set out quite explicitly what emotional responses were to be expected at each stop on the tour. In Yellowstone romance novels, the act of touring and the park itself become part of the courtship ritual. Each site within the park took on distinct meanings paralleling the programmatic emotional experience of touring: the portal or point of liminal passage, arenas of confusion and awe, arenas of mastery.

For the sake of time, I’ll describe how this works at just one site, the most important one—the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The climax of any tour of Yellowstone was a visit to the canyon and its spectacular falls. This was so because the canyon most clearly fit the ideal landscape aesthetic of the 19th century—the sublime. In these Yellowstone novels, the romantic climax also comes at the Grand Canyon. It is at the Grand Canyon that the couples reach the most solemn and profound level of love—this is where they realize that they are indeed meant for each other, that their love is spiritual and that they are destined to become one.

Here is the General in Chaperoning Adrienne describing the Grand Canyon: “To-day we saw the culmination of the wonders of Yellowstone National Park. Clasping dear Annabella’s hand we went to the goal. No one spoke. Annabella and I seemed to be cut off from the world, standing on this rock, surely one of God’s thrones. We looked out and over and through the transparent, translucent space—into space filled and glowing with a luminous light reflected from this stupendous gorge. A bird flew fearlessly across the void, and tears came to our eyes. I knew then that dear Annabella was to be mine. Our walk back was very silent.”

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was often compared to Niagara Falls and I think it served a similar cultural purpose, that is as a metaphor for the subordination of sexual passion to the human institution of marriage and for the reconciliation of male and female characters into appropriate marriage roles. As Elizabeth McKinsey has pointed out in her excellent study of Niagara Falls, Victorian-era Americans saw the raw natural energy of the river, contained and controlled by the banks, channeled toward the spectacular effusion of the falls, as a metaphor for the proper channeling of human passion into the spiritually beautiful institution of marriage and, especially, of the ability of marriage to properly contain male sexual energy.

In the Yellowstone novels, this same metaphor appears in several forms. The park’s wildlife, for example, serves as a metaphor for the taming of wildness into the domesticity of marriage. It was often remarked in early tourist literature that Yellowstone’s wildlife was unusually tranquil, docile, and harmonious. In these romance novels, the authors draw a connection between wildlife and the character of romance, courtship, and marriage: like the wild animals of Yellowstone, these novels say, men and women will learn to live together in harmony. The General in Chaperoning Adrienne, to cite one example, comments on the park’s magical power to “make the wild beasts live as the lion and the lamb.” This observation is framed by the General’s description of himself—a former soldier—as a “rugged, old frontier man,” who yearns to have his wildness tamed: “Oh, to hope that I might one day be so tamed by my dear gentle Annabella.”

Well, by the early 1920s, the idea that Yellowstone was a place where a young woman might find a suitable mate had become so commonplace that it was often parodied or turned into a kind of campy in-joke. The eminent nature write, Emerson Hough, in his satirical novel, Maw’s Vacation: The Story of a Human Being in the Yellowstone, plays repeated humorous riffs off the romance theme. The narrator, presumably a tourist himself, spends considerable time observing a group of “sagebrushers”—campers—from Iowa. The party consists of Maw and Paw and two daughters. He is especially attracted to the older daughter, whose fine figure is tantalizingly revealed by the pants she wears.

The narrator makes a pass at the girl, offering to show her around the hot pools, but she is not interested. She prefers, he laments, “the young park ranger—who really is the son of a leading banker—to explain the algae by moonlight.” “The girls seem to be having a sort of good time here,” Maw quips to the disappointed suitor. “You can’t leave a girl alone anywhere’s here, unless she’s taken in by some professor or ranger or guide or cook or chauffer or something, who comes along and carrier her off to show her the bears or Old Faithful or Inspiration Point or something.” He turns his attention to another young tourist. They dance to jazz music at Old Faithful Inn and stroll in the woods to do a little “rotten loggin”—smooching. “There are times,” Stella signs, “out here in these mountains, when I feel as though I were a wild creature.” “My dear,” the narrator responds with enthusiasm, “I do believe you.”

Maw’s Vacation, like the opening sequence in the film, is a parody, but behind its mocking humor you can discern that an important change has taken place. The kind of interaction between men and women that Hough is describing is much more blatant and risqué. Rotten loggin’ is something befitting flappers not Victorians—it’s about the thrill of being naughty not about finding a romantic soul mate. As Victorian conventions of romance gave way in the 1920s to new, “modern” attitudes toward courtship and sex, Yellowstone’s romantic image diminished.

Let me conclude quickly by suggesting to you what significance I find in these novels, and more generally, in the popular image of Yellowstone as a place of romance. First, they suggest the importance of the social dimensions of touring. Yellowstone’s appeal lay not only in the opportunity to interact with nature in ways not available to them in their ordinary lives, but also the opportunity to interact with each other in equally exceptional ways. Second, Yellowstone’s romantic image suggests something that is often forgotten in today’s debates about managing Yellowstone as a wilderness. Once upon a time, for a great many people, Yellowstone represented not wilderness, but the proper taming of wild nature. Tourists enjoyed Yellowstone and valued it as an example or parable for containing nature’s raw energy into socially acceptable forms. I am not suggesting one concept is better than another—the lesson to be learned, and I think it is a most important one, is that how we perceive and value Yellowstone has changed over time. This is what is truly wondrous about Yellowstone. It suits us and our times, just as it suited the Victorians in theirs. And, if we are careful, it will suit our children, too.


Nature, Romance, and Tourism
in Yellowstone National Park


Susan Rhoades Neel
College of Eastern Utah