December 22, 2020

Discovering the Secrets of Wonderland

Regina Scott

I love research. I love delving deep into history to discover interesting tidbits about how people lived, worked, worshipped, entertained themselves, fell in love, married, and raised their children. The information I gather helps me flesh out my characters, bolster my plot, and bring settings to life. And I never know when one of those tidbits is going to spark a new story entirely!

Such was the case for my October 2020 release, Nothing Short of Wondrous, the second in my American Wonders Collection. The novels are all set in the history surrounding our national parks.

I was researching information on the Army Corps of Engineers and their survey crews for my 2019 release, A Distance Too Grand, set in 1873 Arizona Territory. The characters in that book undertake the first Army survey of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. U.S. Cavalry officers often accompanied these surveys for protection. One line in a research book tantalized me.

“The U.S. Cavalry was also called in to manage Yellowstone National Park.”


So, I dug some more. Yellowstone National Park was our first national park. There was nothing like it in any other nation at that time either. So, our leaders in Washington, D.C., weren’t too sure how to manage it. They knew it must be protected so that future generations would be able to enjoy its splendors too. But the first superintendent of the park attempted to manage the millions of acres from across the country.

That did not go well.

Subsequent superintendents moved out West but also struggled to find ways to protect land spread so far and wide and so varied: mountains, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and the amazing thermal features for which the park is famous. By 1886, vandals were carving their names in the formations. Poachers were killing game in the park or starting wildfires that drove the animals beyond the boundaries, where they could be killed with impunity. Even well-meaning visitors broke off pieces of the geysers to take away as souvenirs.

Enter Troop M of the 1st U.S. Cavalry. On the direction of Congress, they rode into Yellowstone in August 1886, determined to protect and defend the area the public was coming to know as Wonderland. I discovered the reports of Captain Moses Harris, the first commanding officer, available online. They make for fascinating reading. Through them, I learned the kinds of structures built to accommodate the cavalrymen, how Harris organized them to cover so large a territory, and the problems they encountered along the way.

Including the fact that the first snow fell in September that year, right in the middle of my story. You can bet I worked that into the story!

Yellowstone National Park also has its own Heritage and Research Center, and many of its treasures are digitized, giving me more insight into how park tourism and hotels were managed in those early days. I also located the e-mail address of the park historian, who graciously answered my nitpicky questions about how visitors were fed when there was no hunting in the park (the “meat wagon” came through from outside the park on the regular basis!) and how the early tour companies functioned (one driver, one group of tourists, together for days). The National Park Service even has a digitized set of recordings, so you can hear what geysers and mud pots sound like. I’d visited Yellowstone in the past, but reminders of what it’s like to tour Wonderland only whet my appetite to go again.

Ah, research! Nothing like it to discover the secrets of your story.

 Regina Scott is the author of more than 50 works of warm, witty historical romance, including A Distance Too Grand. Her writing has won praise from Booklist and Library Journal, and she was twice awarded the prestigious RT Book Reviews best book of the year in her category. A devotee of history, she has learned to fence, driven four-in-hand, and sailed on a tall ship, all in the name of research. She and her husband of 30 years live south of Tacoma, Washington, on the way to Mt. Ranier.

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  1. I love research! And what you've found is fascinating! Thanks for the post.

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