Kevin Costner’s new four-part docuseries, Yellowstone: One-Fifty (now streaming on Fox’s paid service, Fox Nation) has the best qualities of nature documentaries: a charismatic host, adorable animals, and lush landscapes. Yellowstone: One-Fifty, made in celebration of Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary this year, claims to be rooted in the park’s history. “I started to look into it,” Costner intones in the first episode. “It’s just an amazing story.”
After watching all four episodes of the series, I (a historian of Yellowstone) am also amazed, but not in a good way.
Yellowstone: One-Fifty’s narrative about the founding of the park focuses on the scientist Ferdinand Hayden’s exploration of Yellowstone in the summer of 1871. This attention is sustained throughout the series, and is rooted in historical research. Viewers know this because Costner mentions two journals and ten letters—out of the many more sources the expedition left behind—several times, and quotes from them often.
Despite this use of documents, the historical story the series tells is almost entirely untrue. Yellowstone: One-Fifty creates a “David and Goliath” narrative of the founding of Yellowstone National Park, perfect for people who pay Fox for a premium streaming service that also offers extra Tucker Carlson, a whole bunch of Cops, and history shows anchored by Brian Kilmeade and Mark Fuhrman.
Costner is not just a narrator. He takes an active role in each episode, driving into the park to snowshoe, hike, and cook over a campfire. He wants to “walk in the shadow of the pioneers, following the trail they blazed.” If you watch Paramount’s smash hit series Yellowstone, it won’t be strange for you to see Costner out in the Rocky Mountains in his boots and puffy jackets, stepping out of trucks and waxing contemplative about the landscape. That show, now in its fifth season, tells the story of John Dutton (Costner) and his family, ranchers who have lived in Montana for many generations, running cattle in a ridiculously beautiful valley and defending their land and the Dutton legacy against all comers.
Yellowstone (the show)’s relationship to Yellowstone (the park) is merely geographical—the fictional ranch abuts the park. A developing Season 5 conflict with the park’s wolves aside, the Duttons’ enemies tend to be much more powerful entities than the National Park Service. Despite this, Costner’s appeal as a narrator-host of the docuseries is intimately connected to his role as the conservative reactionary John Dutton.
Costner is much more affable and relaxed, as a screen presence in Yellowstone: One-Fifty, than the permanently miserable Dutton. He makes jokes and tells stories about his childhood in California. Sometimes he turns and makes comments to a cameraman. And while the actor has been open about his more-liberal-than-the-Duttons political beliefs (he says he votes Independent), Costner and John Dutton seem to share a conviction that the fictional and actual West, and all of the pioneers living in it, in the past and the present, are “the little guys,” enraged and beset by Big Capital, Big Government, and, as Costner puts it, other “powerful people who wanted the land for themselves.” It’s a bit shocking to hear these words come out of the actor’s mouth; it felt like John Dutton had taken over the role as host.
Viewers of Yellowstone: One-Fifty will see all of Yellowstone’s iconic sites: the Lower Falls, Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful, the Lamar Valley. The natural and animal footage throughout the series is gorgeous: colorful and vivid. You get to see wolves running in packs, bison snuffling around for grass to eat, and river otters cavorting, because that is what river otters do. The music is melodramatic, full of swelling violins and crashing cymbals.
All episodes contain these traditional nature documentary scenes intercut with segments in which Costner fishes or hikes or sits by a cabin’s roaring fire in a black sweater. Any time the camera comes back to him, you know it’s time for some history. It is the series’ central contention that the U.S. Congress initially sent Hayden’s team to Yellowstone to “tear it to shreds in the name of progress.” But during the expedition, Costner argues, Yellowstone changed Hayden. So he began to lobby for the creation of a national park. “And that’s why it’s still here,” Costner says, staring pensively at glorious, snow-packed mountains.
Like much of the historical content in Yellowstone: One-Fifty, this story has some truth to it. Costner is right that Hayden was not, initially, an environmentalist. He was in the U.S. West, as all federal surveyors were at this time, to determine if white Americans could farm, ranch, or mine the land. But the truth is that Hayden never really became an environmentalist at all. His Yellowstone expedition did convince him that its geothermal region was unique in all the world, and that he needed to return to conduct more scientific studies of it. But he and his team members never indicated in his communications from the field that he believed Yellowstone should become a national park. That idea did not come from him, but from Big Capital.
Jay Cooke, a wealthy investment banker who was heading up the financing of the Northern Pacific Railroad, had his PR man write to Hayden just as the scientist was returning home from Yellowstone. Cooke had been discussing the Hayden expedition with a political ally and had a suggestion: “Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever.” If Hayden agreed this was a good idea, the letter said, perhaps it would be appropriate for the scientist to mention it in his official report of the survey.
America’s “best idea,” therefore, was not, as Costner says in Episode 3 (“Rebirth”), “a battle between the regular guy against the impossibly huge behemoth that is the United States Government.” The idea came from a businessman who wanted to bring tourists to the region. And Hayden was more than happy to lobby for it; a preserved Yellowstone would provide him with a scientific laboratory in perpetuity.
Yellowstone: One-Fifty sidesteps the truth, which is that Hayden’s survey was an unabashedly federal project. He had Congressional funding and orders from the Department of the Interior. He and his team took the transcontinental railroad (the existence of which was the end result of another federal project) to Utah to begin the survey. He had a 2nd Cavalry protective detail out of Fort Ellis (a federal installation). His Yellowstone survey report was printed and distributed by the Government Printing Office.
And then there was the passage of the Yellowstone Act itself. The legislators who voted against it were conservatives, long-standing Democrats (the parties were flipped back then, remember) who objected to the Act’s federal overreach, and to what they saw as its violation of white settler land rights. Costner doesn’t mention the vote at all, or why Hayden was able to lobby Congress so successfully for the passage of the Act. Most liberal Republicans were already in favor of it. They had voted to give Hayden money to explore Yellowstone, and some of them had sent their sons along to work as expedition assistants.
This is not a narrative that would appeal to a Fox Nation audience, of course. Viewers who pay for Fox’s streaming channel want to gaze in wonder at the Lower Falls and Mammoth Hot Springs, but they don’t want to admit that they are able to do so because the American federal government has actually done some amazing, world-changing things in its long history. They would much rather believe the fictitious story that Yellowstone: One-Fifty sells, about Hayden single-handedly fighting the powers that be and winning one for the common man.
Although Taylor Sheridan, Yellowstone’s creator, had nothing to do with this project, this docuseries, along with the Sheridan shows 1883 and the forthcoming 1923, belong in something my friend Ben Railton has called the “Yellowstone Cinematic Universe.” They are modern westerns, shows that present people in the market for such a thing with a comforting view of a valiant white settler past in the U.S. West. Although these shows often give voice to Indigenous characters, they nonetheless allow people with a conservative bent to claim the pioneer myth (and its related historical uber-narratives, the American Dream and Westward Expansion) for themselves.
As a historian, I have come to expect that shady history undergirds many (most?) TV shows and films. But for a docuseries like Yellowstone: One-Fifty to make such bold historical claims while mixing them with a few actually true facts is insidious. I’m not the first to hope that perhaps Americans of all political affiliations could come together in a place like Yellowstone. That maybe if everyone understood the park’s actual history, our collective experience there would be enriched. But Fox, true to form, has brought the culture wars to Yellowstone. And I’m not sure that even the cutest of river otters can extricate us from it.