The American West: That Time Rudyard Kipling Came To Yellowstone And Wasn’t Impressed

Rudyard Kipling was in a foul and despicable mood when his editor sent him to visit America. He was not impressed with the American West. "Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead," he wrote.

Terry A. Del Bene

June 22, 20249 min read

When Rudyard Kipling visited Yellowstone National Park, he wasn't impressed, writing that, "Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead."
When Rudyard Kipling visited Yellowstone National Park, he wasn't impressed, writing that, "Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead." (Getty Images)

“Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead.”

Rudyard Kipling was one of the most prolific and successful of British writers. His writings included many classics like “The Jungle Book,” “The Second Jungle Book,” “Kim,” “Gunga Din,” “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Just So Stories.”

In 1889, Rudyard Kipling’s prolific writing career was in a pinch of trouble. His sarcastic writings in the Allahabad Pioneer insulted several high officials in India.

To allow matters to cool off, Kipling was sent to America by his editor. Thus began a whirlwind visit to many of America’s cities and attractions.

Kipling’s often acerbic pen described his impressions of lifestyles, politics, people, places and the difficulties of traveling.

Though born in Bombay (Mumbai), India, his travel commentary was very much that of a Londoner of the times. His recollections are preserved in a series of letters and his book “American Notes” (1891) somewhat of an echo of Charles Dickens’ “American Notes” (1842). There were hints in both of members of the world’s most powerful empire looking in on their wayward children.

In July 1889, Kipling was traveling dusty roads through the sparsely settled territory of Montana a few months short of its admission as the 41st state.

Rustic travel was wearing thin upon him, and Yellowstone National Park was going to have a difficult time winning the writer over.

A Chorus Like Coyotes

Kipling described Livingston, Montana, as a one-street town that exhausted its total offerings in 10 minutes. When he rested upon a patch of grass, he was pierced by long spines of cacti hidden within.

The pain inflicted did not improve his mood. He pronounced the entire territory as “bad.”

There was more to come.

A herd of 300 horses were driven through town by two cowboys yelling, “Yow! Yow! Yow! … in a chorus like coyotes.” Kipling was taken aback as the cowboys drove their herd within 20 feet of him. The cowboys rudely asked “what in hell” he was doing there.

Kipling watched the preparations for celebrating the upcoming Independence Day, a commemoration many Englishmen saw little sense in celebrating.

Townsfolk placed American flags everywhere. A drunk celebrated by firing a Winchester in the streets. The local paper wrote that Livingston’s inhabitants, “Were the best, finest, bravest, richest and most progressive town of the most progressive nation under Heaven …”

Kipling was taken aback that guns were as common among the Montanans as walking sticks were elsewhere.

He commented that Livingston was a “grubby hamlet,” and its citizens were incapable of conversation without recourse to unbridled cussing.

A Night With Yankee Jim

Kipling had enough of Livingston and soon was headed to Yellowstone.

He stayed the night at the ranch of Yankee Jim, a colorful character who had lived in the area for decades. Yankee Jim and Kipling had a verbal tournament of spinning tall tales and outright lies with one another.

Yankee Jim’s numerous scars, related to his adventures of combat with Indians, were helpful in settling the outcome.

Kipling had to admit the old man had the best of the contest.

They fished in the Yellowstone River and Kipling caught 40 fish in about two hours, at which point he stopped counting. Though the fish were small, under 2 pounds, the Englishman was satisfied with the success.

That night he feasted on the fish prepared by the “Diana of the Crossways.” Kipling had good things to say about Yankee Jim, Diana, and her husband.

Not Impressed

The next stop was Cinnabar Station, where he was chagrinned to find he was among one of Mr. Rayment’s Yellowstone Park excursions the customers of which were characterized by Kipling as “a crowd of creator-condemned fools.” Mr. Rayment offered tours for well-to-do visitors from the American East.

Kipling’s cutting prose had little good to say about Rayment’s collection of “… masses of Down-Easters from the New England States and elsewhere. … It is not the ghastly vulgarity, the oozing, rampant Bessemer steel self-sufficiency and ignorance of the men that revolts me, so much as the display of these same qualities in the womenfolk.”

It is little surprise that he chose to ride atop the coach to minimize contact with the company within.

Things did not work out so well in this new arrangement. The seating was so hot atop the coach Kipling nearly passed out. He was joined atop of the coach by a young German man who rankled Kiplng by effusively praising the United States.

A clever change of subject by Kipling to British politics was even less satisfying. At that point, he ignored his unwanted companion and soon the road that overhung a 60-foot drop into the Gardner River took his full attention.

The skill of the driver was mesmerizing. Chatter from within the coach about the “elegant scenery” annoyed Kipling sufficiently that he speculated that it might be worth his own death in an accident to rid the world of those prominent citizens. The driver, no doubt, had a different opinion.

A Day Of ‘Patriotic Exercises’

The coach finally arrived at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.

Kipling commented, “The tourists — may Rayment their master die an evil death by the hand of a mad locomotive — poured into that place with a joyful whoop, and scarce washing the dust from themselves began to celebrate the 4th of July. They called it ‘patriotic exercises’: elected a clergyman of their own faith as President, and sitting, on the landing of the first floor, began to make speeches and read the Declaration of Independence. The clergyman rose up and told them they were the greatest, freest, sublimest, most chivalrous and richest people on the face of the earth, and they all said Amen.”

Of all the days for a proud Englishman to be in America’s first national park, the Fourth of July was the worst of choices.

His stop in Livingston was only the warmup. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel guests sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” Both tunes were from British songs (“To Anacreon in Heaven” and “God Save the Queen,” respectively) with American lyrics. Kipling was incensed that the Americans did not stand when the tune of “God Save the Queen” was played. The song “John Brown’s Body” in his ears was “doggerel.”

Making matters worse was that the fireworks were feeble, hardly fitting for a proper celebration.

‘Smelled Of The Refuse’

To top it off, a stranger approached Kipling and inquired about whether the young Englishman intended to become an American citizen. This was insulting on several levels and Kipling put the man in his place. The Yellowstone National Park visit was off to a bad start in convincing this visiting writer of the charms it held.

“The places smelled of the refuse of the pit, and that odor mixed with the clean, wholesome aroma of the pines in our nostrils throughout the day.”

Having survived the ordeal of America’s Independence Day celebration, Kipling took a buggy ride through the park with an elderly couple from Chicago. Since these two viewed the park as “ungodly,” they were kindred spirits for someone predisposed to find little to approve of in this America nightmare.

Perhaps they had a hand in Kipling’s choices of adjectives that paint the park as a hellscape of “infernal waters” with “grottoes and caves of beryl into an abyss that communicated directly with the central fires of Earth.”

He described a pool as being in pain “muttering and chattering and moaning,” “uplands of Hell,” “Tophet” (a place where children were passed through a fire), horrors such as a mud volcano that “spat filth up to Heaven,” a “shore where the mud and Sulphur and nameless fat ooze-vegetation of Lethe lay,” places where “devils threw mud at each other,” and “Hell’s Halfacre.”

He envisioned small geysers as belonging to goblins splashing in their bathtubs.

He Liked The Soldiers, Though

Not everything was the handiwork of Satan. Kipling took a liking to the soldiers who served as the park’s first rangers. They were helpful in pointing out places to see. He was astounded to hear how their main function was to keep visitors from vandalizing the features, including throwing barrels of soap and other items into geysers.

The soldiers also helped to build roads. While he admired the soldiers and thought Americans treated their military abysmally, Rudyard was quick to point how the Americans fell far short of European military standards in bearing, training, equipment and their mounts.

The Englishman was impressed by “real cowboys” who passed through his camp. He was firm in his opinion that they never washed. “But they were picturesque ruffians, exceedingly, with long spurs, hooded stirrups, slouch hats, fur weather-cloth (woolies) over their knees, and pistol-butts just easy to hand.”

These colorful characters were reputed to be accurate shots with those pistols within a distance of 100 yards. He heard the cowboys frequented military posts in the winter to play poker. Kipling was told that strong drink was used to reduce the playing skills of the cowboys who otherwise showed great skill at cards, occasionally relieving the soldiers of all their wages.

The Magic Of Yellowstone

As Kipling continued his tour of the park he met with visitors from many places. Most fared poorly in his view, but then a miracle happened.

It was “by the light of the eyes of the maiden from New Hampshire” that the magic of Yellowstone Park unfolded for him. In her company he found himself marveling like a child at what he saw. Suddenly adjectives like “wonderous” and effusive descriptions of color replace the previous sulphureous descriptions.

“Now I know what it is to sit enthroned amid the clouds of sunset as the spirits sit in Blakes pictures. Giddiness took away all sensation of touch or form, but the sense of blinding color remained."

At the end of his journey, which started as a descent into hell, he wondered why he had never come to this amazing place before.

With an assist from a New Hampshire beauty, Yellowstone National Park had won.

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Terry A. Del Bene