On June 30 1864, in the midst of a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln signed “An Act authorizing a Grant to the State of California of the Yo-Semite Valley, and of the Land embracing the Mariposa Big Tree Grove.” For the first time, ideological values implicit in the setting aside of land for public recreation and enjoyment had been given priority over the potential for material and financial advancement. Eight years later, in 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park (the federal government was required to take control of the park, as Wyoming was then only a territory, rather than a state). These unprecedented acts of wilderness preservation laid the foundations for a now global model of national park creation. Everyone who today enjoys the natural wonders of the world owes such enjoyment to these preservation efforts in the early United States.
The artist George Catlin (1796-1872) is widely credited as being the first prominent spokesperson to propose national parks in the 1830s. Over thirty years before the Yosemite State Park Grant, Catlin advocated for a “nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty,” to be accomplished by “some great protecting policy of government.” For Catlin, the park would be a “specimen” for America to “hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages!” In summary, a national park could become a vital source of national pride.
Lecture by the historian Roderick Nash on the “Meaning of Wilderness” in the United States:
Americans endured ridicule on many fronts following the rampant commercial exploitation of Niagara Falls. The first words of Alexander De Tocqueville’s Democracy in Americastated, “North America has striking geographical features which can be appreciated at first glance” and noted the “simple majesty of their design.” He bemoaned the failure to properly protect such wonders: “I don’t give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract [Niagara].” In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States government failed to preserve potential sources of national pride and identity in the East. Some individuals began searching for a new national icon to deflect derogatory British observations about America’s lack of culture and “civilization.” This laid the groundwork for a more focused and ultimately more successful effort in the West, culminating in the creation of national parks.
The official wording of the Congressional acts described each of the proposed parks as a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” “An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park,” U.S. Statutes at Large vol. 17, 32-33; “An act to set apart a certain tract of land in the State of California as a public park,” U.S. Statutes at Large vol. 26, 478; “An Act authorizing a Grant to the State of California of the Yo-Semite Valley, and of the Land embracing the Mariposa Big Tree Grove,” U.S. Statutes at Large. Specifically, there were three main principles upon which National Parks were built: cultural arguments based on comparisons with Europe; the desire to preserve only the most “wonderful” and curious natural features; and the necessity of proving the material worthlessness of the land and its unsuitability for other potentially more profitable purposes. Each nineteenth century park conformed to this three-component model, and contained essential similarities that conclusively explain how and why preservation of natural areas occurred.
The origins and continuing success of the National Parks has been the subject of a recent documentary series, National Parks: America’s Best Idea, produced by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (recently interviewed by US History Scene).
Extended preview of the PBS series
Dayton Duncan discussing the creation of National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
New World Nature and Old World History: Comparisons with Europe
Warren Baer, editor of the Mariposa Democrat, published the first detailed and extensive account of the Yosemite Valley in 1856. He bemoaned the desire of the American traveller to obtain a sight of the Alps of Switzerland or valleys of Italy, many of which “possess no wonderful attributes of greatness, save in the mind of the traveler, that will compare with the scenery, separately or in whole, of the Yosemite Valley.”
Similarly, James Hutchings, a failed businessman who had entered the publishing industry and led one of the earliest expeditions to Yosemite, wrote in a travel guide that the “Bridal-Veil” fall in Yosemite “leaps out of a smoother channel, in a clear, symmetrical arch of indescribable beauty; has a larger body of water, and is surrounded by far loftier and grander precipices” than the Staubbach fall in the Swiss Alps. This explication of the ways in which the Yosemite Fall was superior to its famous European counterpart demonstrates that the aim of much of this literature was to express the ways in which America’s nature could compete with and surpass European equivalents. Nowhere was this clearer than in a letter in The Times in 1869, in which the English author said of Yosemite: “All the Americans I have seen are very proud of it, and some less well informed than the rest have been almost offended at my saying that much grander mountain views could be found in the Alps.” Promotional materials for the early parks emphasized that, by travelling to these Western natural sites, Americans would be honouring the pioneering experiences of the early frontiersmen. Visitors could engage with the uniquely American history of westward expansion, and in doing so could achieve some physical and spiritual freedom.
While the political implications of this desire to match the famous grandeur of Europe’s art and nature through the newly discovered wonders in Yosemite are difficult to prove, the volume of literature that stresses the comparison between the two continents indicates that it was of no small significance. Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York’s Central Park) – one of the first people to suggest that natural scenes were favourable in securing the “health,” “vigor,” and “happiness” of men – directly criticized the system in England whereby wealthy land owners created private parks solely for the enjoyment of their own families. For Olmsted, such a system represented a “monopoly” in which the vast majority of the population, including those who would gain most from a period of recreation, were excluded from the physical and psychological benefits offered by such parks. Yosemite Park was to be a cultural asset superior to anything in Europe, and a conspicuous example of American democratization.
Olmsted’s argument is evident in a widely repeated incident from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, to which part of a fallen Sequoia tree (the General Noble Tree) had been sent in order to demonstrate its immense size.
The rejection of the existence of such a tree by many of the visiting English patrons became a ground for dispute for supporters of the Yosemite Park idea, and later became a useful tool to strengthen cultural arguments for preservation. One recital of the incident recalled how one Englishman, after being repeatedly assured by the American “gentlemen” who had transported the tree to Chicago that the object was real, “gave one look of rage at our honest-eyed friend, and bolted from the neighbourhood.” The incident did not only appear in much of the Yosemite literature, but was also repeated by Senator Conness during the longest of the debates on the passing of the park bill: “The English who saw it [the tree] declared it to be a Yankee invention” and thought that “it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country.” What may at once have been deemed a trivial incident later became considered worthy of repeated recitation in an effort to justify the preservation of the trees through the creation of the park.
Age estimates of the park’s trees became another means of comparison with Europe. Many publications, stressing the unique physical attributes of the Yosemite region, highlighted the possibility that the United States possessed trees that out-dated many of Europe’s ancient spectacles. Thomas King, a noted political orator during the Civil War, described how one member of a travelling party to the Sierras believed that “the oldest of these trees were of substantial size when David danced before the Ark, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when Aeneas fled from the burning wreck of Troy.” Such comparative thinking entered the official discussions on the park’s creation; one of the first questions to be asked of Senator Conness concerning the trees was, simply, “How old?”
These comparisons played an equally vital role in the creation of Yellowstone Park as it had for Yosemite, influencing both press coverage and official documentation. A report from the Committee on Public Lands was used as a basis for the initial presentation and discussion of the bill. The report observed, “all these springs are adorned with decorations more beautiful than human art ever conceived, and which have required thousands of years for the cunning hand of nature to form,” and that “the geysers of Iceland sink into insignificance in comparison with the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole Basins.” There are detailed similarities between 1872 and 1864 in terms of an emphasis on the superiority of American natural wonders. More specifically, this illustrates a continuation of the desire to not only highlight superior physical attributes, but also the age of the natural features.
The Chicago Tribune, citing a report of the Yellowstone Expedition in 1870, stated that those in the field were “satisfied this wonderful region … needs to become known to attract as much attention as any other on the face of the globe.” The St. Paul Daily Press similarly stressed the extent to which the United States was setting a global precedent: “such a grand national park [Yellowstone] in the heart of the continent, is one of those conceptions that is purely American in their magnificence.” The very fact that, within twenty-one years of the creation of Yellowstone, six other countries had designated lands as national parks or equivalent reserves reinforces this point that the United States had constructed a model for the rest of the developed world to follow.
Preservation of the Wonderful
Whereas the wonders of Yosemite were effectively advertised by authors and artists, like King, Greeley, Horace, and Watkins, the natural landmarks of the Yellowstone region were brought to a wider audience mainly through published accounts of two expeditions: the 1870 Langford-Washburn expedition, and the 1871 Hayden expedition. These accounts primarily described the physical attributes of specific natural phenomena, especially concentrating on the uniqueness of the many geysers in the region. Langford, in particularly emotive language, suggested, “the springs themselves were as diabolical in appearance as the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth, and needed but the presence of Hecate and her weird band to realize that horrible creation of poetic fancy.”
The findings of Professor Hayden’s expeditions into the Yellowstone region were reproduced in the illustrated magazine Scribner’s Monthly, where Hayden wrote about the wonders of the area and the necessity of park legislation. Of the Yellowstone Mountains, he noted, “several members of the party, who were familiar with the mountains of Central Europe, were struck at once with the resemblance to the Alps.” The establishment of these parks necessarily included recognition of the pioneering exploration that had uncovered America’s natural wonders. These expeditions, like that of Lewis and Clarke, were evidence not only of American bravery and of the pioneering spirit, but also served as a timely reminder of the huge scale of the American nation. The discovery of wonderful, unique natural phenomena in the darkest recesses of the country created an aura of mystery and wonder.
The increasing use of the natural world as a subject for artistic expression facilitated this cultural transition. Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, in particular, painted and disseminated images of America’s wilderness, in which man was subservient to his awesome surroundings. Such images conformed to the mid-nineteenth century growth of transcendentalism. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau reinterpreted the role of nature by suggesting that, in order to become closer to God, one must embrace his natural creations. By preserving God’s greatest creations in perpetuity, for all Americans to enjoy, the creators of the national parks ensured the spiritual well-being of those willing to embrace the wilderness.
Unsurprisingly, not all motivations for the creation of national parks were purely ideological.
In contrast to the passing of the 1864 bill, proposed legislation for Yellowstone encountered real opposition within Congress. The resulting debates highlight the importance of the “worthless land” component of the park model. Much of the opposition to the park bills in Congress was based on an unwillingness to close off areas of land from private enterprise. Park promoters would be required to emphasize that the parks would not cause financial loss and would be self-funding.
The first of these debates involved Senator Cameron, who questioned the “necessity” of the federal government owning such a large tract of land, especially as the proposed park was to be “several times larger than the district of Colombia.” The second debate included the most outspoken opposition to the establishment of public parks at any point in the nineteenth century. Senator Cole of California criticised the legislation based on a two main issues: “I cannot see how the natural curiosities can be interfered with if settlers are allowed to approach them;” “If it cannot be occupied by man, why protect it from occupation?” Senator Trumbull’s answered that federal ownership was necessary in order to prevent an opportunistic group of people planting themselves “across the only path that leads to these wonders, and charge every man that passes along…”
In both debates, defenders of the park bill cited the findings of the Hayden report that indicated the unsuitability of the parklands for agricultural or arable purposes. The altitude of the land meant that it was not available for private occupation, hence the setting aside of the land would inflict no damage on any material interests. The new phenomena of large public parks were tolerated only after the satisfactory appeasement of economic, as well as ideological and environmental, interests.
Despite these economic caveats, the early stages of the national parks system have retained a legacy of romantic cultural thought, grounded in the democratic ideal of making the greatest of America’s wilderness available to all. As a young country, the United States is rarely able to claim to have first discovered or established specific cultural principles. National parks are a notable exception. Now a global institution, the preservation of some of the world’s most unique natural wonders can truly claim to be “America’s Best Idea.” Marrying cultural and social concepts, it represented an antidote to nineteenth century American regionalism. Although primarily located in the West, these natural phenomena belonged to all Americans.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for Environmental History