Heart of the Matter– The MNRR & The Beginning Of The National Park Idea
September 02, 2013
In the first chapter of the companion book to Ken Burns' PBS documentary series America’s Best Idea: A History of the National Parks the story of the very beginnings of the National Park idea is told. A few paragraphs in the chapter tell how the artist and ethnographer, George Catlin, first came up with the concept of a National Park while traveling on the Great Plains. It directly quotes from a letter of Catlin's which was printed in a newspaper: “A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty. I would ask no other monument to my memory, nor any other enrollment of my name amongst the famous dead, than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution."From this statement, written in the early 1830's, the first seeds of the National Park idea sprouted. Over 180 years after Catlin put this idea into words, the National Parks in our nation have grown to encompass 401 diverse units that protect a grand cross section of the United States natural beauty and cultural history. Would Catlin have ever thought his idea would attain such dizzying heights? We will never know.
“The summit level of the great prairies stretching off to the west and the east from the river, to an almost boundless extent, is from two to three hundred feet above the level of the river; which has formed a bed or valley for its course, varying in width from two to twenty miles. This channel or valley has been evidently produced by the force of the current, which has gradually excavated, in its floods and gorges, this immense space, and sent its debris into the ocean. By the continual overflowing of the river, its deposits have been lodged and left with a horizontal surface, spreading the deepest and richest alluvion over the surface of its meadows on either side; through which the river winds its serpentine course, alternately running from one bluff to the other, which present themselves to its shores in all the most picturesque and beautiful shapes and colours imaginable—some with their green sides gracefully slope down in the most lovely groups to the water's edge” (Letters and Notes, vol. 1, p. 19, pl. 5).
Then there is the Catlin painting, Beautiful Prairie Bluffs above the Poncas, 1050 Miles Above St. Louis, 1832, which bears a striking likeness to present day scenic vistas in and along the MNRR (albeit without much more timber covering the hillsides). It can be seen at this link:
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Did You Know?
Yankton, on the Missouri River, was the first capital of the Dakota Territory. This area included the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Idaho and Nebraska.