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Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea

Rolf Diamant and Ethan Carr, Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea (Amherst, MA: Library of American Landscape History, 2022)

Both Central Park in New York and Yosemite Valley in California became public parks during the tumultuous years before and during the Civil War. Rolf Diamant and Ethan Carr demonstrate how anti-slavery activism, war, and the remaking of the federal government gave rise to the American public park. The authors closely examine Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1865 Yosemite Report—the key document that expresses the aspirational vision of making great public parks keystone institutions of a renewed liberal democracy. Yosemite, the prototype of the national park system, embodied the “new birth of freedom” that inspired the nation during its greatest crisis. The park epitomized the duty of Republican government to act to enhance the lives and well-being of all of its citizens, and its creation was rooted in contemporary ideology of Union, abolition, and progress.

A consistent thread runs through the apparently disparate events of anti-slavery activism, the war effort, and the creation of urban and national parks: the life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted. His Yosemite Report (reprinted in this volume), provided the intellectual framework for a national park system. Olmsted’s influence lived on, when his son and namesake drafted the key portions of the 1916 legislation that created the National Park Service. The goals and purposes of national parks he described were based on the ideas and aspirations his father had expressed fifty years earlier.

But Olmsted’s role in national park history has been deemphasized since then. The early twentieth century was a period of “reconciliation” between North and South—and of Jim Crow restrictions and segregation. The National Park Service sought more neutral and anodyne narratives explaining the “national park idea.” Associating national parks with the ideology and politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction apparently did not serve the young agency seeking to build a national coalition of park supporters and their elected representatives some from the South). The official origins of the national parks were therefore mythologized as “campfire tales.” The first was the story of an 1870 campfire in Yellowstone—an event that never took place—during which a visiting group of scientists and businessmen were supposed to have spontaneously declared that the region should be made a national park. By the 1970s that account became factually insupportable, and the story was replaced by that of another campfire (this one at least did occur) in Yosemite in 1903, during which Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir discussed the future of public lands, generally, and of Yosemite Valley in particular. But while these two figures are giants in the history of American conservation, neither thought up the idea of national parks or the National Park Service.

This book offers a new interpretation of how the American park—urban and national—came to loom so large in the national imagination. It comes at an important time, following the centennial of the National Park Service, and during a period of reassessment of the tortured national legacy of racism.

Presenters’ Bios

Rolf Diamant

Rolf Diamant is adjunct associate professor in the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Program . A landscape architect and historian, Rolf was a Beatrix Farrand Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Loeb Fellow in Advanced Environmental Studies at Harvard University. In his previous career with the National Park Service, Rolf was a planner, resource manager and park superintendent. A believer in expanding the national park system in new directions, Rolf worked on the development of a variety of new areas including urban national parks, national heritage areas and partnership-based wild and scenic rivers. As superintendent of Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, he organized a multi-year initiative to conserve and open-up the Olmsted Archives and was deeply involved with the launch of the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. He currently writes about the history of national parks and their impact on American society. He is coeditor and contributing author of A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks and his column on the complexities and challenges associated with national parks regularly appears in the University of California’s journal Parks Stewardship Forum.

Ethan Carr

Ethan Carr, Phd, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture and the director of the Master’s of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is a landscape historian and preservationist specializing in public landscapes. Three of his award-winning books, Wilderness by Design (1998), Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (2007), and The Greatest Beach, a History of the Cape Cod National Seashore (2019) describe the twentieth-century history of planning and design in the U.S. national park system as a context for considering its future. Carr was the lead editor for The Early Boston Years, 1882-1890, Volume 8 of the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted (2013). Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea (2022) was co-written with Rolf Diamant and traces the origins of the American park movement. His latest book, Boston’s Franklin Park: Olmsted, Recreation, and the Modern City (2023) reconsiders the history of this landmark urban park. Carr consults with landscape architecture firms developing plans and designs for historic parks of all types.

Part of a series of articles titled Olmsteds: Landscapes and Legacies.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Last updated: January 12, 2022