Last updated: April 10, 2015
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.
What we do know is that the genesis of Catlin's idea began in what is today a National Park unit. One that still contains the dramatic, yet subtle beauty that romanced Catlin's fertile imagination. In 1831 Catlin traveled up the Missouri River on the steamboat Yellowstone. He was enchanted by the wildness of the landscape, the vast grand spaces, unmarred by the type of development that he had witnessed in his native Pennsylvania. Yet he also knew that the frontier would eventually be subdued by commercial interests. Catlin was a visionary who wanted to preserve some of the wildness that was life on the Great Plains. It was this instinct for preservation that made him one of, if not the, first to see that this way of life along with the natural landscape was worth preserving. One of the main catalysts for moving his thoughts in this direction was the area that is today the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR).
For those who want to reconnect the MNRR with Catlin’s vision there are both words and illustrations to document his fascination with the Middle Missouri and its adjacent landscape. Catlin’s words as expressed in his Letters and Notes, Volume 1 paint a picture that can still be experienced today, especially along the 39 mile district of the MNRR between Fort Randall and Running Water, South Dakota. He states:
“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:
It is both a proud and humbling thought to identify the MNRR with the very genesis of the National Park idea. In essence, to know that the two stretches of the Missouri which make up the MNRR played a vital role in the development of what has been called America’s Best idea. It is also something of a stroke of historic luck that this was done before the Missouri would become completely altered by human engineering. Approximately, a century and a half after Catlin made his trip citizens had the vision to protect what is today the MNRR. This was precisely due to the fact that these sections of North America's longest waterway contained vital remnants of the pre-development Missouri River.
Now, it is one thing for us to experience Catlin through his words and paintings, but the ultimate experience is to visit a stretch of the MNRR by boat or peer down from one of the overlooks. We can become immersed in a place that is still relatively wild. An untamed landscape which allows us to look back into the past and gain a reverence for the natural beauty that is still inherent in this landscape. Some of this landscape, even today, bears a resemblance to the artistic representations of it created by Catlin. The National Park Idea has helped save it for us to enjoy and revere. To do anything less would be a discredit to Catlin and the National Park concept.