Saved Our National Parks
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 1:
The Genesis of an Idea

CITIZENS OF BABYLON, Greece, and Rome set aside parks, and the development of formal gardens was revived during the Renaissance. The idea of preserving tracts of land for recreation and pleasure gained force in feudal England when the nobility began using forests as a source of game as well as timber, and later the townspeople instigated the practice of segregating a section of a township for the use of all residents in "common." This custom was transported across the Atlantic by the earliest English colonists, and though surrounded by forests and unsettled land, they, too, formed their town commons, small plots of uncultivated land set amid the villages and tilled fields. Such areas were originally established for common pasturage, but eventually their recreational values became apparent and many exist today in the form of city parks.

The early settlers of this country made some attempts to preserve lands solely for recreation. A few early laws were designed to prevent the wanton killing of game and the wasteful cutting of timber, but these were atypical. Before man could convince himself of the propriety of preserving nature, he had first to change his attitude toward nature itself. [1] This was accomplished in part through the efforts of poets, writers, and artists.

Readers of Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth imbibed their romantic view of nature. Influenced by both the Romantic mood and the English poets, William Cullen Bryant eulogized the American landscape and praised nature for its aesthetic, not economic, value. In 1823 the publication of James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers gave the American public a new approach to nature through an unsentimental yet accurate description of the world of the woods. Cooper made disparaging remarks about the wasteful ways of the white man, condemned the wanton destruction of the pigeon, the bass, and the tree, and subtly warned that some elements of nature should be saved for future generations lest a desolate landscape be their legacy. Though neither Bryant nor Cooper directly advocated the setting aside of wilderness preserves, both influenced public opinion and directed thoughts toward the household of nature. [2]

map of Yellowstone NP
Map of Yellowstone National Park.

George Catlin, the noted artist, explorer, and admirer of the Plains Indian, had, after a visit to the Indian country of the upper Missouri in 1832, written a series of letters describing what he had seen. In one of these letters, first published in the New York Daily Commercial Advertiser the following year, Catlin foresaw the probable extinction of both buffalo and Indian and, alluding to that area of unsettled land which extended "from the province of Mexico to Lake Winnepeg," proposed that these regions

might in future be seen, (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wilderness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty. [3]

Among other things, Catlin wrote that park land could be preserved "without detriment to the country" since these areas were "uniformly sterile, and of no available use to cultivating man." [4] The artist desired "no other monument" to his memory "than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution." Thus, some forty years before Congress was willing to accept the idea, Catlin advocated the setting aside of land for its inherent aesthetic values.

Catlin's was not the only voice advocating preservation. After outlining a philosophy of nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended that "The interminable forests should become graceful parks, for use and delight. . . ." Later, Henry David Thoreau enthralled Americans with his Walden and in "Chesuncook," published in the Atlantic Monthly, he questioned:

Why should not we . . . have our national preserves . . . in which the bear and panther and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be 'civilized off the face of the earth' . . . for inspiration and our true re-creation? Or should we, like villains, grub them all up for poaching on our own national domains? [5]

Artists, also, were showing Americans the glories of nature in their land. Landscape painting, before 1800, was almost nonexistent in this country; the majority of practicing artists devoted themselves almost entirely to historical paintings or to portraits of the rich and famous. But even as Cooper and Bryant were describing the great out-of-doors in verse and prose, a new movement was taking shape in painting. The first exploratory steps were made by Washington Allston, John Trumbull, and John Vanderlyn, but only after the successful showing of Thomas Cole's paintings in 1825 did the public become interested in the paintings of what was later known as the Hudson River School. Under Cole's leadership the American artist looked to the great falls of the Niagara, the hills of New England, and eventually to the majestic mountains of the West for inspiration. Cole, though he had never seen the Western plains and mountains, realized that "Americans have a strong desire for excellence . . . a love of nature" and, recognizing that even then such wilderness was passing away, he called attention to the "necessity of saving and perpetuating its features." [6]

Prompted by such writing and painting, townspeople began to venture forth into the country. Camping parties became fashionable for the more sturdy; vacations in the newly established mountain resorts or weekends at the seashore became the vogue. But the summer migration to the Eastern seaboard and to the cool forests of the North only moved the congestion of the city to such previously tranquil areas as Saratoga, White Sulphur Springs, the Adirondacks, Madison-on-Lakes, Nahant, Newport, Appledore, Mount Desert, and Mount Holyoke. It may even have seemed to some that there was not enough country to go around. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the development of other railroad lines west of the Mississippi River, prompted promoters to extol the vacation attractions of the Rocky Mountain area. One far-seeing Englishman, commenting on the Pike's Peak area, thought that "when Colorado becomes a populous state, the Springs of the Fountaine qui Bouille will constitute its spa . . . no more glorious summer residence could be imagined." He firmly believed that "the Coloradoan of the future . . . will have little cause to envy us Easterners our Saratoga." [7]

On July 3, 1844, an editorial appeared in the New York Evening Post under the title "A New Park" over the signature of William Cullen Bryant. Bryant had discovered, during his own quest for fresh air, that it was no longer possible, in half an hour's walk, for the city dweller to reach open country. The time was approaching, he said, when the city would no longer be able to purchase suitable land for recreation and pleasure, and he advocated the creation of a park within the city. This editorial set the spark to the movement that was to end some years later with the creation of Central Park. Enlisting the aid of Andrew Jackson Downing, the great landscape architect, Bryant argued his case before the people, and in 1851 an act was passed providing for the purchase of some of the necessary land. Realization of the idea was delayed by political bickering, but the appointment of Frederick Law Olmsted, the well-known landscape architect, as superintendent of the project, and later as architect-in-chief, brought the park to completion in 1858. [8]

The transition of the park idea from that of an urban plot set aside for weary city-dwellers to that of a large area maintained in a natural setting for the use of all citizens of the nation was slow in coming. In 1832 an act was passed authorizing the governor of the Territory of Arkansas to lease salt springs located in the Territory; it further provided that four sections of land in the Ouachita Mountains, in which were centered mineral hot springs, "shall be reserved for the future disposal of the United States." [9] This did not, however, mean that Congress recognized the scenic or aesthetic values of nature. The springs had potential commercial value, and at least one bathhouse had been constructed in the area. Congress simply had responded to the cries of territorial constituents who wanted the area maintained for free public use.

The canals and railroads that made summer vacations at various resort areas feasible were still confined to the East. While the tourist could journey to the White Mountains or the Eastern seaboard with fair comfort, he could not travel very far west of the Alleghenies without discomfort. Many arcadian reports of the Western regions had filtered back to Eastern readers in the form of travel accounts, books, lectures, and articles. The Reverend Timothy Flint, in his Recollections of the Last Ten Years, published in 1826, likened the Mississippi Valley to the Garden of Eden, while his contemporary Judge James Hall thought Ohio and the land west was truly the Promised Land. C. W. Dana, presaging the railroad brochures of a later date and representing the then planned Pacific Railway, published a handbook under the title The Garden of the World; or, The Great West, in an attempt to entice potential immigrants to settle in the area between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. [10]

Yellowstone NP
Mammoth Terraces, Yellowstone Park. National Park Service.

But by 1850 many people had returned from the frontier region bringing tales of discomfort that discouraged less hardy travelers. Washington Irving's Tour of the Prairies (1835) described the bleak, far-reaching prairies quite realistically, and Astoria (1836) declared that the Western region was "vast and trackless as the ocean . . . the great American desert . . . where no man permanently abides." In the first edition of Francis Parkman's Oregon Trail (1849) the plains region was again described as the great American desert. Government explorers also traversed sections of the West and brought back descriptions. Lewis and Clark had chronicled their trip to the Columbia River in 1805-1806, and earlier the report of Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike had appeared describing the region south of the Lewis and Clark route. Pike predicted that the area might "become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa," and the report of Major Stephen Long in 1820 gave credence to such a prediction. [11]

The reports of travelers were thus conflicting as to the true character of the area beyond the Mississippi; government reports were both verbose and technical, and, while the literary output whetted the curiosity of those residing in the East, it was perhaps the painters and photographers who best publicized the region. Among them were John James Audubon, George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Alfred Miller, and Albert Bierstadt. Continuing the tradition pioneered by Cole, Audubon reproduced in painstaking detail the wildlife of the Western regions, while Catlin, Miller, Bodmer, and Bierstadt portrayed the scenic splendor of the West on huge, spectacular canvases. Landscape views were also reproduced by photography, which had been introduced into this country in 1839. John Mix Stanley had accompanied as photographer one of the several government surveys sent out to determine a route for the Pacific railroad, and John C. Fremont's Utah expedition of 1854 included the Baltimore painter turned photographer, S. N. Carvalho. [12] Many of the photographs of Western scenes taken on these early explorations were transposed into lithographs or woodcuts and given wide circulation in the East. [13]

Such reports, verbal and pictorial, may have stimulated public interest. Ultimately, Congress took the next step toward conservation when in 1864 it granted to California a portion of the public domain that included the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove.

Four years after gold was found at Sutter's mill in California, Eastern newspaper readers learned of another discovery in that far-off land. In the spring of 1852 a hunter stumbled into an area forested with giant trees (Sequoia gigantea) and the reports of this discovery spread rapidly. With an eye to possible profit, two men stripped the bark from one of the giants and shipped the specimen East for exhibition. After touring the Eastern seaboard cities, the entrepreneurs set up their exhibit at the Crystal Palace in London, where wary Londoners soon branded the exhibit as a "humbug," refusing to believe that the bark could have come from one tree. But while the exhibition was a financial failure, it raised valuable voices of protest. One irate Californian sent a letter to Gleason's Pictorial protesting the desecration of "such a splendid tree," stating that while in Europe such wonders of nature would be protected by law, "in this money-making-go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it and the purchaser chops it down and ships it off for a shilling show." The writer hoped that "no one will conceive the idea of purchasing Niagara Falls with the same purpose." [14] James Russell Lowell added his protest against the destruction of the big tree when, in his article "Humanity to Trees," he proposed the establishment of a "society for the prevention of cruelty to trees." The danger to these unique giants of the California forests was underlined by an article in Harper's Weekly which claimed that the tree stripped of its bark was rapidly decaying, having been skinned "with as much neatness and industry as a troup of jackals would display in clearing the bones of a dead lion." [15]

Yosemite NP
President Taft's party at Wawona Tree, Mariposa Grove, 1909. This tree toppled in 1969. National Park Service.

While the mutilation of the big trees in California had gained widespread publicity in the East, the discovery of the Yosemite Valley passed almost unnoticed. As early as 1827 Jedediah Strong Smith had led a party of fur trappers from Salt Lake through the Sierra Nevadas to the Pacific. In 1833 Joseph Reddeford Walker, a trapper and explorer in the company of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, led a similar band of adventurers directly into the area that was to become the Yosemite National Park. Trails were blazed, and some knowledge of the California region was gained, but little publicity was given to these early discoveries. [16] In 1851 an expeditionary force, led by James D. Savage, was sent to discipline the various tribes of Indians who roamed the California mountains. During the campaign Savage's battalion explored the entire course of the Yosemite Valley, and while they failed to subdue the "Yosemitos," the volunteers agreed to name the Valley after the tribe of Indians for which they searched. [17] The scenic wonders of the Valley were described in the Daily Alta California, but the story was not picked up by Eastern publications. [18]

Eastern readers became aware of the Valley's existence in 1856, however, when an article from the California Christian Advocate was reproduced in the Country Gentleman. It declared that the "Yo-hem-i-ty" valley was "the most striking natural wonder on the Pacific" and predicted that this region would, in the future, become a great resort area. The first sketches of the Valley, by Thomas A. Ayres, were distributed in lithograph form throughout the East, and Horace Greeley termed the Valley the "most unique and majestic of nature's marvels." [19] The first photographs of the Valley were taken in 1859 by C. L. Weed and R. H. Vance, [20] and four years later C. E. Watkins' photographs were exhibited at Goupil's art gallery in New York. Residents of the Eastern seaboard were further made aware of the Western splendors when, in a series of eight articles published by the Boston Evening Transcript, the writer Starr King described the scenery of the Valley in glowing terms. [21]

Public interest in the West, and particularly in the Yosemite Valley and the California big trees, was thus aroused, but the trip to California from the East was still a hazardous and expensive undertaking. The residents of California, however, foresaw that the Yosemite Valley might become for the West what the great falls of the Niagara were for the East, and some realized that private interests would soon attempt to capitalize upon its natural wonders. Experienced leadership was needed to preserve the scenic grandeur of the mountain fastness, and fortunately such leadership was available.

At the close of the Mexican War, Colonel John C. Fremont had purchased the Rancho Las Mariposas, a vast estate of some 44,000 acres lying south and east of the Yosemite Valley. With the discovery of gold north of his estate in 1848, Fremont extended his rancho to include the mining claims, and invested money in a vain attempt to develop the mines. Bankruptcy followed and the Fremont Grant was purchased by a group of Wall Street financiers at a sheriff's sale. The nonresident owners employed the architect-in-chief of the newly formed New York City Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, to superintend their investment. Olmsted arrived in California in the fall of 1863 to assume his new duties and remained until 1865. During this time he was the leader of a small group of men who instigated and pushed to fulfillment the movement to reserve the Yosemite Valley and to preserve the giant trees from destruction. [22]

On March 28, 1864, the California Senator, John Conness, introduced into the Senate a bill providing that the Yosemite Valley and the area embracing the "Mariposa Big Tree Grove" be granted to the state of California, on condition that the area "shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation . . . for all time." The area was to be managed by the governor of the state and eight commissioners appointed by him, none of whom were to receive compensation for their services. [23] In this novel legislation an idea, suggested by Catlin, advocated by Thoreau and others, was acknowledged.

Olmsted, soon after his arrival in California, had visited the Yosemite Valley in the autumn, when the streams were reduced to a mere trickle, the great falls dried up, and the vegetation sparse and brown. Yet he was overcome by the "union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty" and he thought "Yo Semite the greatest glory of nature." [24] He was so convinced of the necessity of preserving the unique Valley that he immediately set about persuading others to join him in a crusade to have the area removed from the public domain. Though opposed by some, he managed to enlist the aid of the San Francisco physician Professor John F. Morse and the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company of New York, Israel Ward Raymond. It was Raymond who, on February 20, 1864, wrote to Senator Conness, enclosing some "views" of the Valley and stating that he thought "it important to obtain the proprietorship soon, to prevent occupation and especially to preserve the trees in the valley from destruction," and advocated the passage of the necessary legislation by Congress. [25] Senator Conness forwarded the letter to the General Land Office and requested that a bill incorporating Raymond's suggestions be prepared and returned to the Senate. [26]

The resulting bill was introduced by Conness and reported by the Senate Committee on Public Lands without amendment on May 17, 1864. Conness reassured the Senate that the lands to be granted were "for all public purposes worthless" and that the entire grant was "a matter involving no appropriation whatever." Senator Foster of Connecticut wondered if the state of California would accept the grant, but Conness replied that the application came from gentlemen of fortune, taste, and refinement in California, that the Commissioner of the General Land Office had taken a great interest in the preservation of the Valley and the Big Tree Grove, and that he, Conness, could speak for the state. In the course of debate strong argument was made for the preservation of the big trees by recalling the bark stripping episode some twelve years before. The purpose of the bill was stated to be the preservation of these trees from further "devastation and injury." The preservation of the Yosemite Valley was not mentioned and it appears to have had importance only in its relation to the sequoias. The bill was read a third time and passed by the Senate. [27]

The bill appeared upon the floor of the House with the unanimous approval of the Committee on Public Lands. Again, the Valley received little attention; replying to a query, the Chairman of the Public Lands Committee said, "Well, it is about a mile [long]; it is a gorge in the mountains." One Representative objected that there was no specific stipulation in the bill concerning preservation of the giant trees, but Representative Cole of California erroneously assured him that the state would "take good care of these trees. The measure passed the House on June 29, 1864, and was signed by President Lincoln the following day. [28]

The areas thus set aside were to be administered by the state of California; Congress and the Federal Government accepted no responsibility for their preservation or improvement. The Act provided that portions of the granted lands could be leased for a maximum of ten years, the resulting revenue to be expended in the building of roads to, and the preservation and improvement of, the grants. [29] Since the 1864 Legislature of California had already adjourned, it was not until some three months later that Governor F. F. Low proclaimed the grant to the state and appointed himself and eight others as a Board to manage the grant. Frederick Law Olmsted became chairman of the Board and immediately began organizing the new "parks." [30] But the State's attempt to preserve and protect the park areas ended, eventually, in abject failure, and when, in 1890, National Parks were formed in and around the grants, civilian control and mismanagement gave way to military control. Later the grants themselves were ceded back to the national government and placed under military supervision.

The passage of the Act of 1864, granting to California the two tracts of land, did not establish a "national park." No national laws were enacted for administration of the areas, and, after the passage of the Act, Congress seems to have dismissed the areas from its collective mind. The significance of the legislation lies in the fact that it provided for land to be reserved for strictly nonutilitarian purposes, thus establishing a precedent for the later reservation of the Yellowstone region. It is probable that if Congress had not then been preoccupied with the Civil War the opponents of the bill would have combined to defeat its passage. The public mind was not yet directed toward the preservation and conservation of the aesthetic elements of nature.


How the U.S. Cavalry Saved Our National Parks
©1971, Indiana University Press All rights reserved.
This text may not be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of Indiana University Press.
hampton/chap1.htm — 09-Apr-2004