National Parks
The American Experience
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Chapter 1:
Catalysts: Nationalism, Art, and the American West

The eastern half of America offers no suggestion of its western half.

Samuel Bowles, 1869

Why should we go to Switzerland to see mountains or to Iceland for geysers? Thirty years ago the attraction of America to the foreign mind was Niagara Falls. Now we have attractions which diminish Niagara into an ordinary exhibition.

New York Herald, 1872

When national parks were first established, protection of the "environment" as now defined was the least of preservationists' aims. Rather America's incentive for the national park idea lay in the persistence of a painfully felt desire for time-honored traditions in the United States. For decades the nation had suffered the embarrassment of a dearth of recognized cultural achievements. Unlike established, European countries, which traced their origins far back into antiquity, the United States lacked a long artistic and literary heritage. The absence of reminders of the human past, including castles, ancient ruins, and cathedrals on the landscape, further alienated American intellectuals from a cultural identity. [1] In response to constant barbs about these deficiencies from Old World critics and New World apologists, by the 1860s many thoughtful Americans had embraced the wonderlands of the West as replacements for man-made marks of achievement. The agelessness of monumental scenery instead of the past accomplishments of Western Civilization was to become the visible symbol of continuity and stability in the new nation.

Of course the great majority of Americans took pride in the inventiveness and material progress of the nation; the search for a "traditional" culture was not among the public's chief concerns. Yet in order to claim that the general populace did not at least sympathize with the doubts of artists and intellectuals, first it would be necessary to discount the observance of their ideals in the popular as well as professional literature of the period. Indeed, much as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others fostered an appreciation of landscapes on an intellectual plane, so publicists of a more common bent aroused support for preservation while introducing their readers to the scenery of the Far West. Among the more articulate spokesmen of this genre was Samuel Bowles, editor and publisher of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Learned, socially respected, and well-to-do, Bowles typified the class of gentlemen adventurers, artists, and explorers who conceived and advanced the national park idea during the second half of the nineteenth century. [2] With the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, Bowles realized a long-held dream to see the West firsthand. The trip was made all the more enjoyable by the companionship of two prominent friends, Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Albert D. Richardson, recently distinguished for his coverage of the war as a correspondent for the New York Tribune.

The overnight success of Bowles and Richardson confirms how important the popular press was in laying the foundations of the national park idea. In contrast to the writings of Thoreau, which had a very limited following during his own lifetime, the Springfield Republican as early as 1860 enjoyed a strong circulation as far afield as the Mississippi Valley. The New York Tribune's circulation of 290,000 nationwide similarly reflected the growing popularity of general publications. Although much of this readership can be linked to interest in the Civil War, articles about the West remained in great demand throughout the conflict. And with the close of hostilities both Bowles and Richardson became best-selling authors. Bowles essays for the Republican alone sold 38,000 copies when collected and republished as Across the Continent and Our New West, released in 1865 and 1869 respectively. [3]

Richardson's Beyond the Mississippi, published in 1867, was equally popular. Like Bowles, Richardson therefore excited the East's fascination with the West. Curiosity about the great physical disparity between the landscapes of the two regions was especially great. "The two sides of the Continent," Bowles observed, "are sharp in contrasts of climate, of soil, of mountains, of resources, of production, of everything." Indeed, only in the "New West" had nature wearied "of repetitions" and created so "originally, freshly, uniquely, majestically." Throughout the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific slope lay scenery "to pique the curiosity and challenge the admiration of the world." Surely none could doubt, he therefore concluded, that the West would contribute to the lasting fame and glory of the entire United States. [4]

Although Bowles addressed the issue of preservation only briefly, the evolution of his thinking demonstrates how cultural anxiety turned appreciation of the West into bona fide efforts to protect it. He arrived in Yosemite Valley in 1865 to find the gorge already set aside by Congress the previous year. The "wise cession," as he immediately praised the grant, should be looked to as "an admirable example for other objects of natural curiosity and popular interest all over the Union." New York State, for example, "should preserve for popular use both Niagara Falls and its neighborhood"; similarly, the state would be well advised to set apart "a generous section of her famous Adirondacks, and Maine one of her lakes and surrounding woods." By 1869, when Bowles revised the statement, he had grown even more outspoken. He now considered it nothing less than "a pity" that the nation had failed to duplicate the Yosemite grant during the past four years. Moreover, the rewritten paragraph concluded with an appeal to national pride. Consider "what a blessing it would be to all visitors" for these areas to be "preserved for public use," he asked, "what an honor to the Nation!" [5]

Widespread indifference was still a major hurdle. Especially during the nineteenth century, distance and income prohibited most Americans from ever knowing the wonders of the West firsthand. Nor could literature alone bring its wonderlands within reach. As a result, landscape painters and photographers were equally important in furthering the spirit of concern that led to the national park idea. Foremost among artists to portray the region were Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, whose works gave impetus to the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone parks respectively. [6] Indeed, the success of scenic protection depended on visual proof of the uniqueness of western landmarks. Once their beauty had been confirmed by artists as well as nationalists, Congress responded favorably to pleas that the most renowned wonderlands should be set aside, first as symbols of national pride and, in time, as areas for public recreation.

The reliance on nature as proof of national greatness began in earnest immediately following American independence from Great Britain. A clearly undesirable side effect of political freedom was the rending of former ties with European culture. No longer could the United States lay claim to the achievements of Western civilization merely by recalling its membership in the British Empire. In recognition of this disquieting fact, patriots tried to reassure themselves that the United States was destined for a grand and glorious future in its own right. Yet doubts were bound to persist, especially when American intellectuals dared to consider whether or not their culture really could survive apart from Europe. Since the achievements of their own artists and writers were negligible, nationalists turned to nature as the only viable alternative. As early as 1784, for example, Thomas Jefferson singled out portions of the American landscape to support his conviction that the environment was ideal for future national attainments. He was especially proud of two wonders native to Virginia, the Natural Bridge, south of Lexington, and the Potomac River Gorge, which pierces the Blue Ridge Mountains at Harpers Ferry. High above the river, on a large rock later named in his honor, he declared the panorama of rapids and cliffs "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." [7] Other essayists were far less restrained. Philip Freneau, for example, focused his defense of national pride farther westward, where he crowned the Mississippi the "prince of rivers, in comparison of whom the Nile is but a small rivulet, and the Danube a ditch." [8]

Even the most spirited nationalists, however, could not be blind to the obvious distortions of such claims. That the Danube was not a ditch went without saying. And why should Europeans risk the long and dangerous Atlantic crossing just to see the Potomac River, especially when the Old World possessed its equivalent—or better—in the scenery of the Rhine? Clearly Americans had to do more than stretch reality if Europeans were to concede any validity to the New World point of view.

Unfortunately for America's nationalists, their subsequent attempts to distinguish the United States from Europe through the medium of nature proved no more convincing. Landscapes in the New World were simply too lacking in history for those many intellectuals who longed for stronger emotional attachments to their culture than great rocks, waterfalls, or rivers. Few voiced their doubts more poignantly than Washington Irving. In 1819 he confided to his Sketch Book that he preferred "to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement—to tread, as it were, in the footsteps of antiquity—to loiter about the ruined castle—to meditate on the falling tower—to escape, in short, from the commonplace reality of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past." Thus Irving was among those who satisfied his fantasies abroad, although he conceded that no American need "look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery." [9]

Irving's qualification, however, was little more reassuring than nationalists' prior distortions. At best it allowed the United States to claim equality with European landscapes only in the category of visual impact. This did nothing to ease the discomfort of those who still struggled to link American scenery with deeply emotional and spiritual values as well. In this vein James Fenimore Cooper revealed the inner misgivings of everyone concerned when he admitted their dilemma was beyond resolution until civilization in the New World had also advanced to "the highest state." Meanwhile Americans must "concede to Europe much the noblest all those effects which depend on time and association." [10] Shortly before his death, in September 1851, Cooper still maintained that "the great distinction between American and European scenery, as a whole," lay "in the greater want of finish in the former than in the latter, and to the greater superfluity of works of art in the old world than in the new." Specifically, European landscapes included castles, fortified towns, villages accented by towering cathedrals, and similar "picturesque and striking collections of human habitations." Although nature had "certainly made some differences" between the two continents, still no one could deny Europe's superiority over the United States in the possession of landscapes blessed with "the impress of the past." [11]

First published in The Nation, Cooper's assessment later appeared in The Home Book of the Picturesque. Among the volume's other contributors were William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Parker Willis, all of whom had achieved prominence in writings about the American scene. Indeed no book contains a more comprehensive overview of the anxieties aroused by America's search for distinction through landscape. Cooper's daughter, Susan, for example, who also contributed to the collection of articles, likewise revealed the depth of misgivings about the sense of impermanence and instability in a typical northeastern landscape. One "soft hazy morning, early in October," she began, "we were sitting upon the trunk of a fallen pine, near a projecting cliff which overlooked the country for some fifteen miles or more; the lake, the rural town, and the farms and valleys beyond, lying at our feet like a beautiful map." Yet when she compared the scene below to similar examples in Europe, her cheerfulness faded. Suddenly the taverns and shops of the village only reminded her of the "comparatively slight and furtive character of American architecture." Indeed, she said, echoing her father's lament, "there is no blending of the old and new in this country; there is nothing old among us." Even if Americans were "endowed with ruins"—her bitterness grew—"we should not preserve them"; rather "they would be pulled down to make way for some novelty." She could only imagine that the village had been miraculously transformed into an Old World hamlet, but this fantasy, too, failed in the least to comfort her. Forced to abandon her daydream, her visionary bridge "of massive stone, narrow, and highly arched," the "ancient watch-tower" rising above the trees, and the old country houses and thatched-roof cottages all vanished into nothingness. Her spell broken, "the country resumed its every-day aspect." [12]

H. Anderson photograph, courtesy of the National Park Service The sheer cliffs and waterfalls of Yosemite Valley epitomize the notion of monumentalism that lay behind the national park movement in the United States. Yosemite Valley was ceded to California for protection as a state park in 1864; a national park surrounding the gorge was established by Congress in 1890. George Catlin (1796-1872), best known for his paintings of American Indians, painted Niagara Falls in 1827. Perhaps he was thinking of the commercial disfigurement of Niagara that has already begun when, in 1832, he proposed "A nation's Park"; Frederick Law Olmsted, Ferdinand V. Hayden, and other later leaders of the national park movement held Niagara up as an argument for the protection of scenic wonders. Photography by Fred Mang. Jr., courtesy of the National Park Service In a 1974 survey by the United States Travel Service, Americans ranked the Grand Canyon as the nation's supreme natural spectacle. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908; Congress made it a national park in 1919. Courtesy of the National Park Service "The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue ridge" at Harpers Ferry, wrote Thomas Jefferson, "is perhaps one of the most Stupendous scenes in nature. . . . This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic." Even so, most European travelers, as well as American nationalists, considered such landscapes commonplace, especially when compared with the Rhine Valley and similar Old World landmarks with a long human history. George A. Grant Collection, courtesy of the National Park Service The ruggedness and harsh environment of Mount McKinley, Alaska, discouraged profitable exploitation, but mining and mineral exploration were allowed to continue in the foothills and lowlands following the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park in 1917. Devils Tower, Wyoming, was proclaimed the first national monument in 1906. Ansel Adams photograph, ca. National Archives Glacier National Park, Montana, was introduced to the Congress in 1910 as "1,400 square miles of mountains piled on top of each other." Courtesy of the National Park Service The ruggedness of Mount Rainier (which is here reflected in the waters of Eunice Lake) makes for breathtaking scenery and, like other national park landscapes, offers little else to exploit—only marginal amounts of timber and arable land. Jack Boucher photograph, courtesy of the National Park Service George A. Grant Collection, courtesy of the National Park Service The Lower Falls and the Canyon of the Yellowstone River have been a favorite subject for painters and photographers since the first expeditions of scientific exploration entered the Yellowstone country. Preservationists working for the establishment of Olympic National Park, Washington, during the 1930s encountered stiff opposition from lumbermen who were determined to draw the park boundaries closer to the timberline. All the elements of monumentalism especially rugged terrain and falling water, are missing from the proposed Prairie National Park in Pottawatomie County, Kansas. Yet it was just such a "monotonous" landscape that George Catlin had in mind when he proposed a nation's park in 1832. That his dream was realized in quite different form attests to the limitations of the national park idea in the United States.

As the writings of the Coopers further demonstrate, attempts to use nature as a basis for cultural superiority had clearly been less than successful. All rhetoric aside, American intellectuals themselves were far from convinced that landscapes in the United States were worthy of special recognition. Against the claim stood the realities of geography. Prior to 1848 the United States was limited to the eastern two-thirds of the continent. Except for portions of the Appalachian Mountains and a scattering of natural wonders such as Niagara Falls, the remainder of the American scene was, in truth, nothing extraordinary. Time and time again European and American writers alike used words such as "common" or " monotonous" to describe a majority of the East. [13] Its failure to measure up to scenery of the magnitude of the Swiss Alps, for example, prompted James Fenimore Cooper to add: "As a whole, it must be admitted that Europe offers to the senses sublimer views and certainly grander, than are to be found within our own borders, unless we resort to the Rocky Mountains, and the ranges in California and New Mexico." [14]

In fact, westward expansion would resolve the dilemma of America's cultural nationalists. Only a few years earlier Cooper's suggestion that they take refuge in the landforms of the West would have been pointless, inasmuch as both Mexico and Great Britain contested with the United States for possession of the wonderlands he identified. But meanwhile events had moved swiftly to make his alternative a credible one. As the 1840s drew to a close, the tide of American expansion finally reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It was, supporters justified, the "manifest destiny" of the nation to possess all of the territory in between. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was the first major step toward this goal; from France the United States acquired the heartland of the continent between the west bank of the Mississippi River and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Texas, annexed in 1845, secured the territory from the south. The following year Great Britain reluctantly, but peaceably, relinquished her claim to the Pacific Northwest, which included all of present-day Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana. In 1846 the United States also declared war on Mexico, whose defeat two years later brought California and most of the Southwest under American control. [15] These acquisitions, in addition to settlement of the boundaries in the Pacific Northwest, assured the United States dominion over some of the most varied scenery on the continent.

As James Fenimore Cooper had implied, this heritage might relieve the frustration of trying to uncover landscapes truly unique to the United States. Of course the search for material well-being was the overriding motivation behind conquest of the West itself. Still, exploration of the region soon revealed distinct opportunities for the nation's cultural advancement as well. Above all, the West assured nationalists that the growth and development of the United States were not to close, environmentally speaking, on an anticlimactic note. Rather, as Americans embarked on their final era of expansion, the boldest and most magnificent setting in their experience opened before them. It followed that the West's lack of art and architecture would not disturb cultural nationalists nearly as much as had been true in the East. After all, crudeness was easily overlooked in an environment whose natural endowments were unparalleled worldwide.

Accompanied by the force of appeals for cultural identity through nature, the opening of the Far West further explains the timing of the national park idea. In the region there remained not only the opportunity to appreciate nature unspoiled, but to preserve it intact as well. As distinct from the misfortune of eastern wonders such as Niagara Falls, which long since had fallen victim to private abuse, those in the West still belonged to the federal government as part of the public domain. The West, in either case, was the last chance for cultural nationalists to prove their sincerity.

The modern discovery of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra redwoods, in 1851 and 1852, respectively, provided the first believable evidence since Niagara Falls that the United States had a valid claim to cultural recognition through natural wonders. [16] Suddenly, as if to show their relief, nationalists belittled the geography of even their most magnificent trans-Atlantic rivals. Switzerland, long renowned as the gem of mountain landscapes, was an obvious first target. In this vein the sentiments of Lieutenant Colonel A. V. Kautz, a decorated veteran of the Civil War, were typical. Recalling his nearly successful ascent of Mount Rainier, Washington, in 1857, he declared the surrounding Cascade Range in possession of "mountain scenery in quantity and quality sufficient to make half a dozen Switzerlands." With good reason, of course, a majority of writers favored Yosemite Valley for drawing such comparisons. "When we come to the Yosemite Falls proper, noted one admirer, "we behold an object which has no parallel anywhere in the Alps." Nor could any valley in Switzerland, he maintained, match the symmetry and magnificence of Yosemite. William H. Brewer, a graduate of Yale University and member of the California Geological Survey, was among the majority of transplanted easterners who shared an identical view. In 1863 he described Yosemite Falls as the "crowning glory" of the entire gorge. "It comes over the wall on the far side of the valley," he began, "and drops 1,542 feet the first leap, then falls 1,100 more in two or three more cascades, the entire height being over 2,600 feet! I question if the world furnishes a parallel," he continued, "certainly there is none known." Even Bridal Veil Falls—only a fraction as high as the greater cataract—itself seemed "vastly finer than any waterfall in Switzerland," he concluded, "in fact finer than any in Europe." [17]

The common practice of not merely describing each wonder, but in the same breath depreciating its counterparts abroad, confirms how pervasive cultural anxiety was in the United States during this period. Nor were these correspondents an intellectual elite whose writings may be discounted because they were limited to a professional clientele. As early as 1859 Horace Greeley, owner and editor of the New York Tribune, wrote for a circulation approaching 300,000 when he visited Yosemite Valley and dubbed it "the most unique and majestic of nature's marvels." Indeed, he maintained, "no single wonder of nature on earth" could surpass it. Six years later Samuel Bowles further revealed the popularity of scenic nationalism in his series of articles for the Springfield Republican. "THE YOSEMITE!" he exclaimed. "As well interpret God in thirty-nine articles as portray it to you by word of mouth or pen." Again it seemed more effective to rely upon culturally-inspired descriptions. Specifically, everyone should agree that "only the whole of Switzerland" eclipsed the valley; in fact, he concluded, "no one scene in all the Alps" could match its "majestic and impressive beauty." [8]

The temptation to view Yosemite Valley as a nationalistic resource was also encouraged by the Reverend Thomas Starr King. His impressions of the gorge in 1860 soon appeared as a series of articles in the Boston Evening Transcript. Undoubtedly he excited New Englanders by noting that only twenty minutes after entering Yosemite Valley, his party came to "the foot of a fall as high and more beautiful than the celebrated Staubach, [19] the highest in Europe." And the cataract was only a sample of what California's fabled wonderland had to offer. Indeed, as he and his companions moved farther up the valley, King pondered whether "such a ride" would be "possible in any other part of the planet?" Like his contemporaries he answered himself predictably: "nowhere among the Alps, in no pass of the Andes, and in no Canyon of the mighty Oregon range," he stated, "is there such stupendous rock scenery. Only "the awful gorges of the Himalaya" might challenge the summits and defiles of the Sierra Nevada. [20]

Comparisons between the natural wonders of the United States also had advantages. After all, most Americans of the period would never get to see Yosemite Valley, let alone the mountains of Asia. Thus travel accounts had more meaning when commentators measured Niagara Falls, Natural Bridge, or some other eastern landmark against its counterpart in the West. Readers of the Springfield Republican, for example, shared the enthusiasm of Samuel Bowles upon his discovery that Yosemite Falls was in fact "fifteen times as high as Niagara Falls!" Albert D. Richardson of the New York Tribune nudged the figure slightly upward, to "sixteen times higher than Niagara," but the purpose of both descriptions was unchanged. "Think of a cataract of half a mile with only a single break!" Richardson challenged his followers. And as if that statistic were not enough to boggle their minds and soothe their provincial doubts, "Niagara itself," he noted, "would dwarf beside the rocks in this valley." [21]

With this self-examination of America's own wonders came added assurance that only in the United States did a gorge like Yosemite Valley exist. The Sierra redwoods [22] were still further consolation for the absence of a long American past, one redeemed, at least mentally, through creative fantasizing in the midst of ancient ruins and other objects of human achievement. The explorer and surveyor Clarence King also considered this approach to "the perspective of centuries" much too "conventional." Although a native of Connecticut and graduate of Yale University, beneath the Sierra redwoods, in 1864, he rejected the common assertion that culture derived solely from man-made artifacts. Instead he found stability and continuity in the "vast bulk and grand, pillar-like stateliness" of the great trees. Indeed, he insisted, no "fragment of human work, broken pillar or sand-worn image half lifted over pathetic desert,—none of these link the past and to-day with anything like the power of these monuments of living antiquity..." The argument recalled the doubts of nationalists such as Washington Irving and the Coopers, who felt that American society had nothing suggesting age and permanence. In rebuttal King noted that the Sierra redwoods "began to grow before the Christian era," let alone the flowering of European civilization. The antiquity of the United States, in other words, pre-dated that of Europe. In this vein Horace Greeley himself anticipated the explorer's argument; similarly moved in 1859 by a visit to the Sierra redwoods, he assured readers of the Tribune that the trees "were of very substantial size when David danced before the ark, when Solomon laid the foundations of the Temple, when Theseus ruled in Athens, when Aeneas fled from the burning wreck of vanquished Troy," and "when Sesostris led his victorious Egyptians into the heart of Asia." It followed that the United States had its own claim to antiquity; America's past simply must be measured in "green old age," King said. In either case, as living monuments the redwoods were superior ties to the past, since, unlike still-life artifacts, they would be growing "broad and high for centuries to come." [23]

These claims, however trivial from today's perspective, then filled an important intellectual need. For the first time in almost a century Americans argued with confidence that the United States had something of value in its own right to contribute to world culture. Although Europe's castles, ruins, and abbeys would never be eclipsed, the United States had "earth monuments" [24] and giant redwoods that had stood long before the birth of Christ. Thus the natural marvels of the West compensated for America's lack of old cities, aristocratic traditions, and similar reminders of Old World accomplishments. As Albert D. Richardson summed up the standard perception of the region: "In grand natural curiosities and wonders, all other countries combined fall far below it." [25] Such statements, so often repeated throughout the 1850s and 1860s, yet so implausible beforehand, might now comfort people still living under the shadow of Milton, Shakespeare, and the Sistine Chapel.

The search for a unique national identity inevitably influenced the arts in the United States as well as personal correspondence and popular literature. With the rise of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, cultural nationalists found their first vindication. Prior to evolution of the genre during the 1820s and 1830s, its predecessors usually did little more than imitate European styles and subject matter. In contrast the Hudson River School broke the bonds of tradition and looked directly to nature for guidance and inspiration. For the first time American artists disdained merely reinterpreting Old World buildings and ruins for the hundredth or thousandth time. Instead the Hudson River School searched for truth and realism in the natural world, confident that only the unchanging laws of the universe contained real wisdom and meaning for mankind. Artists were advised to depict mountains, forests, river valleys, and seacoasts, where, despite random human interruptions, the hidden but ever-consistent laws of nature could still be deciphered. [26]

It followed that the Hudson River School had no reason to look beyond the Northeast for subject matter; nature in all its moods could be located or imagined throughout the region. Moreover, the quest for realism common to the Hudson River School led to a concern for detail that discouraged the interpretation of landforms on a scale such as that found in the West. The popularization of its natural wonders awaited what has been labeled as the Rocky Mountain School of landscape painting, which emerged during the late 1850s and 1860s. Indeed, much as the relatively subdued landscapes of the Northeast affected the subtleties of the Hudson River School, so, inevitably, the horizons and grandeur of the West defined the Rocky Mountain School as well. One distinction was the compulsion of artists in the West to cut their canvas by the yard instead of by the foot. Others sacrificed realism, as if to suggest that the mountains of the region were even higher, its canyons far deeper, and its colors more vivid than in real life. [27] Still, while exaggeration was out of place in the Hudson River School, its practice in the West was in keeping with pronouncements that the region was in fact America's repository of cultural identity through landscape.

The popularity of the Rocky Mountain School thus further prepared the United States to turn from simply appreciating its natural wonders to preserving them. To be sure, although artists such as George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, and George Caleb Bingham preceded the Rocky Mountain School into the West, as pioneers none was privileged to visit those wonderlands whose uniqueness later evoked cultural as well as artistic acclaim. The popularization of Yosemite Valley and the Yellowstone, in particular, respectively awaited the co-founders of the Rocky Mountain School, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. [28] Bierstadt, drawn west by the Rocky Mountains in 1859, painted the region more than a decade prior to Moran, which explains his earlier fame and importance. After sketching the Wind River Mountains and other large peaks in what is now the state of Wyoming, Bierstadt returned east and moved his studio from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to New York City, where, shortly afterward, the first of his paintings went on display at the National Academy of Design. Among them was The Base of the Rocky Mountains, Laramie Peak, shown in April 1860. Measuring a full 4-1/2 by 9 feet, it not only established his reputation but alerted the public to expect similar interpretations of the West in subsequent years. [29]

Bierstadt's second trip west in 1863 led him to California, where he became intimate with perhaps his most familiar trademark—Yosemite Valley. For seven weeks during August and September he rambled through the gorge, retracing the footsteps of Horace Greeley, the Reverend Thomas Starr King, and other early visitors. From his sketches evolved a lengthy series of paintings, including Valley of the Yosemite (1864), which sold the following year for $1,600. An even more dramatic success awaited The Rocky Mountains (1863). In 1865 the 6-by-10-foot canvas commanded $25,000, then the highest sum ever awarded an American artist. Two years later Bierstadt repeated the triumph with Domes of the Yosemite. A whopping 9-1/2 by 15 feet, it too was commissioned for $25,000. [30]

While Bierstadt's accomplishments affirmed the popularity of the American West, still others turned to the rising profession of photography to substantiate nationalists' claims. Carleton E. Watkins, for example, photographed Yosemite Valley and the Sierra redwoods as early as 1861, two years prior to Bierstadt's arrival. With fanfare no less than that accorded the painter, his pictures also made the rounds of major galleries in the East. [31] Bierstadt's advantage as a painter was his freedom to break with reality. Domes of the Yosemite, for instance, imparts a starkness and rigidity to the valley which imply that it is even more dramatic and magnificent than in real life. Similarly, the Indian encampment in the foreground of The Rocky Mountains draws the viewer's attention back to the peaks, whose outline, although subtle, again suggests an abruptness and boldness uncommon to most of the region. The style was in keeping with the preferences of those who needed reassurance that the mountains of the West were in fact rivals of the Alps. Bierstadt revealed his own uneasiness about the validity of such claims in a series of paintings oddly suggestive of alpine rather than western scenery. [32] In either case, his followers readily forgave his tendency to exaggerate the summits of the region; only as Americans became more self-confident about their cultural identity did their acceptance of the genre lapse into criticism. Meanwhile, if Bierstadt embellished his landscapes for dramatic emphasis, he merely copied what European masters themselves had encouraged for years regarding interpretations of their own famous ruins and buildings.

Translated into engravings and woodcuts for popular distribution in newspapers and magazines, the works of Albert Bierstadt, C. E. Watkins, and other artists provided the visual component of cultural nationalism. Their achievement alone, of course, did not inspire the national park idea. Still, by dramatizing what the nation stood to lose by its indifference, artists contributed immeasurably to the evolution of concern. Scenic monuments, no less than man-made ones, would never become credible symbols of American culture if the nation simply allowed them to slip from public ownership into private control. As early as the 1830s European critics all but charged the United States with hypocrisy over the defacement of Niagara Falls; further examples of such callousness, it followed, would only lead to equally harsh condemnation.

Perhaps George Catlin, since recognized as one of the foremost artists of the American Indian, overheard similar reprimands while painting Niagara Falls during the late 1820s [33] In any event, his is perhaps the most quoted response to the problem of preservation in general. A native of Pennsylvania, in the year 1832 he was at Fort Pierre, in present South Dakota, where, like Alexis de Tocqueville beside Niagara Falls, he urged his countrymen to consider the price of sweeping aside the native animals and inhabitants of the prairies for all time. The alternative, he concluded, was "A nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!" The cultural possibilities of such a legacy also did not escape his attention; what "a beautiful and thrilling specimen" the park would be "for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages!" [34]

Of course Catlin was far ahead of his time. Indeed, not until the twentieth century was well advanced—as exemplified in 1934 with authorization of Everglades National Park in Florida—did national park enthusiasts recognize wild animals as fully worthy of protection alongside spectacular scenery. Similarly, "practical" considerations actually motivated the first legislation to protect natural areas. In 1832 Congress set aside the Arkansas Hot Springs, but in recognition of its medicinal value, not with the intent of protecting scenery. As scenery the Hot Springs reservation hardly compared with wonders such as Niagara Falls or Virginia's Natural Bridge, which, although more deserving of protection, received none despite annual visitation approaching the tens of thousands. [35]

A spirited exchange between English and American botanists over the proper classification for the Sierra redwoods was more indicative of the type of catalyst needed to effect scenic preservation in the United States. Once the British realized that the trees were not a hoax, their search for a scientific name appropriate to the giants led to the adoption of Wellingtonia gigantea, after England's revered statesman and war hero, the Duke of Wellington. To say that American nationalists opposed the commemoration of an Englishman with a New World wonder would be an understatement. Washingtonia gigantea was their alternative; whether George Washington's defeat of the British during the Revolutionary War sweetened the substitution has not been spelled out. [36] Regardless, the debate is further evidence of the degree of cultural importance the United States ascribed to the wonders of the West during the nineteenth century. Well after 1900 American botanists still chided British correspondents for occasionally lapsing into use of Wellingtonia gigantea to identify the big trees. In what might be considered a compromise, the Sierra redwoods are now generally called Sequoia gigantea, after the Indian chief Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet.

Given America's defense of its right to name the Sierra redwoods, it followed their impending destruction would precipitate a cry of protest. The fate of the "Mother of the Forest," among the largest specimens in the Calaveras Grove, was a dramatic case in point. In 1854 promoters stripped the tree of its bark to a height of 116 feet, then cut the shell into sections and shipped it to New York for exhibit. Later it made its way to England where, until 1866, the mammoth bedazzled thousands at the Crystal Palace. [37]

Yet there were critics of this and even earlier exhibits of Sierra redwoods. In 1853 Gleason's Pictorial, a widely read British journal, published a letter from an irate Californian who protested disfigurement of the "Discovery Tree"for public display as "a cruel idea, a perfect desecration." If native to Europe, he charged, "such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but 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." [38] A similar accusation in 1857 by James Russell Lowell was no less pointed, especially in the wake of America's long and often frustrating search for cultural recognition apart from Europe. If the United States hoped to compensate for its lack of human works by substituting the wonders of nature, Americans would have to do better than allow the redwoods, Niagara Falls, or any other landmark to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Further incentive to turn from the appreciation of landscapes to their preservation appeared as Yosemite Valley itself seemed destined to fall victim to the whims of private individuals. Some entrepreneurs already claimed portions of the gorge in anticipation of the thousands of visitors sure to follow in their footsteps. The situation posed a dilemma. If the exploiters were allowed to confiscate Yosemite Valley as well as the Sierra redwoods, whatever cultural symbolism they lent the nation might soon become meaningless. Niagara Falls already demonstrated the absurdity of taking cultural refuge in wonders whose uniqueness had been sacrificed to individual gain; again the United States risked the charge that its claim to an identity through landscape was totally ridiculous.

The crystallization of cultural anxiety into realization of the national park idea may be traced to the winter of 1864. Moved by concern for the Sierra redwoods and Yosemite Valley, a small group of Californians persuaded their junior United States senator, John Conness, to propose legislation protecting both marvels from further private abuse. Precisely who conceived the campaign itself remains largely a mystery. The known advocate is Israel Ward Raymond, the state representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company of New York. On February 20, 1864, he addressed a letter to Senator Conness, urging preservation of Yosemite and a grove of the big trees "for public use, resort and recreation." Raymond was equally insistent that the wonders be "inalienable forever." Perhaps this wording was suggested to him by Frederick Law Olmsted, then managing the nearby Mariposa Estate, although there is no evidence the landscape architect played a direct role in the park movement. In any event, Conness was more than cooperative. He forwarded Raymond's letter to the commissioner of the General Land Office with the request that a bill be prepared, and, significantly, he repeated Raymond's words: "Let the grant be inalienable." [39]

Raymond's insistence on the terminology suggests that he and his associates had considered how the park would reflect on the credibility of the United States from the outset. Especially from a cultural perspective, preservation without permanence would be no real test of the nation's sincerity. As if in accord with that interpretation, in the Senate John Conness justified the clause as a patriotic duty that already was long overdue. The heart of his speech recalled that the British once had derided the Sierra redwoods in particular as nothing but "a Yankee invention," a fabrication "made from beginning to end; that it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in this country; that it could not be." [40] Whether or not Conness himself seriously endorsed his statement, or whether he merely considered his appeal to national pride and patriotism as good strategy, his reliance on the argument substantiates its popularity and importance. The Congress was also receptive, and on June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law.

The purpose of the park, as indicated by the placement of its boundaries, was strictly scenic. Only Yosemite Valley and its encircling peaks, an area of approximately forty square miles, comprised the northern unit. A similar restriction applied to the southern section of the park, the Mariposa Grove of Sierra redwoods, where a maximum of four square miles of the public domain might be protected. [41] Obviously such limitations ignored the ecological framework of the region, especially its watersheds; indeed, the term ecology was not even known. Monumentalism, not environmentalism, was the driving impetus behind the 1864 Yosemite Act.

Senator Conness's drawn-out reminder that Great Britain initially debunked the existence of the Sierra redwoods substantiates the cultural overtones to his legislation. Indeed, its provisions prove that Congress intended the park to be in the national interest all along. Although Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were to be turned over to California for administration, the federal government clearly spelled out beforehand what management by the state must embody. These conditions of acceptance included the retention of the park for "public use, resort and recreation"; similarly, both the valley and big trees must be held "inalienable for all time." [42] Nor did this rhetoric merely mask a state-inspired project divorced of nationalistic overtones; two years elapsed before California even agreed to take over the park.

In fact, therefore, if not in name, Yosemite was the first national park. Although Congress never enforced the restrictions imposed on California's acceptance of the grant (at least not until 1905, when the state ceded the valley and big trees back to the federal government), their presence indicates that Congress had acted with the national interest in mind. The consensus that national parks had to be permanent was also recognized as early as 1864. The concept itself had cultural significance; in landscape, no less than in art and architecture, the certainty of permanence was essential for preserving any sense of continuity between the present and past. Indeed, if Congress had simply intended to satisfy the public's urge for outdoor recreation, it should hardly have looked as far afield as California for an appropriate site. By any stretch of the imagination, the realization of Yosemite's potential as a tourist retreat was still many years distant in 1864.

Until recreation in the valley became a serious possibility, Yosemite and the Sierra redwoods filled a cultural role. To be sure, that this was the park's immediate purpose was soon confirmed by those who looked beyond its monumental attributes to the enhancement of its other natural values. As early as 1865, for example, Frederick Law Olmsted warned the Yosemite Park Commission that most Americans considered the grant a mere "wonder or curiosity." It followed they did not appreciate the preserve's "tender" esthetic resources, namely the "foliage of noble and lovely trees and bushes, tranquil meadows, playful streams," and the other varieties "of soft and peaceful pastoral beauty." A quarter of a century later he repeated the charge; the traditional perception of Yosemite as a spectacle, he maintained, was still "a vulgar blunder." To the contrary, the valley's charm did not depend "on the greatness of its walls," the "length of its little early summer cascades; the height of certain of its trees, the reflections in its pools, and other such matters as can be entered in statistical tables" or "pointed out by guides and represented within picture frames." Rather the attraction of the gorge lay "in the rare association" achieved by combining its spectacular features with the "very beautifully dispersed great bodies, groups and clusters of trees." These, too, contributed to the Yosemite experience, not just those landforms that excited public acclaim because they were so awesome. [43]

John Muir, who first entered Yosemite Valley in 1868, soon shared much the same opinion. A self-styled "poetico trampo-geologist-bot. and ornith-natural, etc-!-!, " like Olmsted he had also trained himself to look beyond the spectacular in nature. [44] Writing in 1875, however, he declared the rest of the world still "not ready for the fine banks and braes [hills] of the lower Sierra." His choice of words did more than reflect his early boyhood in Scotland. Nearer the point, Muir recognized that the public ranked scenery according to its size and ruggedness. "Tourists make their way through the foot-hill landscapes as if blind to all their best beauty," he observed, "and like children seek the emphasized mountains—the big alpine capitals whitened with glaciers and adorned with conspicuous spires." Although he optimistically concluded that "the world moves onward," and one day "lowlands will be loved more than alps, and lakes and level rivers more than water-falls," [45] he would, like Olmsted, close an illustrious career still far from having convinced the public at large that the commonplace in nature was as worthy of protection as the spectacular.

Such understanding awaited an age receptive to the life-giving properties and esthetic beauty of all ecosystems. Well into the twentieth century, Americans valued the natural wonders of the West almost exclusively for their scenic impact. The perception was in keeping with the origins of the national park idea as a response to cultural anxiety. To reemphasize, most Americans expressed their nationalism by drawing attention to the material advancement of the nation. But again, to admit that a distinct minority inspired the national park idea does not discount that minority's social and political influence. The opening of the Far West, coupled with nationalists' long search for an American identity, gave form and meaning to the myriad emotions historians have defined as "nature appreciation." Conceivably, the United States might have originated the national park idea in the absence of cultural nationalism; with it, however, the nation had clear and immediate justification to go beyond simply appreciating its natural wonders to preserving them.

Cultural insecurity, as the catalyst for concern, speeded the nation's response to the threatened confiscation of its natural heritage. Indeed, to suggest that the national park idea evolved from the search for national pride alone, rather than out of anxiety about America's failure to live up to the achievements of Europe, is to ignore that pride and anxiety had one and the same source. Precisely because American intellectuals lacked confidence in their record, their quest for national pride became so all-consuming. Even those writers and artists who provided the United States with its strongest basis for cultural recognition, including James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, were still the most easily discouraged by comparisons of their nation's attainments to the record of Europe. As anxious provincials they found it impossible to ignore statements such as that popularized by the English clergyman, Sydney Smith, who asked derisively in 1820: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" [46] America's landscapes, shorn of all links with the past, only dramatized the nation's cultural deficiencies. Not until the discovery of landmarks of unquestionable uniqueness did nationalists feel confident in urging Europeans to heed Thomas Jefferson's advice and cross the Atlantic to visit the wonders of the New World. Such were the reassuring magnets of the American West, the cornerstones of a nationalistic park idea.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/chap1.htm — 17-Mar-2004