CURRICULUM / Ideas / National Parks

"America's Best Idea"
Just History tells the story of the National Parks.


America's national parks are a treasure house of nature's superlatives – 84 million acres of the most stunning landscapes anyone has ever seen. They became the last refuge for magnificent species of animals that otherwise would have vanished forever; today, they remain a refuge for human beings seeking to replenish their spirit.

The national parks embody a radical idea, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, born in the United States nearly a century after its creation. It is a truly democratic idea, that the magnificent natural wonders of the land should be available not to a privileged few, but to everyone.

The idea has been constantly debated, constantly tested and is constantly evolving, ultimately embracing places that also preserve the nation's first principles, its highest aspirations, its greatest sacrifices – even reminders of its most shameful mistakes. Most of all, the story of the national parks is the story of people from every conceivable background who were willing to devote themselves to saving a portion of the land they loved.


Part 1: The Scripture of Nature, 1851-1890


It was the discovery of Yosemite, a place of awe-inspiring beauty, in 1851, that would set into motion events that would lead to legislation protecting and preserving the land for future generations.

The first white men to enter the Yosemite Valley were members of an armed battalion whose aim was to search for Indians and drive them from their homeland. One man in their party, a young doctor named Lafayette Bunnell, was so struck by the astonishing beauty of the place that he suggested that they give it a name. Mistakenly believing that it was the name of the Indian tribe living there, he decided to call it "Yosemite." 

Four years later, in 1855, a second group of white people led by James Mason Hutchings entered Yosemite Valley with the help of two Indian guides. Hutchings, an Englishman who had failed miserably at his gold prospecting endeavors, hoped to make a fortune by promoting California's scenic wonders and running a tourist hotel in the valley.


In 1859, Hutchings visited Yosemite again, this time bringing with him a photographer. As other writers and artists traveled to the valley, word – and images – of Yosemite quickly spread, drawing more tourists eager to see the beauty for themselves.

When Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, saw the giant sequoias, he wrote: "If the village of Mariposa, the county, or the state of California does not immediately provide for the safety of these trees, I shall deeply deplore [it]....I am sure they will be more prized and treasured a thousand years hence than now, should they, by extreme care and caution, be preserved so long..."

The designer of New York City's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, wrote of Yosemite that it was "the greatest glory of nature...the union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty."

But it was all in danger, as the nation marched inexorably across the continent, systematically dispossessing Indian peoples of their homelands and putting the land to new uses.

Back in 1832, the artist George Catlin, worried that the vast herds of buffalo and the Indians who depended on them would some day be gone forever, called for the creation of "a nation's park" to save them both. No one listened.

By the 1860s, the country's most famous natural landmark, Niagara Falls, had already been nearly ruined. Every overlook was owned by a private landowner charging a fee. If nothing was done, Yosemite was sure to end up the same way.


On May 17, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, John Conness, the junior senator from California, introduced a bill to Congress which proposed something unprecedented in human history: setting aside a large tract of natural scenery for the future enjoyment of everyone.

More than 60 square miles of federal land, encompassing the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of big trees, were to be transferred to the care of the State of California, on the condition that the land be preserved for "public use, resort, and recreation."

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law to preserve forever a beautiful valley and a grove of trees that he had never seen, thousands of miles away in California.


As a member of the board of commissioners appointed to oversee Yosemite, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote a detailed report about the future of the park. In August 1865, a group of people gathered in the park to hear Olmsted read from this report. In a place as special as Yosemite, Olmsted said, "the rights of posterity" were more important than the desires of the present. He called for strict regulations to protect the landscape from anything that would harm it and stressed the importance of making Yosemite accessible to everyone. To ensure that the park did not become the playground of an exclusive few, he proposed building an improved road to the valley. But his recommendations were deemed too controversial to bring to the state legislature, and his report was quietly suppressed. (See sidebar video.)

Not everyone shared Olmsted's vision for the valley. James Mason Hutchings certainly loved Yosemite, but now that the nation had moved to protect it in perpetuity by declaring it public, no one fought that decision with greater vehemence or moved more quickly to exploit the valley. Hutchings had already bought one of the valley's two hotels and soon began charging people for the privilege of seeing Yosemite.

In brazen defiance of the law, Hutchings went about expanding his private commercial operations. He decided he needed a sawmill and someone to run it. In the fall of 1869, a 31-year-old Scottish-born wanderer who called himself "an unknown nobody" showed up and was hired for the job.


Born in Dunbar, Scotland and raised in Wisconsin, John Muir was a natural-born scientist who studied geology and botany at the University of Wisconsin and also showed great promise as an inventor. In 1867, after recovering from a factory accident which had temporarily blinded him, he decided to set out on a 1,000-mile walk to Florida. A bout of malaria ultimately dissuaded him from going on to South America. Instead, he headed west, and after arriving in San Francisco, set off on foot to Yosemite.

john muir.jpg

John Muir would ultimately do far more than Hutchings to extol the beauty of Yosemite, more than Frederick Law Olmsted to protect it. With his lyrical voice, he infused the national park idea with the passion of religious fervor.

Muir wrote of Yosemite that it was "by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter...the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra."

When he was not running the sawmill, Muir devoted all his free time to exploring the valley. He felt a deep, spiritual connection to the land and animals and decided to devote himself to understanding the wilderness and teaching others the lessons he had learned.

The man who seemed to talk to flowers and rocks was considered an eccentric by many people. Josiah Whitney, California's state geologist, derided Muir as "an ignoramus" when he heard of Muir's theory that glaciers were responsible for creating Yosemite. But in 1871, when Muir discovered a "living glacier" in the recesses of the Sierra, other leading geologists concluded that Muir was right and Whitney was wrong.


Meanwhile, James Mason Hutchings was embroiled in legal battles over Yosemite. When a special bill exempting him from the law that had set the valley aside as public property was overturned by the Senate, Hutchings sued. This led to a ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court that the Act creating Yosemite was, in fact, constitutional.

In 1875, Hutchings was evicted from his hotel and banished from the valley he had so tirelessly promoted.

As for Muir, he moved to Oakland to begin work on a series of reports and articles about Yosemite. His writing would articulate for millions of Americans a deep and abiding love for their land, urging them to see that "wildness is a necessity" and to appreciate places like Yosemite for reasons other than their economic value.


In the early 1800s, reports emerged of a fantastical place in the northwest corner of Wyoming Territory, where mud boiled, water spouted and steam came out of the ground. The area in question was at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River and the reports were not taken seriously. As late as 1869, a group of prospectors who had ventured into the area wrote an account of their journey. But editors refused to publish what they deemed to be a work of fiction.

Then, in the late summer of 1870, a much more prestigious group set out to investigate the rumors. Led by Henry D. Washburn, the group included a prominent banker; a son of a United States Senator; a part-time newspaper correspondent; and Truman C. Everts, at age 54 the oldest member of the expedition, a Vermonter who had come along on a lark.

The driving force behind the expedition was Nathaniel P. Langford, who believed that the future prosperity of the territory rested with completion of a second transcontinental railway, the Northern Pacific. Langford knew that any publicity about the region's attractions would be good for the territory, the railroad, and – since he was on the railroad's payroll – for Nathaniel P. Langford.


Two weeks into his expedition's journey, Langford came across the kind of scenery the rumors had described. They passed through a landscape of "boiling sulphur springs" with vents that were too hot to touch, even with gloved hands. Langford was now convinced that Yellowstone could be an even greater attraction than he and the backers of the Northern Pacific had dreamed.

During their exploration, the nearsighted Truman Everts was separated from the main group and went missing. Over the next several days, search parties were dispatched but they found no trace of Everts or his horse.

A surprise storm forced the expedition to turn for home. After struggling through snow and dense timber, they came upon a large clearing where they beheld "an immense body of sparkling water" projected into the air. The sight of the geyser was so exhilarating that "the entire group threw up their hats and shouted with ecstasy." General Washburn named the geyser "Old Faithful," because of the regularity of its eruptions.

But the big news upon their return was that Truman Everts was still lost. The Vermonter would wander for 37 days, eating mostly thistle roots, before he was found. He weighed only 50 pounds and his frost-bitten feet had been worn to the bone.


In the summer of 1871, Ferdinand Hayden led an expedition of scientists to Yellowstone to determine the real value of the land. Included in the group were a painter and a photographer. For the first time, Americans would see what mere words had previously described.


As Hayden prepared the report that Congress was expecting, he received an intriguing letter from a man named A. B. Nettleton, a shrewd lobbyist working for the Northern Pacific, suggesting that Hayden urge Congress to pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever.

Hayden was happy to oblige and wrote a report in which he assured Congress that the Yellowstone region was unsuitable for farming and that, because of its volcanic origins, no valuable mines were likely to be found there. Hayden warned that if Congress did not protect Yellowstone from private development, it would become another Niagara Falls − another national embarrassment.

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone Park. Unlike Yosemite, which was being administered by the state of California, this would be a national park - the first in the history of the world.


The new national park at Yellowstone was huge. With more than 2 million acres of remote, mountainous terrain, it was 50 times larger than the Yosemite grant in California. But having created the world's first national park, Congress did nothing to provide for its protection.

The job of superintendent was offered to Truman Everts, Yellowstone's most renowned visitor. Since the position paid no salary, Everts politely turned it down. However, Nathaniel P. Langford, who liked to take credit for the park idea and boasted that his initials "N.P." stood for "National Park," eagerly accepted the position.

But during his five years as superintendent Langford visited Yellowstone only twice and seemed to be deliberately delaying development of the park until the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived and the choicest concessions could be awarded to his former employer.


In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed, bringing tourists from the East to Yellowstone in relative comfort and speed. Attendance increased five-fold in that first year.

But everything was under the exclusive control of the Yellowstone Park Improvement Company, which had been granted a remarkable monopoly within the park. The Company was allowed to cut as much timber as it needed; kill elk, deer, and bison for food; farm the land; and even rechannel some of the hot springs for water.

The contract also allowed the company to choose one-square-mile parcels of land at seven locations within the park. The prime attractions of Yellowstone were in grave danger of being completely surrounded and exploited.

Magazine editor George Bird Grinnell began a crusade to stop what he called "The Park Grab." Educated at Yale in ornithology and paleontology, Grinnell had made an excursion to Yellowstone in 1875, which instilled in him a deep love of the new park and a fierce desire to protect it and its wildlife.


Grinnell's fight against the railroad interests was soon joined by an unlikely ally – General Philip Sheridan, a cavalry hero of the Civil War and celebrated Indian fighter, who was now commander of the U.S. Army for much of the West.

Sheridan even suggested that Yellowstone should be expanded to provide greater protection for the elk and buffalo. The idea was immediately opposed by Western politicians who believed that Yellowstone was already too big.

In Washington, Grinnell, Sheridan and Missouri Senator George Vest took on the railroad lobby directly, calling for an investigation into the park contracts, proposing the expansion of Yellowstone, and trying to write park regulations concerning hunting into law.

While the bill to expand Yellowstone failed, Congress did appropriate $40,000 for its maintenance; however, funds to maintain the park were stripped away in August 1886. It seemed Yellowstone would have to fend for itself.

Coming to the rescue, Sheridan dispatched Troop M of the First United States Cavalry to take control of Yellowstone. They arrived believing that military supervision of the park would be a temporary stopgap. Thirty years later, the cavalry would still be there.


After five years of writing in Oakland, John Muir had become a famous voice for nature. He married the daughter of a prosperous fruit grower and settled down to care for his new family. But soon he began to yearn for the wilderness.

Upon returning to Yosemite, he discovered that California had neglected his "sacred temple." Tunnels had been carved through the hearts of some of the big trees, meadows had been converted into hayfields and pastures, and the valley was littered with tin cans and garbage. As if that were not enough, the mountain ramparts in the Sierras above were being destroyed by sheep and lumbermen.

Muir threw himself into what became a pitched battle to preserve the high country. He once again wrote articles describing both the region's beauty and its vulnerability and soon Congress was flooded with public petitions. Muir endured attacks on his integrity by opposing politicians, but finally, on October 1, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed into law a bill creating Yosemite National Park.

At the same time as the Yosemite bill, Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park were created to protect two groves of big trees on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada. There were now four national parks.

But the fight was not over. Muir recognized the need for more parks, bigger parks, and more park supporters to defend them against the enemies he knew would oppose them. He would need to convince many other Americans to see the "necessity," as he said, in all that is wild.