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Lincoln’s Signature Laid the Groundwork for the National Park System

The “Yo-Semite Valley” was made a California state park on this day in 1864, but it quickly became a national park

Images of Yosemite, like this one taken circa 1865, helped increase public appetite for the park. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln put his signature on the Yosemite Grant Act. This represented an important precursor to the national parks system, because it was the first time the American government had taken the lead on preserving a wilderness area in a way that would become typical of the national parks.

The Act granted the “Yo-Semite Valley” and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. But there were a few important provisions: “...that the said State shall accept this grant upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time,” the Act reads. In plain English, what was happening was that Lincoln was charging California with taking care of Yosemite–already a burgeoning tourist destination–as well as developing it by putting in things like roads, so more people could come to view its dramatic vistas and towering sequoias.

This moment has been heralded as an important precedent for the national park system. But creating Yosemite was also an act of erasure. “Native Americans were the main residents of the Yosemite Valley… until the 1849 gold rush brought thousands of non-Indian miners and settlers to the region,” writes History.com. “The crown jewels of the U.S. national parks system, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Canyon, are all customary indigenous territories,” writes Stan Stevens in Indigenous Peoples, National Parks, and Protected Areas: A New Paradigm.

In the early years of the Act, writes the National Park Service, “the newly appointed Yosemite Board of Commissioners confronted the dual task of preserving the magnificent landscape while providing for public recreation.”

On that board was Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind parks across the country including Central Park. He foresaw that visitor use of the park might swell to a level where it was impossible to balance preservation with recreation—and it did. By 1885, writes Encyclopedia Britannica, “some 3,000 visitors were reaching the park annually." Concerns over this influx of traffic led to the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1872 and control of the land being returned to the federal government in 1903. (Now, of course, the park receives millions of visitors per year.)

“In its scope and in its avowed preservation purpose the Yosemite Valley undertaking was truly precedent-setting,” writes author Ney C. Landrum in The State Park Movement in America: A Critical Review. “Not only were there no real state parks in 1864, there were no national parks, either. California’s experiment pioneered a new field of public land management and provided valuable lessons–positive as well as negative–for other park advocates who would soon follow.”

Less than a decade later, writes the National Park Service, advocates drew on the Yosemite Act to argue that the area we now call Yellowstone National Park should be protected. On March 1, 1972, President Ulysses S. Grant listened and signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, making Yellowstone the first national park in America.

The language of that Act echoes what was used at Yosemite, setting into law that the land would be "... set apart as a public park or pleasure-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

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