Filmmaker Ken Burns (or perhaps more accurately his writer and co-producer Dayton Duncan) has claimed that national parks are “America’s Best Idea.” But tracing the historical origins of this best idea can be frustrating. Several different nineteenth-century characters have been credited with coming up with the idea of withdrawing special places “from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, [to be] dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” to quote the Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park (1872). In truth, though, no single individual can take credit for the idea of national parks.
Which park was first?
Although Yellowstone has been widely recognized as the world’s first national park, at least two other sites set the precedent for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. The Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas was the United States’ first national protected area, created by the U.S. Congress and signed into law on April 20, 1832, forty years before the establishment of Yellowstone National Park; the legislation stipulated, as quoted in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, that the hot springs were to be “reserved for the future disposal of the United States, [and] shall not be entered, located, or appropriated for any other purpose whatsoever.” Withdrawing Arkansas’s natural springs from private development created a precedent for later parks, but as historian Alfred Runte notes, reserving Hot Springs was “in recognition of its medicinal value, not with the intent of protecting scenery.” (1)
Runte joins the many partisans of Yosemite in recognizing the Yosemite Valley and a collection of giant redwood trees in California as the first national park. In 1864, amid the disruptions of civil war and ongoing political battles, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation granting to California the “Yo-Semite Valley” and the “Mariposa Big Tree Grove,” thus establishing the first federally created parkland. The Yosemite act did not create a national park, as it ceded the protected sites to the state of California, but it imposed management restrictions that the state must maintain the park “for public use, resort and recreation,” stipulating that it must remain “inalienable for all time.” According to historian Runte and many others who agree with his view, Yosemite became de facto the original national park. (2)
The beginnings of an idea
Yosemite, though, stayed a state park until 1890. The first park to be called “national” was Yellowstone, which came into being on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses Grant signed the Yellowstone Act. But the idea of national parks was in the air long before Congress made Yellowstone a public park, and the suggestion to preserve the Yellowstone attractions had been proposed possibly as early as 1865.
The artist George Catlin may have been the first to express the need for a national park in the American west. In 1833 he suggested the idea of “a magnificent park” to preserve “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….A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild freshness of their nature’s beauty!” (3) Of course, the deeply engrained racism that equates indigenous peoples with “elks and buffaloes” in “the wild freshness of their nature’s beauty” seems problematic if not absolutely repulsive to the enlightened sensibilities of our modern ears. Luckily, the nation never took up Catlin’s proposal for a single park to preserve both “man and beast,” although reservations for native peoples and reservations for beasts in the form of national parks did develop separately, and they persist even today.
In regard to Yellowstone specifically, Montana’s Acting Territorial Governor Thomas F. Meagher may have been the earliest to suggest that it should be a national park, at least according to the recollections several decades later of Jesuit missionary Fr. Francis X. Kuppens. In the Kuppens version, the governor exclaimed, after hearing for the first time in late 1865 about Yellowstone’s wondrous features, “that if things were as described the government ought to reserve the territory for a national park.” Fr. Kuppens recalled that others present at the time agreed that explorations should be undertaken and a report sent to the US government. (4) But other pressing matters delayed any such explorations for several years, well after the governor’s mysterious drowning in the Missouri River.
Enacting the parks idea
The idea of a national park for Yellowstone did not really get going until backers of the Northern Pacific Railroad got involved. Their financial interests created the political will to make Yellowstone into a national park. They helped to organize and fund the explorations needed to bring the Yellowstone area to public attention, they coordinated the campaign to pass the legislation establishing the world’s first national park, and they promoted Yellowstone by sponsoring newspaper and magazine articles as well as high-profile art exhibitions both before and after the enactment of the Yellowstone Act in 1872. Without the political clout and the financial resources of the railroad’s investors, there would not be a Yellowstone National Park.
It would be misleading, though, to conclude that national parks began as a scheme to profit railroads. In reality, there was no single origin of the national park idea. It came about in a long process of evolution that brought together economic, aesthetic, nationalist, and even religious influences. Later, well after Yellowstone’s founding as a park, the idea expanded to encompass concerns for conservation and preservation of natural environments. Through the decades this evolutionary progression of how we regard national parks has never subsided, so that even today the national park idea continues to grow and change. ♨
- Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience, 2nd rev. ed. (University of Nebraska Press, 1987), page 26.
- Ibid., page 30.
- Catlin is quoted in Aubrey L. Haines, The Yellowstone Story: A History of Our First National Park, Volume One, rev. ed. (University Press of Colorado, 1996), page 161.
- Fr. Kuppens’ account is quoted in ibid., page 90.