Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1832
History | Sacred Wonderland

The First National Park? Maybe Not What You Thought

Journalists and many historians like to say that Yellowstone reigns as America’s, indeed the world’s, first national park. Yellowstone’s standing as originator of national parks, though, comes with some contingency. At least two parks came before Yellowstone, an easily ignored fact that sometimes shows up as a footnote in the accounts of more astute historians.

Yosemite National Park, more widely recognized as Yellowstone’s predecessor, came into being through an act of Congress signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864, but, as nearly everyone explains, the newly created park went immediately over to California, becoming the state’s responsibility. Lincoln had more pressing concerns than to worry about running a remote park in the far west. Yosemite did not return to the federal portfolio of protected lands until October 1, 1890, when it became America’s third national park. Technically a federally established state park, partisans of Yosemite find it hard to maintain the distinction of their glorious mountain valley and surrounding highlands as the world’s first national park.

Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1832
Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1832 (unattributed illustration in Sharon Shugart’s Hot Springs National Park: A Brief History)

Of our current national parks, the one with the earliest origins is Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Most people are surprised to learn that Congress established the Hot Springs Reservation four decades before Yellowstone. President Andrew Jackson on April 20, 1832, enacted legislation that designated “four sections of land including said (hot) springs, reserved for the future disposal of the United States (which) shall not be entered, located, or appropriated, for any other purpose whatsoever.” This was the first time the federal government created a protected area, although the intention had to do more with access to the purported health benefits of the springs than with preservation of a unique natural area. Nevertheless, Hot Springs can make a claim as America’s first national park.

This claim of America’s first national park, though, comes with its own limiting caveats. Hot Springs did not begin as a national park in the way that we understand today what constitutes a park. In fact, it did not enter the hallowed realm of official national park status until 1921, when it became the nineteenth protected area designated as a national park. So most folks regard Hot Springs as our nineteenth park. But when President Jackson put his name on the Act designating the Hot Springs Reservation, there had never been anything like it before, a place set aside from private ownership and commercial development reserved specifically for the benefit of all citizens in the young democracy. It would be another 32 years before Congress would make Yosemite a park for California, and 40 years before our first official national park would become a reality in Yellowstone. The precedent of Hot Springs has become the wellspring of the entire national park system. ♨

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