[On March 1, 1872 Yellowstone became America’s and the world’s first National Park. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five other amazing National Parks, leading up to a special weekend post highlighting the new book on Yellowstone from the amazing Megan Kate Nelson!]
On six figures who help narrate the unfolding history of an early National Park.
1) Chief Tenaya and Lafayette Bunnell: The first European Americans that we know for sure entered California’s Yosemite Valley were a battalion of US Army soldiers led by Major James Savage; the so-called Mariposa Battalion were chasing Ahwahneechee Chief Tenaya and his forces as part of 1851 military efforts to destroy the area’s Native American communities. That’s a pretty bleak starting point for a US relationship to Yosemite, but it didn’t go entirely unchallenged—traveling with the battalion was Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, and the physician would go on to interview Tenaya at length, learn the region’s name and history from him, and eventually author the book Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 which Led to that Event (1880). Bunnell of course was wrong to call it a “discovery,” a choice that reflected and reinforced a Eurocentric view of the region to be sure. But his book helped make more Americans aware of this beautiful and important space, and was a crucial step toward conservation.
2) John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson: As with virtually all of the late 19th century’s conservation efforts, the push to preserve Yosemite was led by the Scottish-born naturalist, scientist, and activist John Muir. Muir became enamored of Yosemite at a young age, writing frequently about the region’s wonders and even helping develop (in his first published work!) the controversial (and now widely accepted) theory that they had been created by alpine glaciers. But Muir alone could not persuade the federal government to help conserve Yosemite, and thankfully he had help from other prominent Americans who shared his views. Chief among them was Robert Underwood Johnson, one of the era’s most famed literary figures (he edited Century Magazine among many other roles); Johnson camped in Yosemite with Muir in 1889 and went on to help him successfully lobby Congress to pass the October 1, 1890 Act that created Yosemite National Park. Their partnership exemplifies the best of the nascent Progressive Era and of how allies from different communities can help advance causes of environmental justice.
3) Ansel Franklin Hall and Rosalie Edge: National Park status ensures a certain level of conservation and protection, but of course doesn’t necessarily guarantee enough travel and support to keep a park thriving beyond that starting point. One of the most important figures in the park’s early years, Park Naturalist (and later the National Park Service’s first Chief Naturalist) Ansel Franklin Hall, was crucial in moving the park in those directions: he founded the Yosemite Museum (which featured Native American craftspeople and interpreters), developed numerous interpretive programs, and edited the 1921 Handbook of Yosemite National Park. Complementing Hall’s efforts from inside the park were those of external advocates like Rosalie Edge, creator and head of the National Audobon Society’s Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC); in 1937, Edge lobbied Congress to purchase 8000 acres of forest on the park’s edge that were scheduled to be logged, making them part of the park’s expanding identity instead. Thanks to Hall, Edge, and their peers, Yosemite not only endured but expanded and thrived throughout the 20th century, and remains a vital American space and destination into the 21st.
Next Park tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other National Parks you’d highlight?