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“Yosemite: The Story of an Idea” (1948) by Hans Huth

Hans Huth and His Story

“Yosemite: The Story of an Idea” is one of the most important contributions to the history of the national park idea that has been made in recent years.

For one thing, Dr. Huth, in reiterating that Yosemite, not Yellowstone, was the first park of national importance, has made it imperative that future historians abandon the common assumption that the national park idea was born at a campfire in Yellowstone in 1870. Six years before that campfire, Congressional action had already been taken to set aside Yosemite Valley, that it might be enjoyed in perpetuity as a scenic resource for all the people. The proper place of Yosemite in national park chronology is pointed out by Dr. Carl Russell in One Hundred Years in Yosemite. It is of major importance here that Huth traces the course of man’s interest in nature in this country and demonstrates that no other chronology was possible. He shows the importance of Yosemite not only as a birthplace of an idea, but also as a place where the idea could grow.

Perhaps Hans Huth’s insight with respect to our national parks is due to his not having grown up among them. He obtained his Ph.D. in Berlin in 1922 and by 1936 had been a curator in the museums of Munich and Berlin and the former Royal Palaces and Gardens in Prussia. He came to this country in 1938, having been invited to lecture at New York University and collaborate in history with the National Park Service, by which he was later appointed consultant. Now Associate Curator of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has published books on decorative arts, sculpture, and gardens, and has contributed to historical and art periodicals here and abroad.

Germany has respected cultural objects for generations and has interpreted historic relics for students and the average citizens in an organized way. Huth could see readily enough the practicability of using historic objects as teaching materials in the United States; they could also serve as a type of documentary evidence against which the written word could be checked. He has been instrumental in initiating this method in this country. At the same time, he has manifested great interest in nature protection. He has combined his several interests in “Yosemite: The Story of an Idea.” It is important that the results of his objective study of a park he has never seen be published now, when too many others who have not seen our scenic resources are opposing the concepts and attempting to negate the action of the men of vision of whom he writes.

—David R. Brower

Yosemite: The Story of an Idea

By Hans Huth

I. Introduction

Theodore Roosevelt gave status to conservation as national policy by creating, in 1908, the National Conservation Commission. The importance of what he had done did not really engage the public mind until the Dust Bowl catastrophe of the early ’thirties. Only then did the nation learn what it means to have the heavy topsoil of the plains, no longer protected by the original vegetation, carried away by the Mississippi and poured into the Gulf of Mexico. The dramatization in the Dust Bowl of what might be termed a cumulative calamity served to advance the conservation of the nation’s natural resources and the preservation of the educational and recreational values inherent in state and federal parks. The preservation of these values had been initiated at the now famous Conference of Governors in 1908 through the leadership of J. Horace McFarland, at that time President of the American Civic Association. He was the only representative who was farsighted enough to recommend guarding the national domain for its scenic value, which he felt represented “a distinctly important natural resource.” From this time on, the American Civic Association became active in arousing sentiment in favor of establishing a bureau of national parks. Appropriate legislation was finally drafted and passed by Congress in 1916.

In the course of the growth of the National Park System it has been frequently stated that with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1874, the idea of national parks was born. More specifically, it has been said that members of the Washburn-Doane Expedition of 1870, in a campfire discussion in Yellowstone, laid the foundation for the national park pattern, and that from there on, like apostles, they carried the new gospel to the people.

If things really had happened this way, it would indeed have been something of a miracle. It would have meant that public opinion had been prepared for this supposedly new and unique idea in little more than a year, and that Congress was ready to act favorably “to set apart the vast territory of Yellowstone as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Ideas of such far-reaching consequence do not ripen overnight; they develop slowly. Any attempt to elucidate the evolution of the national park idea must start by exploring two different processes. One is the legal procedure used for transforming an area into a park for public use, as exemplified in the history of the setting up of Yosemite or Yellowstone as segregated areas under state or federal authority. The other is a process which seems more important and has been given little attention—the shaping of public opinion so that it will either demand or suffer conservation measures. Contrary to the usual assumption, it was not the establishment of Yellowstone but rather the setting apart of Yosemite which was preeminent in the basic conditioning of opinion. Yosemite is the point of departure from which a new idea began to gain momentum. Where the idea will lead can hardly be envisaged, but we do know that the manner in which the entire park system developed in this country is specifically American; the system is an institution admirably suited to fill the needs of the people.

II. The American and Nature

What was the attitude of the colonials toward nature, and how did it develop later? To find the answer to this question we could make a detailed study of the treatment of nature in early colonial literature; but it should suffice here to pick out a few significant opinions. Of course we need not stop to inquire about the pioneers’ point of view. They blazed the way and were forced to be uncompromising; they consequently rejected in nature that which was not of immediate and practical use—a philosophy borne out in a little poem published in 1692: In such a wilderness . . .

When we began to clear the Land . . .
Then with the Ax, with Might and Strength,
The trees so thick and strong . . .
We laid them all along . . .
[These] we with Fire, most furiously
To Ashes did confound. 1

We might also mention one Reverend Johannes Megapolensis, who visited the Cohoes Falls in 1644. Taking no delight in the extraordinary sight of nature, he noticed nothing save the obvious consequences brought about by the descending mass of water. To him, the boiling and dashing water made only a horrible noise and the trees looked as if they were standing in the rain. 2 To traveler and settler alike, nature seemed uncouth in the extreme, and they felt that they were in a “most howling wilderness amidst wild men and beasts.” 3 Toward the beginning of the eighteenth century there were occasional changes in this attitude, even in the core of Puritan stock. For example, Jonathan Edwards, the Connecticut minister, who was dismissed from his pulpit for his too strict adherence to the Puritan dogma, rather freely expressed his deep love for the beauties of nature which he considered an emanation of the Son of God. “We behold the fragrant rose and lily . . . the easiness and naturalness of trees and rivers are shadows of His beauty . . . the golden edges of an evening cloud . . . the blue sky . . . the ragged rocks . . . and the brows of mountains.” 4 While such sentiments apparently were admitted in disguised form, a New Englander ordinarily would have frowned on the enjoyment of nature as a pastime, since it would have been neither “useful ” nor “innocent,” but plain wasteful, and therefore vicious and leading to excess and sin. Southerners, of course, were more tolerant, but still contemplations of nature were rare before 1750. Perhaps we may evaluate in this context a statement made by Colonel William Byrd, the owner of Westover, to whom the ideal goal of a Southern gentleman was the possession of “a library, a garden, a grove, and a purling stream.” How far such desires indicate any special addiction to nature is difficult to define. Certainly we do not find one line in Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line (1728-1736) which would prove any special interest in nature. The few such statements we do find in colonial literature are simple and lack expressive power. Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did writers express more clearly defined thoughts about their relations with nature. We must be wary, however, of the à la mode stylists, who cannot be considered as being sincere inasmuch ‘as their conventionalized pastoral sentiments did not spring from any newly won or intimate relations with nature.

What we must study are the writings of such men as William Bartram, Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Alexander Wilson, and Philip Freneau. All these men came into close contact with nature by profession as well as by avocation, and all of them were conscious of the newness of their adventure on being confronted with virgin woods, savannahs, and lakes, not previously charted by white men. They as well as their readers had been prepared for their fresh experience by the works of English deists, such as Lord Shaftesbury, who had shaped their minds to perceive the possibility of a new kind of relationship between man and nature. At the same time they became acquainted with critics of the type of Edward Burke, whose recognition that a quality like “sublimity” should be coordinated with the beautiful, laid the foundation for a new aesthetic doctrine which was immediately taken up and applied. A little later the English Reverend William Gilpin became known as the erudite who had spent years in search and description of the “Picturesque.” Scarcely any writer on “nature” in the beginning of the nineteenth century failed to follow him and use his vocabulary. Only after the integration of such new definitions were writers properly equipped to furnish more unconventional and precise appraisals of nature. Imbued with this new spirit, William Bartram, 1739-1823, traveling between 1773 and 1777, asked his countrymen to behold “as yet unmodified by the hand of man . . . the unlimited variety and truly astonishing scenes of landscape and perspective.” 5

Bartram’s deeply felt emotions led him through all sensations of “vastness” and he would lose himself completely “amidst sublimely high forests, awful shades.” 6 His travel accounts, first printed in Philadelphia in 1791, did not find widespread recognition among his contemporaries; still it was he who strongly influenced Chateaubriand, and, much later, his view was one of the decisive factors in shaping Thoreau’s ideas. Philip Freneau’s poems (1752-1832) dealing with nature subjects are still well known, and it is unnecessary to single out any of them to show how well suited they were to persuading his fellow countrymen to share his deep devotion to nature. In Alexander Wilson’s (1766-1813) epic poem, “The Foresters, Descriptive of a Pedestrian Tour to the Niagara,” even the title reveals an attitude toward the natural wonders of this country. The poem is not well remembered now and probably was never very popular. But Wilson himself, wandering up and down the seaboard states and penetrating into remote places to peddle subscriptions to his bird publications, was a well-known figure and a most eloquent advocate in the propagation of love for and interest in the beauties of nature. In his time the public knew Wilson far better than they did his competitor, Audubon, who came into public view and gained a certain popularity much later.

Among the scores of travelers who roamed through the country for various purposes, it is easy to pick out some who took real interest in the scenes with which they were confronted. From Andrew Burnaby (traveled in 1759-1760) on, these men displayed increasing amazement at the wonders of natural grandeur which they beheld. St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (1731-1813) hates to dwell in “accumulated and crowded cities” and enjoys “in our woods a substantial happiness which the wonders of art cannot communicate.” 7 To visitors beholding Natural Bridge in Virginia for the first time, it is, according to Thomas Jefferson, impossible for their emotions “arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here . . . the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable.” 8 To understand this praise we must realize that Natural Bridge was one of those objects to which a “curio” value had attached. The appreciation of this value, which has nothing to do with the aesthetic or sentimental merit of an object, was one of long standing. It had interested travelers the world over, ever since they had first set out on pilgrimages. Trenton Falls, Mammoth Cave, and, of course, Niagara Falls were some of the other places in this country regarded as “curious” and “landmarks,” to be seen by every foreign traveler. So in evaluating the “raptures” of travelers, we must be careful to distinguish mere delight in a curio value from the growing appreciation of scenic qualities of nature. In the travel accounts of Timothy Dwight, president of Yale in 1795, we are immediately reassured that the joy he expressed in the sights he beheld was genuine. An untiring traveler of the American countryside, he wandered “with emotions, similar to those with which, when a child, he roamed through the wilderness.” 9

Evaluation of the attitudes toward nature of writers of the early nineteenth century is difficult only because it becomes hard to know whom to select among the many who were taking an increasing interest in the American scene. Above all is of course James Fenimore Cooper, whose Pioneers must be regarded as one of the most significant books in this respect. Here is one of its typical passages in which Natty Bumpo expresses his feelings:

. . . “when I felt lonesome . . . I would go into the Catskills and spend a few days on that hill . . .” “What see you when you get there?” asked Edwards . . . “Creation, lad, all creation,” said Natty. “How should a man who has lived in towns . . . know anything about the wonders of the woods? . . . None know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.” 10

A study of William Cullen Bryant’s (1794-1878) poems will clearly prove that devotion to nature was one of his outstanding characteristics. This devotion is early expressed in “Thanatopsis,” and it is later confirmed by James Russell Lowell who hailed the dean of American poets on his seventieth birthday:

The voice of the hills did his obey;
The torrents flashed and trembled in his song;
He brought our native fields from far away . . .

While much interest has been shown lately in Thomas Cole’s painting (1801-1848), some attention should also be given to his journals for their warmhearted descriptions of the “sublimity of untamed wilderness, and majesty of the eternal mountains:” 11 But Cole did not confide his thoughts only to his journal; we know at least of one lecture on “American Scenery,” which he gave in 1835 before the New York Lyceum. 12 Though we do not know the contents of this paper, we can well imagine how Cole talked about “primeval forests, virgin lakes and waterfalls,” feasting his eye and being hallowed “to his soul by their freshness from the creation.” 13

Another romantic writer was Charles Fenno Hoffmann (1806-1884), the first editor of Knickerbocker Magazine. In 1834 he set out all alone to travel west on horseback. He too was enchanted by the beauty nature had lavished on the country and asked, “Why are there none to sing her primeval glories in our land?” 14 More important, however, was George Catlin (1796-1872), another untiring explorer and painter, whose particular interest lay in the “looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America.” Traveling up the Missouri River into the heart of the Indian country (1832), Catlin beheld the vast forest covering the banks of the river and he, perhaps as the first man in this country to do so, had the imagination to conceive the idea that these realms “might in future be seen (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse . . . amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.” 15 This passage was first published in one of the letters Catlin sent to the New York Daily Commercial Advertiser in 1833 from the Indian Territory. Thus was planted the seed of an idea which, although it took more than three decades to develop, was immediately well circulated in the widely read New York newspaper.

Henry Thoreau’s Walden and the thirty volumes of his journal dedicated to recording observations on nature should be enough to show his interest in our problem. In one of his most pertinent passages he wrote:

Why should not we . . . have our national preserves . . . in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be “civilized off the face of the earth” . . . for inspiration and our true re-creation? Or should we, like villains, grub them all up for poaching on our own national domains? 16

Of Emerson’s many statements concerning either his appreciation or his deep understanding of nature and the intrinsic qualities of his native soil, one might quote a remark he made in his Boston lecture about “The Young American” (1844) as reported in the Dial: “The interminable forests should become graceful parks, for use and delight.” 17 This passage, deleted in later book versions, seems to be the one publicly pronounced which follows Catlin’s postulate of 1833 most closely. Cole took up the same idea by stating that “Americans have a strong desire for excellence . . . a love of nature . . . one cause of it—the wilderness passing away and the necessity of saving and perpetuating its features. 18 All these remarks show that by the middle of the century, growing numbers of people not only had begun to take interest in the outdoors but also had realized that conservation measures were becoming necessary. The art critic, Tuckerman, corroborates this change in public opinion by pointing out how healthful “a lengthened sojourn in the primeval forests would be for refreshment and inspiration.” 19 Now at last the opportunity to enjoy the uncharted wilderness was no longer thought to be the exclusive privilege of the romantically minded traveler or artist.

The efforts of artists to interest the public in the great outdoors began very much later than those of writers. At first the artists were definitely carried away by the romantic movement which came to the fore at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before that time landscape painting in this country was almost nonexistent, since only portraits or historical paintings were held worthy of the profession. Perhaps some of the landed gentlemen had their country seats depicted, or occasionally some of the harbor towns and other sites of interest were painted and then engraved to show their topography. But “landscapes” as such were not yet generally appreciated and some English landscapists who came to this country to try out the field failed miserably in spite of the fact that one, William Winstanley, had been recognized by George Washington and had been recommended in 1793 to the Commissioner of the District of Columbia to paint “grand objects” such as the Great and Little Falls and Natural Bridge. Washington himself, encouragingly, had bought some of Winstanley’s “Landskips.” 20 Perhaps the first painter who did landscapes in a truly romantic mood, because he was enchanted by the American scene, was John Neagle, of Philadelphia (1796-1865). However, Neagle painted landscapes only as a sideline and never exercised any real influence, nor was he recognized as a landscapist outside his small circle. Only after 1825, when Cole had shown his landscapes in New York, did the public really become interested in the products of this new school of professional landscapists, later to be known as the Hudson River School. As Cole expressed it in 1835, “The painter of American scenery has, indeed, privileges superior to any other. All nature here is new to art.” 21 To understand the sudden turn which public interest took during this period, we must recall such factors as the publication of Irving’s Sketchbook in 1819-1820, Cooper’s Pioneers in 1823, and The Last of the Mohicans in 1826. With such books capturing strong public interest, it seems logical that thereafter paintings representing scenic objects should have been well received. Several series of prints showing landscape paintings were published after 1820; the most important of these, though it proved to be a failure,. was Asher Durand’s The American Landscape in 1830.

In the prospectus of this album, Bryant expressed the feeling that there was no want of taste in the community to ensure the most successful results to an “undertaking [to publish] the most prominent and interesting features of our varied scenery.” 22 In many titles of such publications we find the word “picturesque.” Even Bryant’s monumental book on the American scene, published as late as 1872, carried the title, Picturesque America. By this time, however, the term picturesque, an heirloom from eighteenth-century terminology, no longer was used with discrimination, and artists made fun of it:

To prose it here, to verse it there
And picturesque is everywhere.

Certainly the term was no longer characteristic of the work of American artists picturing their country and so advancing the knowledge of it. In the years following the early romantic period, artists on the one hand endeavored to show realistically what Cooper as early as 1828 had called “the American scene, embracing all that admixture of civilization and of the forest, of the works of man, and of the reign of nature, that one can so easily imagine to belong to this country”; 23 or, on the other hand, and somewhat later, they were out to paint “heroic landscapes.” These “grand style” objects presented by Church, Bierstadt, Kensett, and Moran, might be described with Catlin’s words as “the vast and vacant wilds which lie between the trodden haunts of present savage and civil life—the great and almost boundless garden spots of earth . . . the boundless plains of beauty and Nature’s richest livery.” 24 However varied artistic conceptions may have been, the resulting pictures were important factors in stimulating the public to take an interest in nature beyond its common utilitarian aspect. Aware of the basic facts underlying this gradual educational process, Emerson, apparently somewhat amazed by his own observations, did some explaining in his journal of October 13, 1837: “New Eyes. What is, appears. Go out to walk with a painter, and you shall see for the first time groups, colors, clouds, and keepings, and shall have the pleasure of discovering resources in a hitherto barren ground, of finding as good as a new sense in such skill to use an old one.” 25 But Emerson did not stay content merely to acquire a new aptitude for his eyes, he was willing also to draw a moral implication from this fresh way of considering nature. He adapted Gilpin’s problem of “searching the picturesque” to his own newly won conception and proceeded to apply it: “Our hunting for the picturesque is inseparable from our protest against false society.” 26 Generally speaking this was no new idea, since the litterateurs of the romantic movement had pronounced thoughts which were similar; however, in Emerson’s close study of nature with his “new eyes,” the idea is seen to be a new and consequential one.

We may get an even closer view of what was going on in the minds of Americans by analyzing some statements made around 1850, when writers noticeably began to look beyond the romantic aspect of nature and to grasp the specific esthetic values of the American scene. Undoubtedly this was at first done rather reluctantly. Even Cooper, who we might expect to say that the Rocky Mountains “must possess many noble views,” thought that nevertheless “the accessories are necessarily wanting, for a union of art and nature can alone render scenery perfect.” But then he goes on to admit that “the mountain scenery of the United States, though wanting in grandeur . . . is not without attractions that are singularly its own.” 27 In George William Curtis we find the same cleavage of opinion. In his book, Lotus-Eating: A Summer-Book, devoted to the pleasure of traveling in this country, he compares the beauty of Lake Como and Lake George. Remarking that there is a “positive want of the picturesque in American scenery and life,” Curtis goes on to make the remarkable statement that there should be another level of comparison than the one ordinarily used. Picturesqueness should not be the yardstick; but “space and wildness are the proper praises of American scenery . . . We have only vast and unimproved extent, and the interest with which the possible grandeur of a mysterious future may invest it.” 28

To gauge the progressiveness of such thoughts one should compare them with what John Ruskin, the recognized European arbiter of taste, told his friend, Charles Eliot Norton, in 1856, “I have just been seeing a number of landscapes by an American painter of some repute; and the ugliness of them is wonderful. I see that they are true studies and that the ugliness of the country must be unfathomable.” 29 In 1871, Ruskin supplemented this statement by another seeming equally strange: “I have kind invitations enough to visit America, I could not even for a couple of months live in a country so miserable as to possess no castles.” 30 So much cynicism and candor would be difficult to excuse if there were not Cooper’s or better still Curtis’s explanation by which to judge Ruskin’s dicta. After all, Curtis’s point of view was not so very different from Ruskin’s, since they both agree to the superiority of European scenery in certain respects. But beyond this Curtis recognized that the American landscape had quite specific attributes, such as Ruskin had never experienced and therefore could not realize. Agreeing with Emerson, Curtis felt that the landscape of the Western Hemisphere had very peculiar qualities, not merely of esthetic value but of vast social importance for the future. Altogether, Americans were to be considered as having a great natural advantage over Europeans. Artists were certainly ready to appreciate this and to help prepare the public to use “new eyes,” which through their efforts were gradually to become common property. Going out west to the Rockies and beyond, as well as to the north, painters were “discarding conventionalism . . . [taking] . . . nature in her beautiful American wilderness as their model . . . [making] . . . the woods and fields their studio . . . daring to paint trees green.” 31

It must be admitted that the process of inducing the public to visualize the great outdoors as a pleasure ground was slow, and not only Britons made gross misjudgments. As late as 1864, Tuckerman feared that “the American of education . . . who delights in the life and takes pride in the aspect of his native land, is the exception, not the rule . . . [because] there is too much monotony in the landscape . . . excepting certain shrines of pilgrimage long consecrated to enthusiasm.” 32

The early representatives of romanticism had influenced the public not only through their pictures and writings, but also by their way of living in the regions they had chosen to paint. Cole, by residing in the Catskills even during wintertime, “in search of the wintry picturesque,” 33 had incited other romantically inclined people to do likewise. By 1825 there were enough enthusiasts to patronize a hotel, the Mountain House, put up in the Catskills for no other purpose than to serve these Idealists in the pursuit of their nature cult—and the customers were awakened every morning to enjoy the sunrise. What a change since Dwight’s travels through the Catskills! In 1804 he only “occasionally passed a cottage and heard the distant sound of an axe and of a human voice . . . All else was grandeur, gloom and solitude. The mountains seem to shut out the few inhabitants from the rest of mankind like in Switzerland.” 34 In 1828 the Atlantic Souvenir published an account of a visit to the Catskills in which the American was admonished not to “leave this land for enjoyment, when he can view the rugged wildness of her mountains, admire the beauty of her cultured plains . . .” Theodore Dwight, a Hartford publisher and nephew of the Yale president, visited the Mountain House in 1834 and described the sunrise rites: “As soon as I could perceive the first blush of dawn, I dressed, and hastened to the roof of the hotel, to watch the approach of the day . . . There was more sublimity to be feasted upon every moment that passed, than some people witness in their whole lives.” 35 As if to answer the need for education to make people “see,” a curious book, The Scene-Shower, was published in 1844 by one Warren Burton. He wanted the public to be properly sensitive to landscape beauty. While the “scenery school” he suggested was never established, his book confirms the change in the public attitude. No longer did only the select few indulge in romantic travel and the “Saratoga crowd” take a cure at a spa; we find instead, according to Harper’s Monthly, that by 1854 various resorts had their staple attractions like the Mountain House’s “sunrising,” and just about everybody taking them in. 36

One of the reasons for this change was that traveling along the seaboard states had become easier. As long as the roads had been the main lines of transportation, traveling had been difficult, since horseback riding was not suitable for pleasure trips. For a holiday jaunt to Passaic Falls in 1797, for example, William Dunlap and his friends hired two carriages. Although they apparently were quite alone on their trip, they met many “merrymakers’ wagons, full of rustic beaux and belles” who, hardly interested in “nature” were crowding into public houses 37 But only great people owned carriages; stages were ridden only when they had to be, since they were uncomfortable and roads—even the national roads—were in hideous shape. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1827, traveling began to be thought of as a pleasure. Canal boats, moving four miles an hour and offering fair sleeping and dining facilities, made trips which were called the “Grand Tour,” up through New York State to Lake Ontario, where passengers could visit Niagara Falls conveniently. What a thrilling experience it must have been to sail through the new and thriving cities of Utica, Palmyra, and Rochester—and just outside town to enjoy “unbroken wildness”! In his essays and novels published after the early ’thirties, N. P. Willis, the fashionable chronicler of his day, described how tourists swarming around Lake George and along the St. Lawrence were eager to discover the “unhackneyed” beauties of silent lakes and vast forests. Theodore Dwight was thankful indeed that “our canals often introduce us to the hearts of the forests; the retreats of wild animals are almost exposed to our view.” But even though “our scenery, history and biography attract more attention than they once did,” many are brought up unfit to enjoy them and “despise those who frequent our wild scenes and select the beauties of nature.” 38

The romance of travel was being discovered by a steadily increasing throng. Sarah J. Hale, the publisher of Godey’s Magazine, felt that “circumstances had almost inevitably designed us as a nation of travellers,” though she felt that many travelers who could be sensitive to natural beauties did not yet take to touring the country for lack of intellectual and poetical associations with the scenery 39 The constantly increasing love of the out-of-doors caused many city dwellers who could afford it to take up summer residence in’ suburbs or even in the country and along the Hudson and Schuylkill. Some inconvenience was caused by the less fortunate who could make only Sunday trips to enjoy a country picnic and who, unmindful of the owners, would swarm ruthlessly across the well-tended lawns of country estates. It was a common sight to behold traveling groups visiting revival meetings, or going out for picnics and camping, as may be seen in Henry Inman’s painting, Picnic in the Catskills (about 1840; Brooklyn Museum). The larger the crowd, the more everybody enjoyed it. Frequently such mass entertainment centered around sporting societies, which had been known since the middle of the eighteenth century. In Philadelphia, for example, there was the “Fishing Company” (founded in 1732), made up of both sexes, which organized excursions on the Schuylkill and to the country in winter as well as in summer. In New York, Fanny Kemble, when she was entertained by the “Pacific Society” enjoyed walks through the woods with magnificent views across The Narrows. The widely read American Farmer recognized the value of outdoor recreation for “liberalizing the mind and invigorating the constitution,” and frequently published articles and poetry to encourage it. 40

May Day was one of the occasions when “hundreds of the refined citizens of Boston . . . witness the glorious spectacle of a rising sun . . . pedaneous excursions are planned and parties made up.” 41 A typical meeting place for such_outings was “Harmony Grove,” near Framingham, Massachusetts, where citizens could enjoy “a day of pleasant recreation among wood land and lake scenery.” 42 It boasted a natural amphitheater, cricket grounds, and all “superior accommodations to parties.” The grounds were easily accessible by the Framingham Branch Railroad. Paintings by W. J. Stillman (Camp of the Adirondacks Club, 1857; Concord Free Public Library), and Worthington Whittredge (Camp Meeting, 1874; Metropolitan Museum, New York), have recorded such meetings and their gay holiday spirit.

With the expansion of railroads in the ’thirties, traveling in some respects was made easier than in the heyday of the canal boats. Davison, the standard traveling guide for the Atlantic states, many times reprinted between 1822 and 1840, informs us that “the recent and gigantic internal improvements in the northern and middle states, and the development of new and highly interesting natural scenery, together with the increased facilities for travelling,” greatly augmented the number of tourists who undertook “what has been usually denominated the Fashionable or Northern Tour.” 43 Although trains, with their speed of two and three miles an hour, did not travel any more rapidly than canal boats, such distant regions as the White Mountains now became more easily accessible, though even in 1857 a trip to such a rugged area was thought of only as “being well for young lovers and romantic fools,” but as for “old gentlemen, they should stay in their comfortable town house.” 44 If the White Mountains were considered impossible for ordinary tourists, one can imagine that places beyond the Alleghenies were even less accessible.

The vanguard of tourists to the West was formed by artists, and John Banvard was one of the pioneers. He had traveled down the whole course of the Mississippi in 1840 and had painted scenes along the banks of the river on a canvas of enormous length especially woven for him at Lowell. Later, turning his flatboat into a show boat and floating down the Wabash, he exhibited his panorama to four thousand paying visitors—an audience which at this date was probably interested primarily in beholding the American scene in a comfortable manner. Other artists managed to go west by traveling with surveying parties. Albert Bierstadt, went along with General F. W. Landers’ expedition which mapped the railroad route across the Platte River and through Wyoming to the Pacific. Bierstadt, on his return, was the first to show the East a representative picture of the Rocky Mountains. When in 1857 he made his first trip to California, he became greatly interested in the Pacific Coast and was one of the first to show paintings of Sierra scenery in the Eastern cities. In time it became apparent that artists were an ever-increasing power in advertising the regions which were newly opened to the public. Recognizing this, the Baltimore and Ohio got some elegant publicity for its “picturesque” route along the Potomac and the Monongahela into West Virginia when, in 1857, the railroad invited twenty artists and photographers to enjoy the facilities of a special train which was fitted out with a kitchen car, dining saloon with piano, and a car “for photo purposes.” To top it all the train would stop wherever the artists wished to make sketches or take photographs. 45

But the West beyond the Rockies was not yet accessible to such leisurely travel. We may conclude, however, that the attitude toward nature had changed enough since colonial days to allow Americans to welcome easier access to the West when it should come.

III. Origin of the Park Idea

Neither the poet’s love of nature and the artist’s interest in its esthetic qualities, nor improvements in transportation and the citizen’s demand for recreational facilities need have produced the scenic park. But if these forces did not produce it, did the park movement, then, originate in Congress?

This could hardly have been expected, for as long as the idea of protecting public lands against usurpation was not urgent or even recognized, the idea of a public park would have seemed utterly futile to the representatives. If Congress did not even acknowledge any duty to further the fine arts with the taxpayers’ money, why should it feel justified in spending money on public lands to be withheld from “proper” use? Even some years after the Yellowstone Act had been approved in 1872, many in Congress expressed concern about this new “asset.” To them it would have been better to have sold the area as other public lands had been sold. After all was it not “a very expensive luxury?” The Federal Government was not supposed to go into “show business” nor was it supposed to “raise wild animals.” With such objections on record we may be rather sure that the park idea did not originate in Congress. Curiously enough, even Frederick Law Olmsted, when he tried to discover the origin of public parks in this country, had to give up—in all likelihood because he had been too close to the problem all his life. He said only that it did not seem to come as the direct “result of any of the great inventions or discoveries of the country,” but that it probably had been “a spontaneous movement of that sort which we conveniently refer to as the ‘genius of civilization’.” 46 This may be; but Olmsted seems not to have considered that type of public park to which most men go eventually.

It remains unknown whether Dr. Jacob Bigelow (1786-1879), of Boston, who became aware of the “impolicy of burials under churches or in churchyards approximating closely to the abodes of the living,” 47 made such observations because he had studied the immense European literature on the subject, or because, as an enlightened hygienist and a public-minded citizen, he was alarmed by the potential danger of the usual burying places’ “sad, neglected state exposed to every sort of intrusion, with scarcely any tree to shelter their barrenness.” 48 He waged a war to do away with the old customs and called a meeting in November, 1825, to advocate the establishing of a cemetery outside the town. Among his friends were such influential people as Joseph Story, John Lowell, Edward Everett, and Daniel Webster. While it took five years to put the plan into effect, a useful preliminary step was the founding of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1829. The members of this society merged with the sympathizers of the rural cemetery, suitable grounds were found at Mount Auburn, and on September 24, 1831, the first scenic cemetery was consecrated. Situated four miles from Boston, Mount Auburn was “the first example in modern times of so large a tract of ground being selected for the processes of landscape gardening to prepare for the reception of the dead.” 49

In the founding of Mount Auburn a chord was struck which was destined to be heard throughout the country. In his consecratory address Judge Joseph Story spoke of how touched he was by the “solemn calm, as if we were in the bosom of a wilderness . . . a spectacle well fit to excite in us a noble emulation.” How far the Père Lachaise in Paris, with its beautiful situation, may have served as an example to Boston, it is difficult to say. It is a fact, however, that a year after Dr. Bigelow initiated his movement, the Atlantic Souvenir of 1826 published an article in which an American visitor to the Père Lachaise described his’ impressions of this vast sanctuary, which presented “the appearance of a wide and variegated garden . . . where trees and shrubs conceal and disclose wild romantic beauty, tombs and temples.” 50 An English traveler visiting Mount Auburn in 1833 remarked that it was laid out in imitation of the Père Lachaise. 51 To a certain degree this was true, but there was at least one clear difference. The Père Lachaise was an old, established park and had been adapted to a new purpose. Mount Auburn was a spot considered to be of natural beauty and it was the intention to keep it that way and to “conserve” it. It was thought then that the necessary changes, such as the appropriate placing of monuments, would not destroy the idea of conservation, but on the contrary, would enhance the area’s natural beauty.

The English traveler added that “parties of pleasure come hither from the city in great numbers every day at the rate of six hundred visitors on some days.” 52 Fanny Kemble also mentions that Mount Auburn was a favorite trysting place 53 and Theodore Dwight even suggested that cemeteries should be planned “with reference to the living as well as the dead, and therefore should be convenient and pleasant to visitors.” 54 The founding of scenic cemeteries at New Haven (1833), New York (1836), Philadelphia (1836), and in many other places shows that the new idea was being rapidly accepted.

To a limited degree there had been “public” parks in this country since the beginning of colonization. When Penn laid out. the original plan of Philadelphia he assigned for public use a number of squares, the largest of which had measured ten acres. These were to be graced with trees and not to be built over, except perhaps with a few public buildings. Likewise there were “commons” such as those in England in most of the New England settlements. Primarily intended to serve as pastures, they were also used as parade grounds or for recreational purposes. But how little effort was spent to protect such lands from encroachment was evident in Washington, where L’Enfant’s grandiose plan providing for an elaborate park system was abandoned very early and only taken up again seriously in 1909 when the original plan was resurrected.

While all these city-bound areas of minor scale cannot be regarded as nuclei for the later park development, the natural burial grounds outside the cities, with their great numbers of visitors who were not mourners, must definitely be regarded as steps in the direction of conservation and the beginning of the park movement. It seems a logical sequence that we should find that William Cullen Bryant was the first to advocate a public park in New York, a park that would be on a scale which up to that time had been unheard of. Although Bryant had discussed the subject privately as early as 1836, his first public plea was published in the New York Evening Post on July 3, 1844. While there is no evidence that Bryant was influenced by the scenic cemetery movement, the author of “Thanatopsis,” “The Burial,” “A Forest Hymn,” and “An Indian at the Burial Place of His Father,” must have been deeply impressed by the rural cemeteries developing throughout the country. Bryant was joined in his efforts by Andrew Jackson Downing, the landscape architect. In his Horticulturist of 1849, Downing asked, “If thirty thousand persons visit a cemetery in a single season, would not a large public garden be especially a matter of curious investigation?” 55 Downing had traveled extensively abroad, and among the parks he had seen when he visited England, France, and Germany, he mentions as particularly beautiful the so-called “English Park” in Munich. Curiously enough, the establishment of this huge city park was due to an American Tory, Benjamin Thompson (later Count Rumford), who had taken up residence in Munich.

With such eloquent advocates as Bryant and Downing behind it, the proposal for a public park in New York was well accepted, and in 1851 the first act was passed authorizing the acquisition of the necessary lands. The appointment of Frederick Law Olmsted as a superintendent of the project initiated a new era in the best possible way. Olmsted had been a friend and pupil of Downing and had also garnered experience in Europe. After some years of fruitful work in establishing the park, Olmsted disagreed with the Park authorities. He gave up his position in May, 1863, and accepted another as superintendent of the mining estates of General Fremont, in Mariposa. In the light of Yosemite’s later role, this shifting of Olmsted’s position from New York to Mariposa must be regarded as a most fortunate coincidence.

IV. The Idea Grows

Even after the first excitement over the California Gold Rush had died down, the East learned little about the beauty spots of the newly acquired territory of California. None but the hardiest traveler, and certainly no “tourists,” would have been willing to stand the overland trek or either of the wearisome routes by sea. It is significant that one of the first big news stories to come out of California that was not concerned with gold was a show-business stunt. In 1852 the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees was discovered. The next year, two unscrupulous businessmen, George Gale and a companion, stripped one of the Big Trees, the “Mother of the Forest,” 315 feet in height and 61 feet in circumference, up to the height of 116 feet, and shipped the bark East for a show in some of the seaboard cities, and then at the Crystal Palace exhibition in Sydenham, London, in 1854. The pamphlet sold in London boasted that the possibility of seeing a forest of such gigantic size would fully repay the toil of a journey to California. The show turned out to be unsuccessful since, “owing to the immensity of the circumference, nobody would believe that the bark had come from one tree, and finally, being branded as a humbug, the exhibition had to be ended.” 56 While this was going on in London, the widely read Gleason’s Pictorial published a protest by a Californian to whom it seemed a “cruel idea, a perfect desecration to cut down such a splendid tree . . . in Europe such a natural production would have been cherished and protected by law; but in this money-making-go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it and the purchaser chops it down and ships it off for a shilling show. We hope that. no one will conceive the idea of purchasing Niagara Falls for the same purpose.” 57 The complainant went on to praise the beauty of the tree when it was still “a single sight worth a pilgrimage to see.” Another strong protest was raised in 1857 by James Russell Lowell, who became editor of the Atlantic Monthly in the same year. His article on “Humanity to Trees” proposed to establish a society for the prevention of cruelty to trees, since “we are wanton in the destruction of trees as we are barbarous in our treatment of them.” 58 In the next year, it was pointed out in Harper’s Weekly that the big tree was now fast decaying, having been peeled “with as much neatness and industry as a troupe of jackals would display in clearing the bones of a dead lion.” 59 In the same year the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table published his book, in which Holmes included a “Talk on Trees” therein professing his passionate fondness for them. However trifling the incident may seem to us now, it aroused a great deal of sentiment in the East, and caused people to ponder their duty of protecting nature against the vandalism of enterprising businessmen. At the same time it undoubtedly stimulated great interest in the wonders of California. The great event in California discoveries, i.e., the opening up of the Yosemite, 60 was publicized with much less fanfare than the Calaveras tree murder. The account in the Daily Alta California about the scenic wonders of the valley discovered by the punitive expeditionary force of 1851 against the “Yosemitos” Indians created no stir outside the state. An article published in the Mariposa Gazette of July 12, 1855, by James M. Hutchings, whose activities from then on were to be dedicated to the valley, was of broader interest. Real recognition in the East came in 1856, when the Country Gentleman 61 republished an article by the California Christian Advocate which declared the “Yo-hem-i-ty” valley to be “the most striking natural wonder on the Pacific” and predicted that it would ultimately become a place of great resort. Hutchings started his California Magazine in the same year and gave Yosemite good publicity in it. In 1855 and 1856 a California pioneer artist, Thomas A. Ayres, made his first sketches at the valley; some of these were lithographed and spread widely over the East. By 1856 Yosemite had become so well known throughout the nation that T. Richardson who published the first illustrated hand book of American travel of general importance, 62 dedicated about 125 words and ore illustration of Mirror Lake to the now celebrated valley of the Yosemite. Here the scenery was called “perhaps the most remarkable in the United States, and perhaps in the world.” With such nation-wide publicity the fame of Yosemite was bound to grow year by year.

As one might have expected, Horace Greeley 63 paid his respects to Yosemite as soon as possible and made the most of it. For reasons unknown, Greeley was in a tremendous hurry and did more horseback riding in the valley than was good for him, especially since he was riding “in torture” with Mexican stirrups that were too small. Being badly disposed, he was disgruntled at the lack of water in Yosemite Falls (it was August) and said so, which afterward caused a furious dispute. But he could not help being overwhelmed by the “grandeur and sublimity of the wonderous chasm”; he considered Yosemite the “greatest marvel of the continent,” and hoped that the State of California would immediately provide for the safety of the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees.

In view of the difficulties of transportation, making photographs in Yosemite was, of course, a major event in the early days. It was done for the first time in 1859 when C. L. Weed and R. H. Vance took photographs and also prepared stereoscopic slides. Their photos were on exhibition at the Fifth Annual Fair of the State Agricultural Society (May 21, 1859) in Sacramento and there earned great applause. At the same time Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion 64 published an illustrated article about Yosemite regretting that it was neither sufficiently known nor appreciated, a criticism not quite justified inasmuch as travel to the West was quite difficult and would remain so for some years to come.

The first really thorough description of the experience of an extended Yosemite trip appeared in a series of eight articles, which Starr King sent to the Boston Evening Transcript from December 1, 1860, to February 9, 1861. 65 Starr King, of course, was an expert in writing such accounts and had published White Mountains shortly before. His much-regretted transfer from Boston to San Francisco at least gave him a chance to explore the West and recount his adventures to the eagerly waiting friends at home. As his friend H. W. Bellows later wrote in an obituary on Starr King, 66 “no one had really seen the Sierra Nevada, Mount Shasta, the Yosemite Valley . . . until his fine eye saw and his cunning brain and hand depicted them . . . you will find the newspapers in which his portraitures of these sublime and charming scenes are found carefully laid away in hundreds of New England homes as permanent sources of delight.” His papers, entirely forgotten today, acquainted the East better than anything else with the fabulous beauties of Yosemite.

The most important photographic records following Weed’s were by C. E. Watkins (1863), which Oliver Wendell Holmes compared with the finest work done in Europe 67 They were constantly on exhibition at Goupil’s art galleries in New York.

With so much interest devoted to Yosemite by travelers, journalists, and writers from the East, it would be fascinating to know who in California was taking active interest in the destiny of the valley. We unfortunately know only very little about this. Certainly Starr King’s enthusiasm made him one of the leaders in the effort to conserve Yosemite, and it was well known that he was planning a book about the Sierra and Yosemite which would have been a sequel to his White Mountains book. Given his love of nature, his position as one of the most prominent and influential citizens of California made him the natural leader in the campaign. Among his friends was Judge Stephen Field, who had visualized the need of having the state make a geological survey. Owing to Field’s effort, Josiah Dwight Whitney had been appointed to carry it out, assisted by William H. Brewer and Clarence King. F. L. Olmsted’s papers 68 show that immediately after his arrival in California, in September, 1863, he became enthusiastic about the valley and tried to work for its conservation. But Whitney, though not his assistants, disliked this activity and tried to obstruct it.

The men who were recommended as the first commissioners of the Yosemite grant are most likely those who helped to prepare the act. They were Professor John F. Morse, Israel Ward Raymond, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Of Morse we know only that he was a well-thought-of physician in San Francisco. About Raymond we are better informed. It was he who addressed the decisive letter to Senator John Conness urging him to present a bill concerning Yosemite to Congress. Raymond was the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company of New York. He was known Ao have been a public-spirited citizen, and certainly did not take this step to further any of his business interests. Altogether, it is quite safe to assume that as a whole the group of men promoting the interests of Yosemite did so for idealistic reasons. This is demonstrated in the measures they recommended and pushed.

The coincidence of Olmsted’s arrival in California at the very moment when he was most needed has curiously enough never been noticed. For once it seems that the right man was in the right spot at the right time. Living in Mariposa, Olmsted was in close touch with Yosemite, and, we can be certain, thoroughly familiar with its problems. Certainly no one was better prepared to take an active part in urging the Yosemite grant and to keep the ball rolling. Preliminary discussions must have taken place, probably with Olmsted and the other potential commissioners, before Raymond addressed the following heretofore unpublished letter to Senator Conness: 69

88 Wall Street
New York, 20th February 1864.

Hon. John Conness
Dear Sir:

I send by Express some views of the Yosemity Valley to give you some idea of its character. No. 1 is taken from a point on the Mariposa trail and gives a view of about seven miles of the Valley, and the principal part of it. You can see that its sides are abrupt precipices ranging from 2500 feet to 5000 feet high. Indeed there is no access to it but by trails over the debris deposited by the crumbling of the walls.

The summits are mostly bare Granite Rocks in some parts the surface is covered only by pine trees and can never be of much value.

It will be many years before it is worth while for the government to survey these mountains. But I think it important to obtain the proprietorship soon, to prevent occupation and especially to preserve the trees in the valley from destruction and that it may be accepted by the legislation at its present session and laws passed to give the Commissioners power to take control and begin to consider and lay out their plans for the gradual improvement of the properties.

May not this be a sufficient description:

“That cleft or Gorge in the granite peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains situated in the County of Mariposa, State of California, on the head waters of the Merced River and known as the Yo Semite Valley with its branches or spurs in length fifteen miles and in width one mile back from the main edge of the precipice on each side of the valley the lines to be defined on Sectional lines when surveyed, by the Surveyor General of the United States and in the spirit of this act.”

I take this length and width to secure the approaches from any annoyance. The south end is narrow and filled by the Merced River. The North end leads to Mono, is narrow and filled with rocks, and impassable to a mule.

“Also all those quarter sections in Mariposa County on which stands the grove of Gigantic trees known as the ‘Mariposa Big Trees’ not exceeding in all Four Sections of one mile square each, the lines to be defined in the spirit of this act by the Surveyor General of the United States when surveying the said County of Mariposa.”

I say “quarter” section because the trees are too scattered to be covered by four square miles in compact.

If thought best to have a compact tract it should require six or eight sections.

“The above are granted for public use, resort and recreation and are inalienable forever but leases may be granted for portions not to exceed ten years. All income derived from leases or privileges are to be expended in the preservation and improvement of the prospectus or the roads leading thereto.”

The properties shall be managed by (5.7.9) commissioners who shall not receive any payment for said services. Vacancies for death, removal, or resignation shall be filled by the others subject to confirmation by the State Senate. The first Corns. to be:

The Governor of the State of California, Ex. off.
The Collector of the Port of San Francisco.
Prof. Whitney—State Geologist.
Fred Law Olmsted of Mariposa.
George W. Coulter of Coultersville.
[Added by Conness in space left by writer:]
The Mayor of the City of San Francisco.
Prof. John F. Morse         do.
I. W. Raymond             do.

Full reports to be made annually to the Senate of the State.

If we can obtain this grant, I believe we can get Subscriptions in California to make improvements. Submitting the above,

I am very truly yours,

(Sgd.) I. W. Raymond.

Conness sent this letter to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, accompanying it by the following letter of transmittal:

March 6, 1864

Hon. J. W. Edmonds
Dear Sir:

Herewith you will find a letter with a description of the land of the Mariposa Big Trees and Yosemite.

Will you have the kindness to prepare a bill and send it to the committee of the Senate or to myself. You might insert in this the springs in a separate section. Leave blanks for the names as commissioners or insert as you find them or insert as I have Prof. John F. Morse, I. W. Raymond, Stephen J. Field. This will make nine commissioners. Let the grant be inalienable, and in regard to the mineral springs take care to insert a provision which shall not confirm any state land warrant or state location made in pursuance of any land of the State of California.

Yours truly,

(Sgd.) John Conness.

The General Land Office furnished the requested data promptly so that Conness was able to introduce the bill on March 28, 1864. There was some discussion on the floor of the Senate in which Conness stated that the bill had come to him from various gentlemen in California “of fortune, of taste and of refinement,” that the General Land Office also took great interest in the bill, and that there was “no other condition of things like this one on earth.” Finally he referred to the sorry incident of the killing of the Calaveras tree in 1853. The bill was passed, and on June 29, 1864, it was signed by President Lincoln.

So far nothing was extraordinary about the Yosemite grant, and national public opinion certainly was not aroused by the federal action; grants to states were given quite frequently. However, there was something peculiar about this grant, and as it happened, it was destined to set a precedent of real importance. The grant was given “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation, shall be held inalienable for all time.” These terms implied that no profit was to be expected from the new institution. Probably it was assumed that at least all costs of upkeep would be offset by revenue from leases or privileges; at any rate, Congress took no responsibility. What was really new about the grant was the fact that it served a strictly nonutilitarian purpose. It is necessary to stress this point in view of the claims that Yellowstone set this precedent.

On September 28, 1864, Governor F. F. Low of California proclaimed the grant to California and made known the Commissioners he had. appointed: Frederick Law Olmsted, J. D. Whitney, William Ashburner, I. W. Raymond, E. S. Holden, Alexander Deering, George W. Coulter, and Galen Clark. Olmsted became chairman and immediately took the lead in the effort to organize the protected area. At the same time he ordered a survey made and a map drawn by Clarence King. Since Olmsted needed this as soon as possible as a basis for the suggestions he planned to make, he magnanimously paid all expenses himself, with no more than a hope that he might be reimbursed by the California legislature two years later. All through 1865 Olmsted was hard at work preparing a plan of management. In a letter to his father ( July 5) he expressed his feeling that Yosemite was “far the noblest park or pleasure ground in the world.” Just at this time he received the first group of dignitaries from the East who wished to visit the park. They were Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House, and a group of friends from the East and from San Francisco. Among them were Samuel Bowler, publisher of the Springfield Republican, who had been interested in the Yosemite campaign; Charles Allen, Attorney General of Massachusetts; and Albert Richardson, the distinguished war correspondent of the New York Tribune. Altogether there were seventeen gentlemen and three ladies. The Easterners were proud that they had come across the plains, “simply to see the country and to study its resources.” In the travel account published later, Bowles made this remarkable statement:

“The wise cession and dedication [of Yosemite] by Congress and proposed improvement by California . . . furnishes an admirable example for other objects of natural curiosity and popular interest all over the Union. New York should preserve for popular use both Niagara Falls and its neighborhood, and a generous section of the famous Adirondacks, and Maine, one of her lakes and its surrounding woods.” 70

Here we have in unmistakable language a formula not just for the protection of this or that area of interest to some group or other, but for a systematic approach to an over-all system of protection of areas which illustrate specific features of nature throughout the nation. That is exactly the pattern which was followed many years later after the National Park Service had been established. It is well to note that Bowles made his statement in connection with Yosemite, which he must have considered as the first step in the direction he advised the country to take. Bowles’s; counsel undoubtedly represented the opinion of the distinguished group of men of which he was a member. The fact that Bowles felt that state legislatures should protect the areas is not important in evaluating his plan. One could hardly expect anyone in 1864 to envisage federal legislation for the purpose of conserving state areas. The way Yosemite had been handled made it quite evident that in spite of the fact that the grant was made to the state, the object of the grant was considered to be of nation-wide if not of world-wide importance.

Confirmed in his actions by Colfax and his party, Olmsted happily continued his efforts to organize the park. All his suggestions for improvements were summed up in a report approved by the Yosemite committee and submitted by him to the legislature. Unfortunately this report is lost [Editor’s note: this long-suppressed report was found in 1952—dea] and cannot be traced in the papers of the legislature in Sacramento. We can, however, get a glimpse of the thoughts which directed Olmsted in preparing his report by means of a questionnaire he addressed to three artists:

August 8th, 1865

Messrs. Williams, Hill and Watkins.

I address you in behalf of the Commissioners appointed under the Act of Congress, establishing Yo Semite and Mariposa Grove as a ground for recreation. The action of. Congress with regard to the Yo Semite was doubtless taken in view of the peculiar value of its natural scenery, the purpose of its action was to give the public for all future time the greatest practicable advantage of that scenery, and the duty of the Commission is to secure the accomplishment of that purpose. What effects natural scenery favorably or unfavorably to the enjoyment of mankind is the principal study of your lives and as you are at present making a special study of the scenery of the Yo Semite you may find it convenient to give some thought incidentally to two general questions your advise upon which would be of great service to the Commission:

1st. Are there any conditions affecting the scenery of the Yo Semite unfavorably which it would be in the power of the State to remove, or the further and increased effect of which might be prevented?

2nd. What can be done by the State to enhance the enjoyment now afforded by the scenery of the Yo Semite?

The Commission being required by act of Congress to perform its own duties gratuitiously and no provision having been made for meeting any expenses in the premises, I cannot promise the pecuniary remuneration for your advice which it would be your right to demand, but it is hoped that the importance of the Commission’s duty as a field of study for artists and the great interests of the public in having the action by the State well advised present sufficient grounds of apology for requesting your professional assistance as a favor.

I am, Gentlemen, very respectfully

Your obt. servant

Fred Law Olmsted
First Commissioner

Apparently the artists had been commissioned to make a special study of the scenery of the park and the way it might be improved. Virgil Williams (1830-1886), from Massachusetts, had studied in England and came out West in 1862; C. E. Watkins was the photographer mentioned previously; and Thomas Hill (1828-1908), who had studied in Paris, had been living in San Francisco since 1861. Because one of Hill’s Yosemite paintings on exhibition in Boston in 1868 had been acclaimed as the best representation of the great natural wonder of California, it was chromo-lithographed by S. Prang in Boston and became widely known all over the country. Olmsted’s letter is interesting in several respects: first, it shows how eager Olmsted was to get the expert opinions of artists; secondly, it confirms Yosemite’s nation-wide importance; and finally, it shows again the lofty attitude of Olmsted, who expected everybody to work as he did without regard to remuneration. Unfortunately Olmsted could not wait to see his recommendations carried out; soon after his report was dispatched to Sacramento he accepted the appointment as landscape architect for Central Park and returned East in November, 1865.

After 1865 the Yosemite grant was developed normally; the occasional difficulties which arose were chiefly caused by the early settlers in the park who were unwilling to give up certain claims. The fame of Yosemite grew. At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1867 an international audience became acquainted with Yosemite through twenty-eight photographs by Watkins as well as through three hundred stereoscopic views. Copyrighted in 1863, portfolios with lithographs of California, including Yosemite, were published by Edward Vischer in 1870. In 1868 the first carefully prepared guidebook of Yosemite was produced by John S. Hittell, with twenty photos by “Helios,” pseudonym for Edward J. Muybridge, the first motion picture photographer. 71

The year 1868 brought John Muir to California. His profound devotion to the Sierra initiated a new era in spreading the glory of Yosemite. His enthusiasm is well epitomized in his letter inviting Emerson to Yosemite. “I invite you to join me in a month’s worship with Nature in the high temples of the great Sierra Crown beyond our holy Yosemite. It will cost you nothing save the time and very little of that, for you will be mostly in Eternity.” 72 In spite of his age, the sixty-seven year old Emerson accepted the invitation and braved the hardships of a journey to Yosemite. In May, 1871, he arrived in the valley. This is what he jotted down in his journal as his first impression: “In Yosemite, grandeur of these mountains perhaps unmatched in the globe; for here they strip themselves like athletes for exhibition and stand perpendicular granite walls, showing their entire height, and wearing a liberty cap of snow on the head.” 73

With Yosemite ranking so high in national favor, the propagators of projects for other scenic areas of some importance were busy trying to get them nationally recognized and protected. There were, of course, many such areas of more or less doubtful value, and their evaluation and recognition took its due course. One of the major areas was that of Niagara Falls. Claims had been made in 1835 that the falls were “the property of civilized mankind.” Since 1850 the legislature of New York was- lobbied in favor of a bill to protect the falls “against waste and degradation.” Once more Olmsted was among those who supported protective legislation. This was finally passed in 1883.

The Yellowstone case had been settled more than a decade earlier by the act of March 1, 1872, which created Yellowstone National Park as the first area under federal protection, exclusive of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the establishment of which was a history of its own. Much has been made of the belief that Yellowstone was the first federal park. One has become quite accustomed to reading statements that the establishment of Yellowstone “was the first step of any consequence taken to protect our natural resources, and from it our entire conservation program has grown.” 74 In another report we are told that the idea of the national park system was launched at that now historic campfire on Sept. 19, 1870. 75 We read it again in a brief history of the National Park Service published in 1940 as a Government publication by the Department of the Interior.

All these statements are based on Hiram M. Chittenden’s presentation of the events which led to the establishment of Yellowstone 76 Louis C. Cramton has refuted this story completely and says that the early explorer “David E. Folsom’s suggestion to General Henry D. Washburn (in August 1870) was the first recorded idea of a reservation of the Yellowstone area for public benefit . . . the Hedges proposal at the campfire put in train of action the movement to secure such reservation.” 77 Since the campfire story has already been discounted here, it is not necessary to discuss the consequence of giving up the sentimental legend. As we have seen, the “national park idea” has a very respectable pedigree and was anything but new in 1870. But there is one point made by Chittenden which deserves attention. It was mentioned earlier here that George Catlin was the first man in this country to conceive the idea of a national park. Chittenden in the first edition of his Yellowstone book 78 came to the same conclusion. Surprisingly enough he retracted this opinion in the second edition, maintaining that “Catlin’s idea of a National Park was solely [aiming at] . . . a home for the Indians . . . his name cannot be considered in connection with those who originated the idea of the Yellowstone Park.” 79 Undoubtedly Chittenden was correct in assuming that Catlin had in mind some kind of a national park which would form a sort of Indian Habitat. But while such an idea would hardly detract from Catlin’s original hope to conserve a portion of the American heritage for the public good, Chittenden apparently does not reason that way. It was only because Chittenden believed that Catlin had had the Yellowstone area in mind for his project that Chittenden asserted Catlin’s priority for the idea, and after concluding that Catlin’s suggestion had nothing to do with Yellowstone, Chittenden rejected Catlin as the originator of the general idea, as well as of the specific plan. From this it seems that Chittenden crystallized his thoughts solely around Yellowstone as the national park.

The same conception seems to have prevailed throughout the early debates of Congress concerning Yellowstone. It appears that creation of this one park was regarded as the supreme effort in this respect. A typical statement by Senator Vest may illustrate this attitude: “There should be to a nation that will have a hundred million or a hundred and fifty million of people a park like this as a great breathing place for the national lung, as a place to which every American citizen can resort.” 80 Special attention is called to this point of view because it does not show the same clear vision of the needs of the whole country and the possibilities offered by an entire continent as does the program proposed by Samuel Bowles and quoted previously, which represented the idea of a group of distinguished men who had studied the situation in Yosemite. Public opinion as echoed by the New York Tribune appears to have tended toward Bowles’s view. In a review of one of Nathaniel Langford’s talks propagandizing Yellowstone, the paper says that “while we always have our Niagara and Yosemite this new field of wonder . . . should be at once set apart as a public national park.” 81 Apparently Yellowstone was here thought of just as one of the “natural attractions,” to be set aside as Yosemite had been.

One more problem remains to be settled. That is, did the establishment of Yellowstone as a federal park advance the park idea more essentially than the earlier attempt to protect Yosemite? Of course there is no doubt that placing. Yellowstone under federal administration represented a completely new departure and as such this event is certainly worthy of due recognition. Early in the nineteenth century, Congress almost unanimously would have resented such threats to taxpayers’ money. But trends around 1870 were different, and it was no longer unheard of for Congress to pay attention to art, education, or similar, not quite tangible “values.” Therefore, the establishment of a federal park was not exactly a stupendous deviation from undertakings directed by the Zeitgeist of that era.

In the long run federal protection of deserving areas did prove to be the most satisfactory form of protection, and in this respect Yellowstone marks a certain beginning, but hardly a promising one, as beginnings are usually described. Buck as well as Cramton, in their studies concerning the early history of conservation and Yellowstone, have shown that those who urged the creation of the park were for the most part exponents of groups wishing to preserve the area for their own interests. Their lobbying, and not general public support, was influential in getting the bill adopted and we can well understand why the passing of the bill caused no “flurry either in Washington or in the country at large” . . . and “an attitude of indifference prevailed.” 82

The same attitude continued for more than a decade of the so-called formative period of Yellowstone. Travel was light. The park was remote, there were hardly any lodgings and no roads, scarcely any guards or rangers were on hand to advise visitors and the superintendent was usually absent. Tourists could not, therefore, have been expected to use the new “pleasuring ground” in any large numbers. It does not seem strange that in the early years the park “administration,” if this word is at all permissible, was ever close to collapse. More than once Congress was possessed with the urge to rid the federal administration of its incubus. After all, Congress had only been asked to protect Yellowstone because in 1870 it was in a territory and could only be taken care of under federal custody. To encourage Congress to adopt the bill, no appropriations were asked for, nor supposedly were they intended to be asked for in the next years. It could have been anticipated that such a situation would breed difficulties; but because of ‘the lobby’s pressure the bill passed and a trouble spot was created. Yellowstone had to muddle through its formative years rather desperately.

Yosemite, once it was set aside, progressed smoothly, contributing far more than Yellowstone, it would seem, toward advancing the idea of conservation. It makes little difference that one area was under custody of a state and the other of the federal government. Certainly the purpose to which Yellowstone was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” in 1872 did not differ from the purpose for which the Yosemite grant had eight years earlier been given in trust to the State of California, “upon the express condition that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation . . . inalienable for all time.” It should be remembered also that the attaching of stipulations to the California grant was no empty gesture. When it was reported in later years that the State of California was not doing so well as a trustee of the grant, a congressional investigating committee inspected the park with the result that, with the consensus of all interested, it was resolved that the park be placed under federal management. These difficulties began to turn up in the ‘nineties; Yosemite in its early years was favored by the gods. Appropriations for improvement were granted by the legislature of California as soon as necessary and possible. From the time on when the Central Pacific touched Stockton (1869), national tourist travel began to invade the valley. Yosemite was soon in a niche in the minds of the American people, who admired their country and took pride in it. Most people could not go out to California, but a chromo by Prang was within the reach of almost every lover of nature; the enormous editions of these lithographs, showing Yosemite, proved how eager people all over the nation were to satisfy their desire to become familiar with the wonderland of California.

Thus it seems certain that although Yellowstone was the first federal venture in the field of protecting areas, this fact alone did not advance the concept of conservation in the first decade and a half of the park’s existence. Had it not been for a group of senators faithful to the cause, the House would gladly have yielded to those who wished to drop the project or sacrifice it to the interests of pressure groups who would have destroyed the purpose of the park. It is questionable if Congress, with the Yellowstone experience alone, would have considered extending the national park system. Quite significantly, when the system was extended in 1890, it was to protect areas around Yosemite as well as those now called Sequoia National Park and General Grant Grove—all of them in California, where the park idea had developed so well.

In the year of the Yosemite grant another milestone was passed in the publication of George P. Marsh’s Man and Nature. This book, frequently reprinted until 1898, was the first to approach the theme of conservation in scholarly fashion. It was widely read and most influential; Bryant, for example, quoted it in his editorial on the “Utility of Trees” in the Evening Post of June 20, 1865. It is most likely that Marsh’s ideas influenced those men who were responsible for the Yosemite grant even before he published them [in 1863 and 1864]. By the time the Yellowstone problem was being discussed, his thoughts had become common property. Marsh recognized how complex conservation problems are; in his chapter, The Instability of American Life, he wrote, “We have now felled forests enough everywhere, in many districts far too much. Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions and devise for maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows and the pastures, to the rain and the dews of heaven . . . . ” 83 In a new edition of Man and Nature he added these words to his chapter, Forests of the United States: “It is desirable that some large and easily accessible region of American soil should remain as far as possible in its primitive condition, at once a museum for the instruction of the students, a garden for the recreation of the lovers of nature, and an asylum where indigenous trees . . . plants . . . beasts may dwell and perpetuate their kind.” 84 Though this was written shortly after the establishment of Yellowstone Park, it certainly must reflect thoughts that Marsh had developed much earlier.

As a logical consequence of these ideas, Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated the conservation program out of which the National Park Service grew. The idea the program represents is based on a series of trends— deeply rooted in the American pattern of life, developing in various strata, ranging over a long period of time—that were finally embodied in park, state, and federal initiative. The idea of keeping intact some of the grand scenery of the New World such as Chateaubriand had celebrated—

there is nothing of age in America but the woods . . . that is well worth monuments and ancestors— 85

was never quite lost sight of, from the day George Catlin conceived it until it matured in the protection of the jewel of all, “holy Yosemite.” With this achieved, other successes were no longer difficult. One pearl after another was collected and strung with the others to form a national park system which is the unrivaled adornment of this hemisphere.


1 Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, 1630-1707, ed., A. C. Myers (1912), p. 303.

2 Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664, ed., J. F. Jameson (1909), p. 170.

3 Letter from Plymouth Colony, 1680, quoted by Seymour Dunbar, History of Travel (1915), p. 15.

4 A. V. G. Allen, Jonathan Edwards (1890), p. 355ff.

5 William Bartram, Travels (London, 1792), pp. 48, 187.

6 Bartram, op. cit., p. 341.

7 St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer [1769], ed. W. P. Trent (1904), p. 220.

8 Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on Virginia” [1787], Works, ed., Lippscomb II (1905), pp. 31-32.

9 Timothy Dwight, Travels, IV (1822), p. 59.

10 James F. Cooper, The Pioneers, chapter 26.

11 Louis Noble, The Course of Empire (1853), p. 241.

12 Noble, op. cit., p. 195.

13 Noble, op. cit., p. 202.

14 Charles F. Hoffman, A Winter in the West, II (1835), p. 316.

15 George Catlin, The Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indian, I (London, 1841), p. 262.

16 Henry Thoreau, “Chesuncook,” in Atlantic Monthly, II (1858), p. 317.

17 Dial (1844), p. 489.

18 Noble, op. cit., p. 398.

19 Henry T. Tuckerman, in Home Authors, Home Artists (1852), p. 134.

20 George Washington, Letters, XXXIII (1940), p. 83.

21 Noble, op. cit., p. 202.

22 John Durant, Asher B. Durand (1894), p. 73.

23 James F. Cooper, Notions of the Americans (1828), p. 332.

24 Catlin, op. cit., II, p. 155.

25 Ralph W. Emerson, Journals, IV (1910), p. 321.

26 Ralph W. Emerson, “Nature,” in Complete Works, III (1876), p. 178.

27 James F. Cooper, “American and European Scenery Compared,” in Home Authors, Home Artists (1850), p. 61.

28 George W. Curtis, Lotus-Eating (1850), pp. 137-40.

29 John Ruskin, Letters to C. E. Norton, I (1904), p. 29.

30 John Ruskin, Arrows of the Chase (New York, 1894), p. 148.

31 Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion (Oct. 22, 1859), p. 261.

32 Henry T. Tuckerman, America and Her Commentators (1864), p. 415.

33 Noble [1843], op. cit., p. 343.

34 Tim. Dwight, op. cit., p. 18.

35 Theodore Dwight, Things As They Are (1834), p. 197.

36 Harper’s Monthly, IX (1854), p. 147.

37 William Dunlap, Diary, I, (1931), p. 64.

38 Theodore Dwight, op. cit., pp. 232, 192, 225.

39 Sarah J. Hale, Traits of American Life (1835), p. 187.

40 See American Farmer, VII (1825), p. 148.

41 Horatio Smith, Festival Games and Amusements (1832), p. 325.

42 Gleason’s Weekly, II (1852), p. 384.

43 George M. Davison, The Travellers Guide (1837, 7th ed.), p. xvi.

44 Harper’s Weekly (August 22, 1857), p. 536.

45 Cosmopolitan Art Journal, II (1857-1858), p. 207.

46 Frederick L. Olmsted, Forty Years of Landscape Architecture [1880], II (1928), p. 14.

47 C. W. Walter, Mount Auburn (1847), p. 10.

48 Joseph Story, An Address Delivered on the Dedication of Mount Auburn (1831), p. 12.

49 Walter, op. cit., p. 14.

50 Atlantic Souvenir (1826), p. 56.

51 E. S. Abdy, Journal, I (1835), p. 120.

52 Abdy, op. cit., p. 120.

53 Fanny Kemble, Records of a Girlhood (1879), p. 590.

54 Theodore Dwight, op. cit., p. 102.

55 Andrew J. Downing, Rural Essays (1853), p. 157.

56 Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion (1859), p. 264.

57 Gleason’s Pictorial, V (1853), p. 216.

58 Crayon, LV (1857), p. 96.

59 Harper’s Weekly (1858), p. 357.

60 For the history and bibliography of the Yosemite Valley see: Carl P. Russell, One Hundred Years in Yosemite (1947).

61 The Country Gentleman, Albany (October 8, 1856), p. 243.

62 Illustrated Handbook of American Travel (1857), p. 377. Later known as Appleton’s Handbook.

63 Horace Greeley, An Overland Journey (1860), p. 381.

64 Ballou’s Drawing Room Companion (May 21, 1859), p. 325.

65 Boston Evening Transcript (December 1, 15, 31, 1860; January 12, 19, 26 and February 2, 9, 1861.)

66 H. W. Bellows, In Memory of Starr King (1864), p. 22.

67 Atlantic Monthly, XII (1863), p. 8.

68 I should like to extend my thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted (fils), who kindly permitted me to consult his father’s unpublished papers, and to Francis P. Farquhar and Carl P. Russell for valuable suggestions.

69 The papers quoted are filed in the U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C., under: General Land Office—Letters Sent Concerning Private Land Claims, Vol. 25 (1862-65), and Miscellaneous Letters Received 033572.

70 Samuel Bowles, Across the Continent (1865), p. 231.

71 John S. Hittell, Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties (1868).

72 Ralph W. Emerson, Letters, VI (1939), p. 155.

73 Ralph W. Emerson, Journals, X (1914), p. 354.

74 New York Times (March 30, 1947).

75 National Park Supplement of the Annual, published by the American Planning and Civic Association (1936), no. 4, p. 3.

76 Hiram M. Chittenden, The Yellowstone National Park (1905), p. 89. Reprint, with minor changes of text and some notes added, 1940.

77 Louis C. Cramton, Early History of Yellowstone National Park (1930), p. 35.

78 Chittenden, op. cit., (1895), p. 1.

79 Chittenden, op. cit., (1905), p. 96.

80 Paul H. Buck, The Evolution of the U.S. National Park Service (1921, Government reprint, 1941), p. 29.

81 New York Tribune (January 23, 1871).

82 Buck, op. cit., p. 9.

83 George P. Marsh, Man and Nature (1864), pp. 328-9.

84 George P. Marsh, The Earth As Modified by Human Action (1874), p. 327.

85 François René de Chateaubriand, “Voyage en Amerique,” Oeuvres, XII (1836), p. 18.

About the Author

Hans A. Huth was born in Halle/Salle, Germany November 11, 1892. He earned is Ph.D. in Berlin in 1922 and was a curator at the Munich and Berlin museums and the former Royal Palaces and Gardens in Prussia. In 1938 he came to the United States after being invited to lecture at New York University and to collaborate in history with the National Park Service (NPS). During World War II Huth remained in the U.S. as a German refugee. Dr. Huth’s assistance with the NPS brought a new level of professionalism to the NPS museum program. Huth’s “Story of an Idea” is an acccount of changes in the American attitude toward nature that led to the creation of Yosemite National Park and National Parks in general. After Huth wrote the article, Yosemite Superintendent Carl P. Russell urged David Brower, Sierra Club Bulletin editor, to publish it in the Bulletin, which Brower did with a forward written by Russell and signed by Brower. In a 2000 essay, Brower said this “was one of the most important articles the club ever published.”

From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s Huth was curator of decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). Dr. Huth remained interested in National Parks and expanded this article, “Story of an Idea,” to book form as Nature and the American (Three Centuries of Changing Attitude) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957). In the mid-1960s Huth assisted in gettting the Wilderness Act of 1964 passed by Congress.

Dr. Huth died July 1, 1977 in Carmel, California. His wife Marta Huth (born December 25, 1891) died March 1985 in San Francisco, California.

Bibliographical Information

Hans Huth (1892 - 1977), “Yosemite: The Story of an Idea,” Sierra Club Bulletin 33(3):47-78 (March, 1948). Foreword written by Carl P. Russell under signature of David R. Brower. Copyright 1948 by Sierra Club. 22 cm. Library of Congress call number F868.S5 S5 1948. LCCN 09000892. ISSN 0037-4725.

Also reprinted by the Yosemite Natural History Association in 1964.

Converted to HTML by Dan Anderson, August 2007, from a copy at University of California San Diego Geisel Library. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.
    —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us

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