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U.S. National Parks: History & Names

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

America's national parks are amongst the most visited and celebrated attractions in the country. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history of the national parks, and learn about how they came to be.

U.S. National Parks

There's nothing quite like camping. Connecting with nature, eating s'mores, dodging mosquitoes: it's just the best. Luckily, we've got plenty of opportunities to head out into the natural landscape in the United States, thanks to the national park system. A national park is an area of land set aside by the federal government for conservation and recreation - not development. This land can't be exploited for resources, or sold privately or to businesses. The land is reserved for the people. To quote the famous Woody Guthrie song, ''This land is your land, this land is my land.''

Origins of American Conservation

In the early 19th century, the United States was a very young country. As a result, Americans thought a lot about what defined their nation and what made it unique from Europe. While ideas of democracy and liberty were thrown around, many people continuously came back to the landscape. To them, it was untouched and unspoiled. Of course, Amerindian peoples had been living there for millennia. Still, North America was full of ample opportunities to connect with nature.

As America entered the industrial revolution of the 1820s and 1830s, and people flooded West, some began to worry. What would happen if all that beautiful, natural space was lost? Throughout the 19th century, artists in America like Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt focused their talents on capturing the most idyllic, pristine images of nature they could. Intellectuals like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson praised a life lived amongst nature. Conservationists like John Muir became national figures. Americans became convinced that they needed to protect the land, and the focus of this concern was the Yosemite Valley of California. It was, by most opinions of the time, the most beautiful place on Earth.

Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt
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The big question was: how should this be preserved? Americans at the time believed fervently that the government should never restrict the right to own private property. The opportunity for change came in 1864. Throughout the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had seriously increased the power of the federal government, and was about to do it again. He signed a piece of Congressional legislation formally handing Yosemite Valley and the nearby giant sequoia groves to the state government of California, forbidding private ownership of that land. It was an unprecedented move, but one which would set major precedents.

Yellowstone National Park

Yosemite was protected under the state government, but for some people this still wasn't quite good enough. In 1871, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was surveying the land in northern Wyoming at a place called Yellowstone. The Hayden Expedition, as it was called, became convinced that no place like Yellowstone existed on Earth, and that it (like Yosemite) needed protecting from private and industrial development. They began petitioning Congress, providing scientific evidence for the uniqueness of the site, as well as photographs and artwork compiled by William Henry Jackson, Henry Elliot, and Thomas Moran.

The campaign was a success. In 1872, Congress passed the Yellowstone National Park Act. This act maintained the land under federal control, within the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior rather than a state government. Private development of the land was forbidden, as it was only to be used for ''the benefit and enjoyment of the people''. Yellowstone was the first official national park, with Sequoia National Park and Yosemite following close behind.

Yellowstone National Park Poster
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While Americans rejoiced, this declaration had some ominous undertones. Yellowstone, after all, was not empty. It was the traditional home of the Nez Perce nation. However, in establishing the nation's first national park, Congress also set a precedent of removing peoples from that land. Yellowstone could not fall under any private ownership, and the Nez Perce were forcibly removed.

The Antiquities Act of 1906

Americans enjoyed the national parks, but what exactly this meant in terms of government was still a little unclear. After all, every new park meant more federal control of land and restrictions on private property. Some of these questions were resolved under president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was one of the staunchest supporters of national parks, creating Crater Lake, Wind Cave, Sullys Hill, Platt, and Mesa Verde parks. In 1906, he signed the Antiquities Act into law, formally giving the president power to preserve places of historical or scientific value.

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