Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition and the Idea of ​​a National Park


When and why did the idea of ​​national parks appear in American history? Several creation myths, or “campfire tales” as Diamond and Carr call them, have been embraced by historians and government officials. Among them is the discussion around the campfire at Madison Junction on the Yellowstone Plateau during the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition tackling the idea, which was later promoted by Nathaniel Langford on behalf of the Northern Pacific Railroad and resulted in the establishment of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.

This story has been completely debunked by historians.

Another was that John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt came up with the idea at a famous meeting in Yosemite, which happened long after the national parks movement began, so it certainly couldn’t have been history of origin.

A central element of the national park idea, according to landscape architecture historians Diamant and Carr, is found in the Yosemite Report of 1865 written by Frederick Law Olmsted, and in their view the significance of this has not not received the attention it deserves. They seek to remedy this by Olmsted and Yosemite.

Why, the authors ask, “was the origin of the national park idea and the early history of the agency associated for so many years with these ‘campfire tales’?” They posit several reasons, chief among them that the National Park Service, which adopted what the authors call the “virgin birth” narrative of the Washburn-Langford-Doane story, had a “perceived need to avoid the suggestion that the idea of ​​a parks was in any way related to the trauma and controversy of the Civil War.

Diamant and Carr argue that, needing the support of people and politicians across the country, including the South, the Park Service “released a narrative of national park creation unencumbered by references to emancipation, to civil war and reconstruction”.

For too long, “all credit for national parks has gone either to mythical ‘hardy Western pioneers’ or to a ‘visionary’ like John Muir or Theodore Roosevelt”. Although Olmsted is best known for his work on Central Park and his contributions to the field of landscape architecture and its application across America, the authors say the time has come to recognize the significance of the Yosemite Report of Olmsted” and his enduring vision of popular government using its resources to improve people’s lives.

Diamant and Carr here add an intriguing element to ongoing discussions of the context in which the idea of ​​a national park emerged – the focus on “the idea”. The concept of such a park had been circulating, suggested by artist George Catlin and Henry David Thoreau, but the legislation that granted Yosemite Valley to California did not make it one. national park. Olmsted in his report expanded the idea of ​​what Yosemite might be, and that’s where the real seed of the national park idea lies. Although it was a grant and not a park, Olmsted considered it “a trust for the whole nation”.

The authors briefly review Olmsted’s familiar life story, highlighting his understanding of the pre-war South gained through his travels there and his journalistic reporting in the early 1850s, his strong support for the Union war effort and its role in the creation of New York’s Central Park. They explain how, in late 1862, encouraged by military successes along the South Coast and the Mississippi Valley, Congress and the Lincoln administration advanced a legislative program that included measures targeting slavery, the Pacific Railway Act, the Land-Grant College Act, and the Emancipation Proclamations, among other measures.

Their objective was “to intervene on a continental scale, in the name of emancipation and free labor, agrarian opportunity, national improvements and public education”. As the prospect of the North defeating the South grew, the Lincoln administration enacted sweeping social, political, and economic changes. The Yosemite Grant Act, signed by Lincoln on June 30, 1864, was part of Congress and the administration’s campaign to “make the Union what it ought to be.”

Diamant and Carr explain how the Lincoln administration needed and obtained California’s support in the war effort. They argue that the grant California received and accepted can be interpreted as “an acknowledgment of the political debt owed to California loyalists” and an affirmation of the belief that the Union would prevail. The authors write:

Many historians who have written about the Yosemite grant have failed to acknowledge the context of the act as a wartime measure. Some have categorized the grant as an inexplicable anomaly, a departure from public land policy set by distracted lawmakers and having nothing to do with the war. Rather, the Yosemite grant was a direct result of the war and tied to the political and social revolution that the conflict fueled. The grant was not an anomaly but an embodiment of the ongoing process of government overhaul… The Yosemite grant can also be seen as another small piece of government public land policy in the American West… For obvious reasons , Republicans in Congress had long supported the legislation. this would strengthen ties with Western states and territories and promote national unity.

In this way, Diamant and Carr convincingly demonstrate that the Yosemite grant can and should be placed in the context of the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the resulting overhaul of government.

After several years as head of the United States Sanitary Commission, an exhausted Olmsted resigned and moved to California to manage the Mariposa Estate mining operation, which he found in poor condition. Given his experience with Central Park, he was appointed to the Yosemite Commission to administer the grant and develop recommendations on how to do so.

Diamant and Carr write that “circumstances placed Olmsted in California just when the future management of Yosemite was seriously considered. He was the right person in the right place at the right time to address the larger meaning and context of the new park in relation to the outcome of the war and the future of the country. He wrote the Yosemite report between September 1864 and August 1865.

The authors detail the key recommendations made by Olmsted in the report and explain why they see it as the “intellectual basis for building a national park system.” They see his vision as extending far beyond Yosemite in space and time – to a future where millions of visitors come to Yosemite and other parks in America.

At the beginning of the book, they describe the emergence of the public parks movement, focused on urban parks and, of course, led by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in Central Park, and argue that Olmsted expected this movement to developed. He would be instrumental in this movement after the war and his brief experience in Yosemite.

Several of his fellow Yosemite commissioners did not support his recommendations, the report was shelved, and the grant was mismanaged – ironically, had the state followed his recommendations, Yosemite Valley might have remained under the leadership of California – it was returned to the federal government in 1905. Diamant and Carr argue that despite the report’s fate in Yosemite Commission politics, its ideas spread and influenced the emerging national parks movement.

“The Report has never been thrown away or forgotten. Olmsted had used it to write his 1887 report on Niagara Falls. Olmsted Jr. quoted it extensively and verbatim in his 1913 analysis of the Hetch Hetchy Dam controversy and drew upon the ideas and language of the Yosemite Report when drafting portions of the 1916 Act creating the National Park Service,” the authors write.

They trace how the ideas in the report influenced the course of national park history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The way Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., himself a distinguished landscape architect, parks designer and lawyer, recognized the importance of his father’s writing in the Report and build on it. All Report is added at the end of Olmsted and Yosemite.

Why is an accurate understanding of the origins of national parks important today? Diamant and Carr answer this question.

Reconnecting the idea of ​​the national park with the larger American park movement, the end of slavery, the Civil War, the overhaul of government, and Olmsted’s Yosemite Report is, in our view, an appropriate and timely historical revision. This comes at a time when there is a serious effort to advance diversity, inclusion and equity in national parks.

Olmsted sought throughout his life to contribute to a society driven by the principles of “benevolence and fairness”. The authors believe it is more important than ever to tell an “updated national park story” that includes all the forces that led to the emergence of the national park idea, especially those at work on Frederick Law Olmsted which found expression in the Yosemite report. 21st century.


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