National Park Service at 100: The Prehistory of the Parks

How one photographer helped give birth to the National Park Service

How one photographer helped give birth to the National Park Service

By Lily Rothman

[Section Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove]
Carleton Watkins—The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los AngelesSection of the Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite. 1861

There is no shortage of things to see in America’s national parks. Whether the view is of dappled Acadia or striated Zion, they all share one thing: somebody recognized that it was special enough to set aside for us all. First you have to see, and then you can save.

That’s worth keeping in mind on Aug. 25 as the U.S. National Park Service celebrates the 100th anniversary of the act that established it. The parks are celebrating with much fanfare: all 412 of them have free admission on the big day and throughout the following weekend. The Postal Service is issuing commemorative stamps to celebrate and the U.S. Mint is making special coins.

Yet America’s majestic national parks actually predate Woodrow Wilson’s signature 100 years ago. It was 1864 when the bill came across Abraham Lincoln’s desk to grant “Yo-Semite Valley” and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California “for public use, resort, and recreation”—the first time in recorded history that a government had set aside land for public enjoyment rather than profit.

And behind that bill’s passage, argues Weston Naef, curator emeritus of the department of photographs at Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, was a photographer named Carleton Watkins. Lincoln “had to have seen something that persuaded him that this was something worth doing,” Naef says. “How would he have seen the something and what would the something have been?”

Many experts believe the “what” to have been photographs by Watkins, though, as Naef admits, there is no definitive proof. Born in 1829 in New York State, Watkins had gone west during the gold rush, learning photography along the way. At the time, the daguerreotype—the photographic form recognizable in portraits from the early 19th century—was on its way out, to be replaced by easier, faster wet-plate photography that used glass to produce a negative. And yet the medium remained largely focused on portraits.

Watkins was hired by John C. Fremont’s Mariposa mine to photograph the site for potential investors. That made him one of the earliest American photographers to specialize in nature—a focus helped by willingness to carry thousands of pounds of equipment, not to mention highly flammable chemicals, into the wilderness.

In July of 1861, he went to Yosemite and came back with 30 so-called mammoth plate images—thus named for the enormous apparatus with which they were made. Naef also believes that an earlier set of uncredited images produced there in 1859, which inspired engravings in Hutchings’ California Magazine alongside others credited to C.L. Weed, may have actually been by Watkins. Prints of Watkins’ work were sent east by influential California minister Thomas Starr King, where they caught the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They were also shown in a New York City gallery to rave reviews.

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in July of 1863—where his essay may well have been read by Lincoln—Holmes mentioned the series of Carleton Watkins views that had been sent to him recently. “As specimens of art they are admirable, and some of the subjects are among the most interesting to be found in the whole realm of Nature,” he declared.

Meanwhile, Emerson wrote to King that the photographs, including one of a giant sequoia, were “proud curiosities here to all eyes” that “are entirely satisfactory to the beholder, and make the tree possible.”

With that, Emerson captured one of the most important roles of Watkins’ photographs. As TIME declared in 1947, “The snow-capped spine of the U.S. and the grandeurs of the West must be seen to be believed.”

Yosemite national park photographed by Carleton Watkins in 1861.
Carleton Watkins—The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los AngelesSentinel (View down the Valley) 3270 ft. Yosemite. 1861.

Sure, written descriptions and paintings of the western wilderness had filtered back east throughout the 19th century, as explorers and traders forged new paths across a growing nation, but there was no substitute for a photographic image. Those who saw what was out there—notably George Catlin, whom the Park Service has credited with coming up with the concept of a “magnificent park”—were impressed. The depth of West’s canyons, the height of the trees, the grandeur of the rocky crags, these things would have been beyond the ken of the men in Washington who called the shots about that land despite never having seen it themselves.

And so when businessman Israel Ward Raymond in 1864 sent a package of Watkins prints to California Senator John Conness and specifically suggested setting aside the land, he knew what he was doing. Sure enough, Conness was the man who would introduce the Yosemite Grant Act to Congress.

“What we’re dealing with here is the visual equivalent of fingerprints,” Naef says. “Every fingerprint leads back to Carleton Watkins.”

Watkins’ role wasn’t always acknowledged, which Naef attributes to what he calls a “prejudice against visual evidence” by traditional historians who prefer to work with written sources as primary evidence. But Watkins enjoyed a renewal of interest around the turn of the 21st century, and more recently, for the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite grant, Stanford exhibited Watkins’ work and drew the connection between the images and the park.

It’s clear now that Carleton Watkins helped people see, and what was once seen could not be unseen.

Once Yosemite set into law the idea of preserving the nation’s beauty, more beauty followed. In 1872 the Yellowstone National Park was established “as a public park or pleasuring-ground”—this time under federal management, not state. Terence Young, a professor of geography at Cal Poly Pomona, is currently researching the reasons why Congress decided to opt for federal control. For one thing, he says, at the time the land that became Yellowstone was still run as territories, not states. For another, California had struggled to adequately protect Yosemite, and thus served as a “bad older brother” that advocates wanted to help Yellowstone avoid copying.


Young thus believes that, though Yellowstone is often seen as the ur National Park, it was Yosemite that truly set the wheels in motion. The trend toward federal management would continue. Eventually, the patchwork of management under which such areas had once fallen would not suffice. Thus, the National Park Service.

By the time Wilson signed that bill, there were already 35 national parks and monuments.

Now, the continued survival of the parks depends on finding new ways to continue the project that Watkins began: teaching Americans how to see and appreciate their country. That’s something today’s parks advocates contend with the same vigor as their 19th century forebears. After all, one of the inherent tensions in the idea of national parks, says Jeremy Barnum, a spokesperson for the park service, is balancing conservation and public access. “In order to be protected for future generations, they have to matter to people,” he says. “If they can’t go see and touch them, it’s harder for them to have that connection.”

As for Watkins, though he was successful during his lifetime, he was a notoriously bad businessman, and lost his fortune during the economic crash that swept the country in the 1870s. In a tragic twist of timing, he died in a state hospital for the insane on June 23, 1916, mere weeks before the NPS began the work that he helped set in motion.

His legacy, however, lives on in the parks: in Mariposa County, Calif., in the heart of Yosemite, there stands Mount Watkins.

Graphics reporting by Emily Barone.

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