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Yosemite - Inspiring Generations

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point

Everybody needs beauty...places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike—John Muir

Next month marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Yosemite Grant Act. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, this unprecedented piece of legislation created the first state park and was the birth of the national parks idea. Today it is hard to understand just how radical an idea it was at the time.

Public parks and landscaped gardens had been popular for years, but no large area of natural scenery had ever been established and protected for the enjoyment of all people. The concept of conservation was espoused by a few, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, but the prevailing attitude was one of conquering the wilderness and government was primarily interested in converting public lands to private use.

The chief proponent of the grant was Captain Israel Ward Raymond, the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company of New York. It is unclear whether Raymond’s motives were purely idealistic or if he believed the park would be good for business by drawing more customers to the steamship line. In any event, he wrote a letter to John Conness, the junior Senator from California, proposing that Congress grant Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California “to prevent occupation and especially to preserve the trees…” Much of Raymond’s wording is used in the actual measure, including the stipulation that the land be granted for “public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable forever.”

The measure passed without much debate, though one senator commented that it was “a singular grant, unprecedented so far as my recollection goes.” No doubt helpful to the measure’s passage were the stunning photographs of Carleton Watkins, which Raymond had wisely sent along with his letter. Displayed in the Senate’s Sergeant at Arm’s office, these images were more powerful than any words in capturing the grandeur of Yosemite.

When the Yosemite Grant Act arrived on his desk on June 30, 1864, President Lincoln had many other matters to attend to. The Secretary of the Treasury had submitted his resignation and the Union Army had suffered more than 56,000 casualties in just over a month’s time. At the time of its signing, the Yosemite Grant Act received little notice, but it is hard to overstate its significance. The national park system that developed from the initial measure would have to be considered a remarkable success. In 2013, Yosemite drew over 3.6 million visitors and over 273 million people visited the 401 parks, historic sites and recreation areas that make up the national park system.  

Below are some suggestions for further reading on the Grant Act, Yosemite, the National Park System, and John Muir.

The Yosemite Grant Act:
Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea by Dayton Duncan

The Yosemite Grant, 1864-1906: A Pictorial History by Hank Johnston

The National Parks: America's Best Idea: An Illustrated History by Dayton Duncan

Carleton Watkins photographs of Yosemite:

The Yosemite: the Original John Muir Text

Our National Parks

To Yosemite and Beyond

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada

Yosemite National Park Guidebooks:
Moon Handbooks. Yosemite

Best Easy Day Hikes, Yosemite National Park by Suzanne Swedo

One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Hike Yosemite's Most Famous Landmark by Rick Deutsch

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

Yosemite Week with Huell Howser

And lastly, if you would like to gaze at Yosemite from your desk, check out the Yosemite live cams.