Adam Wesley Dean on the Creation of Yosemite

dean_agrarian_PBOver on our Civil War blog, Adam Wesley Dean, author of An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era, writes about the birth of Yosemite National Park, and the circumstances that almost prevented its protection as a natural public space. Dean writes:

Yosemite National Park made the evening news on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the top of El Capitan by ascending Yosemite’s Dawn Wall. The climbers’ years of preparation, 19-day free-climb, and personal stories riveted television audiences nationwide. News programs also gave audiences a rare treat: panoramic views of the park’s natural beauty that included cascading waterfalls, granite formations, and snow-dusted trees.

Yet Yosemite almost did not become a national park. Few Americans know that their beloved park with all the twentieth-century history of climbing exploits and family vacations had been vigorously opposed shortly after its birth.

Yosemite has its origins in an 1864 law removing the main valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove from federal lands and giving them to the state of California for management as a site for “public use, resort, and recreation.” Yosemite’s backers, which included railroad businessman Frederick Billings, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, newspaper mogul Horace Greeley, California Senator John Conness, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field, hoped that the park would provide comfort for Americans undergoing a brutal civil war. It was also important to them to make areas of natural beauty available to the public. They believed that everyone—not just the wealthy and powerful—needed to experience Yosemite’s wonders. No doubt Billings and Conness also thought that a nature park would help bring tourist dollars and railroads to California’s fledgling economy.

When Conness steered the bill through the United States Congress and secured President Abraham Lincoln’s signature in 1864, the California Senator conspicuously neglected to inform fellow politicians that two white settlers, Illinoisan James C. Lamon and San Francisco magazine editor James Mason Hutchings, had land claims in the valley. Lamon had settled in the east end of Yosemite Valley in April of 1859 and Hutchings had erected a hotel near Yosemite Falls in the spring of 1864. Both men filed preemption claims, a nineteenth-century legal doctrine granting them the right to purchase the land when the federal government made it available for sale.

Read Dean’s full post, “The Creation of Yosemite,” at