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Lincoln Seeds the National Park System

By David J. Kent

Washington, D.C.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

For one of his more intriguing contributions to the institutionalizing of science, Lincoln may have been responding to the exploits of Clarence King, dubbed by many as “The Explorer King.” John Hay would later refer to King as “the best and brightest man of his generation,” who as a twenty-one-year-old in 1862 traveled across the United States to the relatively unexplored state of California to work for the state geological survey. King was the first man to climb many of the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He also conducted the first official survey of Yosemite Valley.

Inspired by King and the spectacular photographs of Carleton Watkins, Lincoln was also acting on the request of Senator John Conness, who introduced the legislation not long after presenting a commemorative cane to the president. On June 30, 1864, Lincoln signed into law the Yosemite Grant Act. The act states “That there shall be, and is hereby, granted to the State of California, the . . . [area] known as Yosemite Valley . . . [and] the ‘Mariposa Big Tree Grove.’ . . . The State shall accept this grant upon the express conditions that the premises should be held for public use, resort, and recreation.”

Lincoln had never been to California, yet he understood its great importance to the cohesion of the Union. He felt California was critical to the future of the United States and sought ways to encourage westward development. Three weeks before his assassination, Lincoln told his friend Charles Maltby, superintendent of Indian affairs for California, that he had long desired to see the state and marveled at “the production of her gold mines.” He also told Maltby that “I have it now in purpose when the railroad is finished, to visit your wonderful state,” a visit that would never come to fruition.

Originally, the beauty of Yosemite Valley and the grandeur of the Giant Sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove was ceded to caretaking by the state of California. Much later, John Muir came on the scene. Having lived in and explored the Yosemite and nearby Hetch Hetchy Valleys, Muir teamed up with influential Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson to recapture Yosemite from state park status to federal. Through their efforts, on October 1, 1890, Yosemite became the nation’s third national park. Johnson would later publish the serialization of Nicolay and Hay's multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln as well as his own epic history of the Civil War.

The Yosemite grant signed by Lincoln was nothing short of miraculous given the circumstances. To have set aside a protected environmental area while the country was tearing itself apart was a testament to Lincoln’s and Congress’s foresight. Lincoln’s signature set precedent for establishing Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, to be followed by protection for the other pristine, and irreplaceable, vistas we enjoy today.

[Photograph of Yosemite Valley by Carleton Watkins]


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