The National Park Service and Historians

Gettysburg_entranceGettysburg National Military Park (Photo by Sallicio, via Wikimedia Commons)

The National Park Service turns one hundred years old on August 25. Ideas about what is worthy of preservation as a national park have evolved over time, and today over half the sites the Service manages interpret some nationally significant person, place, event, movement, or idea in American history. Even large natural parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone often employ historians to study how humans have lived in, used, and affected the great natural resources the parks preserve. Americans invented the national park idea, and as the Service’s centennial birthday approaches, a review of what is so unique about it seems apt.

Stephen T. Mather, who had agitated Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane about the need for a national park management agency, became the first director of the National Park Service after President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating the agency. It was Mather and his assistant, Horace Albright, who first faced the challenge of preserving and conserving park resources while simultaneously making them available for public use and enjoyment. They understood that more visitors were needed to make the parks flourish, so they cautiously permitted concessionaires to build hotels and restaurants. Plans were made for roads, museums, and other public amenities that Mather and Albright hoped would encourage increased visitation.

They also began to formulate policy about expanding the national park system, writing in a 1918 policy letter: “In studying new park projects, you should seek to find scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance. The national park system as now constituted should not be lowered in standard, dignity, and prestige by the inclusion of areas which express in less than the highest terms the particular class or kind of exhibit which they represent.” There would be no expansion just for expansion’s sake.

Mather and Albright recognized that while much of America’s natural splendor lay in the West, many of its citizens lived in the East. Throughout the 1920s, the national park system was almost wholly western. Only Acadia National Park in Maine, created in 1916, lay east of the Mississippi until 1926, when Congress authorized Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave National Parks in Virginia, North Carolina/Tennessee, and Kentucky, respectively. Albright succeeded Mather as the National Park Service’s second director in 1929 and embarked on a campaign to include eastern historic sites and parks in the system. Colonial National Monument (now National Historical Park) joined in 1930, and Morristown National Historical Park in 1933. The National Park Service was beginning to wander into the War Department’s territory. In 1890, Congress had directed the War Department to preserve numerous battlefields and forts as national military parks and monuments. By the early 1930s, Horace Albright had his eye on these mostly eastern sites, including Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Gettysburg, and others.

Albright accompanied newly-inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a trip to Shenandoah National Park in 1933, and sometime during this trip convinced the President that the National Park Service, not the War Department, should be in charge of the national military parks and monuments. Effective August 10, 1933, the Park Service took possession of the War Department’s parks as well as fifteen national monuments administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the national capital parks including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and the White House. This transfer added nearly fifty new eastern historic sites to the National Park Service, thus making it both truly national and committed to historic as well as natural conservation, preservation, and interpretation. Seventeen years after its creation, the Park Service was in the history business.

The agency remains deeply involved in preserving and interpreting American history today. Many more citizens learn history from rangers at national historic sites than from college history textbooks. Recognizing the need to work with academia to ensure that the latest scholarship is used to create programs and preserve resources, the National Park Service today works closely with individual professors and organizations like the Organization of American Historians. Peruse The Civil War Remembered, the agency’s official handbook for the Civil War sesquicentennial, and check out the names of the highly-regarded historians that submitted essays: David W. Blight, James M. McPherson, Edward L. Ayers, Carol Reardon, Allen Guelzo, Jean Baker, Eric Foner, Drew Gilpin Faust, James Oliver Horton, and others. That these esteemed authors would write for a Park Service handbook gives the agency great credibility for its work, but also demonstrates that these historians recognize the value of communicating their research to the public visiting historic sites and monuments.

Today, Congress and the American people look to the National Park Service to serve as the nation’s storyteller. Some of the stories are triumphant, honoring such notable Americans as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and others. Many are ugly: slavery, Japanese-American internment camps, massacres of American Indians, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and more. Supreme Court decisions, civil rights, social movements, religious freedom, industrialization, agriculture, and countless other important events and periods of American history are preserved and interpreted by the modern National Park Service.

The history of the National Park Service does not end in 1933, of course, but that date, when the agency began managing historic sites, is of particular interest to historians that help people understand our collective national past so that we might chart a more promising future. The National Park Service has worked for a century to ensure that our most beautiful, unique, and historically significant places remain in such a condition that those “future generations” mentioned in the agency’s enabling legislation may one day visit and learn long after everyone reading this has faded into history themselves.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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