The many Native nations that lived for centuries on the land around Yellowstone had been careful stewards of its natural resources. But as White settlers expanded west in the mid-1800s, lands were cleared, towns and businesses sprung up, and vistas gave way to expanding populations. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had spawned a boom in factories and new technology, and many Americans viewed nature as something to be conquered in the name of progress.
But a competing viewpoint had also emerged. Writers known as transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, extolled the virtues of the natural world and took pride in America’s natural wonders, which they believed rivaled the great cathedrals of Europe. Some painters at the time, such as George Catlin, also took to depicting sublime natural scenery, opening many people’s eyes to the treasures of America’s landscapes.
Catlin, who traveled extensively throughout the American West, is often credited with coming up with the idea for a national park. In 1832, while on a trip to the Dakotas, he worried about the vast destruction he witnessed. He wrote that the land and people there could be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government,” and he called for “a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”
But it would take many more years for Catlin’s vision to be realized, as most Americans had never laid eyes on the splendors of America’s western landscape. And back in the east, the nation’s most famous natural landmark, Niagara Falls in New York, had been overrun by commercial developers, who charged visitors steep prices to view the waterfalls.
However, as more tourists traveled west in the late 19th century, they came across Yellowstone’s landscape, including its many geysers—hot springs that naturally shoot water high into the air. Around the same time, the naturalist John Muir—dubbed “The Father of the National Parks”—wrote popular accounts of the majestic vistas he saw while hiking through California’s Yosemite Valley, which had been declared a state park in 1864.
More and more people became interested in protecting America’s wilderness. So too did entrepreneurs—especially railroad owners—who saw the potential to make money by attracting tourists to the West. Together, preservationists and business groups lobbied Congress to act.
On March 1, 1872, with the stroke of a pen, history was made. After passing through the House Representatives and Senate, the Yellowstone Act of 1872 was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. It created the first national park—an area of land to be “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”