A Refuge from the Roar: Yosemite National Park

ArticleExamining the history and future of America’s third national park on the anniversary of its founding

Rachel Sharer
October 1, 2021
1022 words

On this day in 1890, Congress created Yosemite National Park in California, the third park to join America’s National Park System.

This map in our collections is an early map of the Yosemite Valley from the 1870s, after it had been declared a public trust of the state of California by President Lincoln, but before it would become an official National Park.

This map in our collections is an early map of the Yosemite Valley from the 1870s, after it had been declared a public trust of the state of California by President Lincoln, but before it would become an official National Park.

Yosemite today is famous for its stunning views, ancient sequoia trees, massive waterfalls, and granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome known to hikers and rock climbers across the world. Its history is also rich with culture and conflict.

Indigenous peoples had lived in the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains for centuries, which we’ve written about before, but those of European descent didn’t enter the region until the mid-19th century, when a gold rush brought an influx of miners and settlers to California. Damage to the surrounding land and native populations followed, and this, along with anxieties about modernism, led to the growth of the environmentalist movement in the region.

In 1864, budding conservationists led by a man named Galen Clark convinced President Lincoln to protect part of the land in Yosemite Valley, and he declared the area a public trust of the state of California. This was an important stepping stone for the establishment of the national and state park systems; less than 10 years later, in 1872, Wyoming’s Yellowstone became the country’s first national park.

Famed conservationist John Muir spent extensive time in Yosemite and was awed by the beauty and serenity of the landscape.

Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society…. This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment.”

- John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938)

This beautiful relief map is of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, the nation’s first established national park.

This beautiful relief map is of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, the nation’s first established national park.

In 1889, Muir and others successfully lobbied for the protection of 1,500 square miles of wilderness in the Yosemite Valley. On October 1, 1890, Congress voted to protect this land and establish it as Yosemite National Park, signed into law by President Harrison; the portion of the valley that had been previously state-controlled joined as part of the park in 1906. In total, the national park today covers 1,187 square miles.

As we think about the anniversary of Yosemite’s founding on its 131st birthday, we should celebrate the protection and preservation of this wilderness, and its use for the public good. But also, as we approach Indigenous People’s Day this October, it’s important to continue to think about the history of these places – who lived there, who now owns it, and who has access. Our previous exhibition, America Transformed, in part examines the problematic history of how these national parks were created and who it affected as settlers explored, surveyed, and took over lands in the West that were inhabited by native peoples. Academic and author Dina Gilio-Whitaker has written that the creation of the national park system is often highly romanticized and went hand-in-hand with native land dispossession and “the federal policy of Indian removal."

This stereograph image shows an “Indian chief in Yosemite Valley” in the late 1880s, before the area was an official national park. The Miwok and Paiute people known as the Ahwahneechee are indigenous to the Yosemite Valley.

This stereograph image shows an “Indian chief in Yosemite Valley” in the late 1880s, before the area was an official national park. The Miwok and Paiute people known as the Ahwahneechee are indigenous to the Yosemite Valley.

Furthermore, we must think about the park’s future: as the world’s climate crisis looms, we face the ever-pressing question of what we do with the land and resources – who controls it, who protects it, and how we can save it. National Parks set visitation records this past summer, with Yellowstone hitting 1 million visitors in July, and numbers of visitors may continue to accelerate rapidly and unsustainably, straining the park’s natural resources and wildlife. And how are places like Yosemite, which is known for its biological diversity, going to withstand the effects of climate change as its ecosystems are threatened by out-of-control wildfires, pollution, and habitat fragmentation?

A stereograph image from between 1850-1920 of Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La (renamed El Capitan).The name comes from a Miwok creation story, which you can read here.

A stereograph image from between 1850-1920 of Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La (renamed El Capitan).The name comes from a Miwok creation story, which you can read here.

A recent article in the Atlantic addresses both these points by suggesting we give ownership of America’s national parks back to the indigenous populations who once stewarded and protected that same land. “The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples,” the author writes, and would serve as a “deeply meaningful form of restitution” to those whose land was forcibly taken.

But maybe there are other solutions or ideas out there as well, and maps could certainly play a big role in helping us find them. Whether it’s using historical maps to rewrite narratives of the past, ways that urban planning could tackle problems of environmental justice and social inequity, or even futuristic projects that use lasers to produce detailed maps of all the land on Earth to record treasures at risk from the climate crisis, it’s clear that maps are powerful tools for understanding, challenging, and shaping our shared world.

Our articles are always free

You’ll never hit a paywall or be asked to subscribe to read our free articles. No matter who you are, our articles are free to read—in class, at home, on the train, or wherever you like. In fact, you can even reuse them under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 license.