Yesterday, I posted about the anxiety that nineteenth century Americans felt while trying to understand their place in the world pecking order. That across the Atlantic, European counterparts displayed the advantages of time — long-standing cathedrals, bridges, buildings and archways that testified to their society’s greatness.
So how does a country with less than one hundred years demonstrate to the world that it has the bona fides of a great society. In the absence of great architectural wonders, Americans noticed their land was filled with natural wonders.
Susan Fenimore Cooper described the work of Monsieur-Agassiz, who asserted that “North America is, in reality, the oldest part of the earth.” America did not have ancient coliseums or cathedrals, but held even holder “edifices of natural workmanship.” Indeed, Cooper closes out her essays observations of the natural American landscape, but using terms of man-made edifices to describe the natural elements surrounding the village:
We had been indulging in the wish to have a view of the valley in the condition it would have assumed had it lain in the track of European Civilization during past ages; how in such a case would it have been fashioned by the hand of man? To our amazement, the wish was now granted. But it required a second close scrutiny to convince us that this was indeed the site of the village which had disappeared a moment earlier, everything was so strangely altered. We soon convinced ourselves, however, that all of the natural features of the land-scape remained precisely as we had always known them; not a curve in the lake was displaced, not a knoll was misplaced…
And in further detail, Cooper concludes by placing the American Landscape side by side with the castle and cathedral spires, ancient watchtowers, and perfect Roman roads. For Cooper, and others, the natural landscape was America’s response to a world looking to validate the young country against the culture of the older Europe.
With this sentiment moving forward, beginning as early as the 1860’s, Congress began carving out lands in the name of recreation, but with the dual purpose of protecting natural monuments from aggressive western expansion. In 1864 Congress transferred an area in what is now the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park to the state of California to preserve and protect as a place of recreation. This transfer of land was just the first recognition that natural places formed the American identity. Congress would act more directly and more purposefully towards protecting these areas from commercial exploitation.
In 1872, Congress carved out the area known as Yellowstone park in order to preserve its natural setting as a “great national park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of all people.” The park described by legislators and supporters contained “wonderful falls, hot springs, geysers” along with “the most beautiful lake in the world, set like a gem among the mountains,” and “one of the most remarkable water-sheds on the continent” which give origin to three of the largest rivers in North America. Congressional writers writing about Yellowstone could hardly contain their amazement at the natural opulence that the natural world had laid within the American borders. Closing out the annual geographic survey of 1872, the report states about Yellowstone :”from any point of view which we may select to survey this remarkable region, it surpasses in many respects, any other portion of our continent.”
Alfred Runte has argued that these statements together with other statements regarding the land’s lack of economic usefulness resulted in a monumentalism/ worthless lands dichotomy. Indeed, at many places in Congressional documents, the argument is articulated that the lands pose no serious economic usefulness for the young country. For instance, in the Report by the Committee on Public lands on the Yellowstone reservation, the the questions of weather exposure, geological suitability and isolation were raised as problems in the sustainable marketability of the land:
We have already shown that no portion of this tract can ever be made available for agricultural or mining purposes. Even if the altitude and the climate would permit the country to be made available, not over fifty square miles of the entire area could ever be settled. The valleys are all narrow, hemmed in by high volcanic mountains like gigantic walls.
The withdrawal of this tract, therefore, from sale or settlement takes nothing from the value of the public domain, and is no pecuniary loss to the Government, but will be regarded by the entire civilized world as a step of progress and an honor to Congress and the nation.
This worthless lands hypothesis has been criticized by the failure to recognize the economic resources of the land as prompting tourism and travel, even if the lands themselves were not suitable to traditional forms of economic use, such as agriculture, manufacturing, or mineral extraction. Indeed, Congress well recognized the potential economic attraction of places like Yellowstone:
Persons are now waiting for the spring to open to enter in and take possession of these remarkable curiosities, to make merchandise of these beautiful specimens, to fence in these rare wonders, so as to charge visitors a lee, as is now done at Niagara Falls, for the sight of that which ought to be as free as the air or water.
In a few years this region will be a place of resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world. The geysers of Iceland, which have been objects of interest for the scientific men and travelers of the entire world, siuk into insignificance in comparison with the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole Basins. As a place of resort for inV valids, it will not be excelled by any portion of the world. If this bill Vails to become a law this session, the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land will, in a single season, despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.
What made the land worthless was not their potential to create any economy, but their usefulness in creating traditional forms of economy derived from land use. But perhaps the opposite could also be claimed. That it was the potential for economic exploitation that drove Congress to declare these lands valueless, and therefore fictionalize the lack of value that these lands contained. As one scholar well stated, due to the “materialistic bent of the populace, Congress needed to be assured in 1872 that the first National Park, Yellowstone, was unfit for cultivation, stock raising, or settlement and that the establishment of the park infringed upon neither “vested rights of settlers.”
Next Post — Conflict and Compromise in Political Consensus.