There are many explanations as to how the idea of National Parks originated. One theory is it spontaneously arose around a campfire in Yosemite National Park. Another is that conservationist John Muir or President Teddy Roosevelt came up with it. But in a new book, Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea, Ethan Carr, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Rolf Diamant, a professor at the University of Vermont, argue that the work and writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, inspired the creation of parks to benefit the public.
In an online discussion organized as part of Olmsted 200 and moderated by Sara Zewde, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, they argued that instead of considering National Parks distinct from urban parks, they should both be understood as part of the same broad movement towards public spaces. And Olmsted was a key figure in advancing this movement.
In 1864, when Olmsted was invited by the state of California to chair a commission on the Yosemite land grant, he was already an “important public intellectual,” Carr said. He was well-known for his opposition to slavery and the cotton plantation economy of the South. In California, they knew of his work with Calvert Vaux on Central Park in New York City and his prior work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
Olmsted came to Yosemite with the idea that parks were a way to “renew the Republic” after the destruction and division wrought by the Civil War. And while Central Park in New York City and Yosemite National Park are wildly different parks, they shared a common purpose for Olmsted — to expose the general public to landscape beauty. He believed this form of natural beauty wasn’t just aesthetic, but “necessary for public health,” Carr said.
Prior to public parks, landscape beauty was accessible to the very few who had grand estates. But while the first public parks benefited more of the U.S. population, they also had negative impacts. To make way for Central Park, the New York City government displaced Seneca Village, a Black community. At Yosemite, indigenous communities who had cared for the landscape for thousands of years were also eventually pushed out. These actions were justified as part of a “doctrine of public interest.” These landscapes were viewed as part of “public health infrastructure,” like water and sewage projects.
For the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, public parks had a purpose — to help “reforge a national identity out of war.” Carr argued that in the climate of the time, calling for great public parks was a “radical political act.” Cities at the time were urban, diverse, and industrial. They were widely criticized by the South.
Cities “had to work as a concept,” or the entire vision of Northern cities as superior to the South would be untenable. Central Park, which was initiated in 1857, was a proof point that Northern cities weren’t foul, polluted places, but could instead create landscape beauty. One newspaper called it the “big artwork of the Republic.”
While the late 19th century conception of landscape beauty can now seem “dated and elitist,” Carr argued the ideas behind the term still ring true. What Olmsted and others were talking about was the biophilic connection humans have to nature and the human health benefits that arise from being in nature. Today, we discuss children suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder, but in the late 1800s, the issue was presented as a lack of common access to landscape beauty.
The 1865 report commissioned by the state of California about how to shape Yosemite National Park didn’t form the basis of National Parks, but it included Olmsted’s core argument for public parks in general — the “justification to act” by governments at all levels.
Rolf Diamant provided additional context about the era in which Yosemite was preserved.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, an effort was underway to create a new national identity that could bridge the divisions between North and South. In 1862 and 1863, a system of national banks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were formed. The Homesteading Act also passed in 1862, accelerating the settlement of western territories, giving each family 160 acres of land.
And a decade later, this same desire to legislate a new shared America led to the Yosemite National Park Act, the land grant preserving the Yosemite Valley “in trust for the whole nation.” The legislation enshrined the idea that U.S. citizens are “entitled to enjoy spectacular landscapes,” Diamant explained.
To gloss over the divisions between North and South, a new narrative was formed based in the “untrammeled nature” of Yosemite and other seemingly pristine Western landscapes. Of course, this narrative, which was also forged by John Muir and President Teddy Roosevelt, required “forcing out Native Americans” and ignoring their claims to ancestral lands.
Diamant argued that Olmsted’s role in creating the argument for preserving Yosemite and other Western landscapes was later brushed over in prevailing narratives because he was too closely associated with anti-slavery causes and the very urban Central Park of New York City. He was simply too divisive a figure for the new narrative.
Amid a new rising narrative in the South — the revisionist “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, the rest of the country was focused on reconciliation — “it became a national obsession.” As a result it’s possible that “history and the legacy of Olmsted became decoupled.”
In the Q&A, Zewde wondered whether Central Park was as central to public park history as many landscape architects believe.
“Central Park represented an investment in the creation of a new park at a scale previously unseen before. While the park displaced Seneca Village, it was the beginning of something,” Carr said. Immediately after its creation, cities across the country took up their own significant park building projects.
Together, Central Park and Yosemite are “public parks that captured American imagination.” They also led to the forming of new institutions — the National Park Service and hundreds of state and city park systems. While the origin of these places are not without “faults or flaws,” they succeeded in helping to reframe American identity.
The flip side of this pervasive new narrative rooted in a falsely pristine West was the dispossession of Native Americans from their land. In his analysis of Yosemite, Olmsted made almost no mention of the Native Americans who had called Yosemite home for generations. “They were outside his view of the world; it’s his blind spot.” That blind spot would also help to create a legacy of displacement through public land and park acquisition.
Also, ironically, the meadows of Yosemite Olmsted and others so enjoyed and which reminded them of England, were actually the result of “deliberate burning by the Native Americans who lived there,” Carr said. What Olmsted and others thought was untouched was actually a “cultural landscape managed for thousands of years.”
There had been complaints that the Native American lit fire to the landscape and didn’t know how to manage it. But when Americans took over the ownership of Yosemite, they found trees kept intruding on the meadows and had to be cut down to preserve the views. This is something that would have been accomplished with periodic burning. And ecologists now understand the wisdom of Native American landscape management practices.
The concept of pure National Parks became a “white middle class vision” and part of the mythology of the country. The vision led to “problematic marketing” of the West and its formation, Carr argued. “This is a narrative that we can’t continue. We can’t cling to early 20th century stories.”
A new, inclusive story about National Parks, both rural and urban, must be told, including Native Americans and Buffalo Soldiers, “U.S. colored troops” who played a key role preserving early National Park landscapes and helped build support for the rights of African Americans.
The story of National Parks is really a story about federalism. Olmsted came down on the side of increased public investment in infrastructure, which he believed included parks. Debate over the past few decades about raising fees to access National Parks and private fundraising to maintain them are an evolution of earlier debates about what should be for the public benefit and how those benefits should be financed. For Carr, another form of the debate is the continuing battle over voting rights for all.