Happy Birthday to the National Park Service Arrowhead Emblem

This version of the iconic National Park Service arrowhead emblem is the basic one used for park ranger uniforms. NPS photo.

Like the familiar “Smokey the Bear” Stetson ranger hat, which was formally adopted nearly 90 years ago, the Park Service arrowhead emblem has become an American icon. The story behind the Arrowhead is quite interesting. We’ll try to cover the basics here and throw in a little trivia for fun.

If you want to research the details, there is an excellent compendium of information on the origin and evolution of the Arrowhead at this site.

We hasten to point out that the Arrowhead photo accompanying this article is in the public domain from the copyright standpoint. Other restrictions apply, however, and using the Arrowhead for unauthorized purposes can trigger legal sanctions. Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations 11.1-4 spells out the relevant definitions, uses, powers to revoke uses, and penalties for wrongful use of the Arrowhead.

Although we refer to “the” Arrowhead, a few different renderings (explained below) are in use today. For a “representational illustration of the developmental progression of today’s Arrowhead patch, see this site.

The Park Service’s Arrowhead is rooted in the heraldic tradition of family crests and coats of arms emblazoned on shields and banners to proclaim status, declare affiliations, help distinguish friend from foe, and adorn the walls of banquet halls. Each element of the design is supposed to symbolize something significant (though medieval coats of arms were often just pretty designs adding up to gibberish).

The essential elements of the Arrowhead are the Sequoia tree, the bison, the mountains and water, and the overall shape of the emblem.

As the FAQs section of the National Park Service home page explains, the Sequoia tree and the bison represent vegetation and wildlife, the mountains and water represent scenic and recreational values, and the arrowhead shape of the emblem represents historical and archaeological values.

The bison actually does double duty. It’s also the dominant symbol on the Department of the Interior seal.

Variants of the basic Arrowhead have been created at different times for different purposes. One version of the Arrowhead, for example, is designed to look as though it were carved in wood or stone.

The familiar version with the dark brown background (see the accompanying photo) is used as a patch or decal for the ranger uniform. The arrowhead emblem has been used on ranger hats, caps, and other headwear since 1964.

If you are a Volunteers in Parks (V.I.P) volunteer, your uniform’s patch (variously sewn on shirt/jacket shoulder, vest, breast pocket, cap, etc.) has VOLUNTEER stitched in white above the arrowhead. Master Volunteer Rangers and Presidential Volunteer Rangers have their own distinctive patches.

Emblem Development

The Arrowhead emblem has an interesting – and tangled -- evolution. It begins with the emergence of park rangers as a corps of professionals who wanted their uniforms and insignia to make a unique statement.

The first “official” ranger uniforms were authorized in 1911. This was a time when US Army cavalry troops were still patrolling some of the western parks and there was no large, formally organized civilian ranger corps as we have today. After the National Park Service came into existence in 1916, uniform and insignia design continued to convey a military approach to organization.

After a good deal of experimentation, the “officers and men” mentality waned and ranger uniforms lost most of their military trappings. The uniform that rangers wear today is in many ways similar to that worn in 1920.

By 1928 there was a standardized approach to designing uniforms and insignia for rangers and administrators. This meant that, at least in terms of uniform design, rangers in the field were raised to the same level as administrators 80 years ago.

Ranger uniforms varied with job description and geographic area. For example, motorcycle rangers had a distinctive uniform. A photo depicting 1930s-era uniform designs can be seen at this site.

There was strong feeling that the Park Service should have a distinctive emblem. The agitation was partly attributable to the fact that the U.S. Forest Service, an agency that was regarded as a competitor for many practical purposes, already had its shield emblem.

The Sequoia cone was used as an emblem for a while, but many grumbled that it did not adequately symbolize the National Park Service. By the late 1940s, the agency had gotten serious about adopting a more appropriate emblem.

An emblem contest held in 1949 resulted in the selection of Dudley Bayliss’ “road badge” design. Though Bayliss collected his $50 prize, the road badge was never used. Ultimately, it was deemed too formal and modernistic -- or if you prefer, too far from nature and rustic experience. What was needed was something that would more appropriately symbolize what the national parks were all about.

A watershed event occurred shortly after the contest was over when Aubrey V. Neasham, a historian in Region IV (now the Western Region) sent a letter to then-Director Newton Drury suggesting that an emblem “like an arrowhead, or a tree, or a buffalo” would better symbolize the primary function of the Park Service. Neasham included a rough sketch of a design that incorporated a pine tree against the background of an elongated arrowhead

Drury praised the design’s simplicity, a very important consideration, and felt that it got the job done as far as basic symbolism was concerned. However, he did not adopt and implement Neasham’s ideas. When Drury resigned in 1951 (largely because of the Interior Secretary’s failure to vigorously defend the parks against dam construction), the agency still did not have its official emblem.

Conrad L. Wirth replaced Drury as Director in 1951, and it was “Connie” Wirth who finally got the ball rolling again by ordering Region IV (headquartered in San Francisco) to come up with an emblem that incorporated the key elements of Neasham’s design.

Working under the direction of Region IV assistant director Herbert Maier, a team that included Sanford "Red" Hill, Cecil J. Doty, and Walter Rivers produced the agency’s iconic arrowhead design. Ignoring minor tweaking, and some very strong attempts in the 1960s to completely replace it, that design is still in use today.

On July 20, 1951, Secretary of the Interior Oscar L. Chapman, authorized the National Park Service arrowhead emblem.

A July 29, 1952, amendment to the National Park Service 1947 uniform regulations ordered the use of the arrowhead emblem as a patch for the uniform. Each permanent uniformed employee was given three patches and each seasonal uniformed employee received one. Although employees at first hated wearing the arrowhead patch, they soon grew to like it.

The year 1952 also witnessed the first use of the arrowhead emblem on park signs and publications.

There was concern that the Park Service arrowhead emblem would be used for “unseemly” commercial purposes, so an official notice was published in the Federal Register of March 15, 1962 (27 F.R. 2486). While this action proclaimed the Arrowhead as the official symbol of the National Park Service, it had already been the de facto official symbol for a decade.

An additional layer of protection was added on February 9, 1965, when the arrowhead emblem was registered with the U.S. Patent Office as the official emblem of the National Park Service.

Comments

Having a love for old Dodge Powerwagon trucks, I purchased one recently. It is painted a light green color, which I thought was unusual. What's more, on one side of the truck's door is affixed a well worn Arrowhead Decal of the Department of the Interior- National Park Service. I was told that this M880 Dodge was an Army vehicle and later a Park Service vehicle. Under the light green paint is olive drab or camo paint. I am interested in this 1977 Dodge truck's history but don't know where to look. I am also wanting to somewhat restore it to original National Park Service shape with new decals for both sides of the truck in honor of the Park Service. Any information on the light green paint preference and where to buy correct decals would be appreciated. Being a fan of the outdoors, I hope to accomplish this. The truck is a 4 wheel drive, 318 motor, single cab, longbed automatic. Under the hood is white decal lettering- NGOWCS. Inside the cab, the vehicle ID plate with M880 and VIN W24BE7S119186. Anyone knowing any history of this truck please email me at Thankyou.

Wow, John, that's some truck. Sure wish I could help you with your quest, but I'm afraid that I wouldn't even know where to start. Have you tried asking your local Dodge dealer for help? Seems to me that having the VIN number should enable you to track it down.

Under the hood is white decal lettering- NGOWCS.

Non-Governmental Organization Wildlife Conservation Society, perhaps?

Dear Sirs

I am from Canada, and have enjoyed travelling and visiting many of the National Parks, (just came back from an 8 day excursion in the Grand Canyon), and am especially enjoying the Passport Stamp Program! What a great idea.

The reason for my e-mail to yourself is that a good friend of mine, who is a Geologist, and is so in love with the National Parks, and all the history, etc., and has made 12 visits to the Grand Canyon alone, and I might add is a Junior Park Ranger and directly responsible for my visits to many of the parks, has a very strong desire to own a Park Ranger Hat with the Arrowhead Emblem, particularly the Emblem.

I am hoping that you would be able to help me in acquiring a hat for her with the emblem or at least the emblem. She has a birthday coming up and I would so love to surprise her.

If you can help me in anyway at all I would greatly appreciate it.

Maria: The official Arrowhead emblem items(s) you want to buy are, as far as I know, sold by the NPS Arrowhead Store only to authorized purchasers -- a list that is restricted to park rangers, ex park rangers, park volunteer workers (V.I.P's), park partners, and other specified classes of personnel who work in or for the national parks in some capacity. The general public cannot buy official Arrowhead items from the Arrowhead Store. I suggest that you shop for suitable substitute items the next time you visit a national park with a well stocked bookstore. You can also shop online for some items that aren't restricted. I'm sorry it took so long to answer your comment, and that I could not provide a more helpful answer. Maybe a helpful Traveler reader can help you with your search. Anybody want to chime in on this? Good look, Maria.

Currently traveling through Yellowstone
and I think it's
ironic that the symbol for the
National Parks is a Native American
Arrrowhead and a bison, these two icons
Don't symbolize protection and preservation.

Bob Janiskee:
Maria: The official Arrowhead emblem items(s) you want to buy are, as far as I know, sold by the NPS Arrowhead Store only to authorized purchasers -- a list that is restricted to park rangers, ex park rangers, park volunteer workers (V.I.P's), park partners, and other specified classes of personnel who work in or for the national parks in some capacity. The general public cannot buy official Arrowhead items from the Arrowhead Store. I suggest that you shop for suitable substitute items the next time you visit a national park with a well stocked bookstore. You can also shop online for some items that aren't restricted. I'm sorry it took so long to answer your comment, and that I could not provide a more helpful answer. Maybe a helpful Traveler reader can help you with your search. Anybody want to chime in on this? Good look, Maria.
There should be variations on the emblem for sale. However - I would guess that the use of the official patch may be limited for the potential that it might be used to impersonate an NPS employee. I understand that anyone can buy the official hats from Stratton Hat Co, but that the official band isn't something that is sold in stores.

My reading of the NPS Arrowhead Store website is that one can only purchase from them if they belong to the categories you mentioned. However - it doesn't sound as if it's illegal to give items away as gifts or even resell. I know there is a thriving business that resells items sold only in Disney theme parks, although I'm not sure there's enough demand to resell stuff from the Arrowhead Store.

http://www.arrowheadstore.com/category.asp?id=acc

Various NPS auxiliaries do sell patches that incorporate the NPS logo:

http://www.sequoiahistory.org/store/pc/viewPrd.asp?idproduct=420&idcategory=47


Anonymous:
Currently traveling through Yellowstone
and I think it's
ironic that the symbol for the
National Parks is a Native American
Arrrowhead and a bison, these two icons
Don't symbolize protection and preservation.
I beg to differ. The natives who hunted bison did so for reverence for the hunted. I understand they even apologized to the hunted animals and hunted in sustainable numbers.

The use of guns and Westward expansion were what nearly wiped out the North American bison.