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Yosemite, For What And For Whom?
Editor's note: Two new books on Yosemite National Park examine both the origins of the park and the "national park" idea. Noted national park historian Alfred Runte recently read both books -- The Making of Yosemite: James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of America’s Most Popular National Park, by Jen A. Huntley. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011) and Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea, (Yosemite Conservancy, 2013) by Dayton Duncan, and came away with the following thoughts on the works.
The path-breaking beginning of America’s national parks in Yosemite is the subject of these two anniversary-related books. For Dayton Duncan, in Seed of the Future, the Yosemite Grant remains the story of a national triumph. For Jen Huntley, in The Making of Yosemite, the act of June 30, 1864, bears irrefutable evidence of a national theft. With that act, a bourgeois, Eastern-dominated Congress deprived Yosemite’s settlers of their legal, established rights. “Together with James Lamon, [James Mason] Hutchings had filed preemption claims on property within the boundaries of the grant prior to congressional action and inhabited and improved that property, according to all the relevant requirements of the law. This fact was never mentioned in any of the Congressional deliberations prior to signing it into law.” [p. 126, italics mine]
In short, what we today celebrate as the 150th anniversary of an unselfish act was steeped in overt duplicity. “In good preemption fashion, Hutchings continuously worked to expand and improve his dwellings,” Huntley argues. [p. 134] No matter, the government—ultimately represented by the Yosemite Park commissioners—refused to grant his claim. As noteworthy, environmental historians later vilified Hutchings for even daring to make the claim. “With his legal struggle to validate his land claims and investments as evidence, Hutchings became the emblem of the self-centered businessman, whose only interest in Yosemite was to make a quick buck off the tourist trade.” [p. 170]
These passages are to explain how Dayton Duncan’s book so radically departs from Huntley’s. Simply, Seed of the Future has no ax to grind. Duncan rather believes in telling a good story. If the story will not convey the meaning of Yosemite, no amount of argument ever will. Jen Huntley may not believe it, but Seed of the Future then gets the story right.
Most important, Duncan carefully considers the history of the public lands along with the history of the national parks. Dismissing the former out of hand, Professor Huntley is left to make assertions, namely, that mainstream historians (me included) have ignored the true complexity of preserving parks. As support, she repeatedly cites a 1995 essay by William Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. A professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Cronon believes that wilderness leads us astray. “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation,” he charges. “Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires. For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationship with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.” [Environmental History, volume 1, number 1 (January 1996): 7-8]
In other words, anything we save invites the “problem” of what we diminish in the process. This, too, becomes Jen Huntley’s argument. Although not called wilderness at the time, the Yosemite Grant disenfranchised the very thought of private ownership upholding scenery. “In his 2009 documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” Ken Burns blasted Hutching for ‘illegally’ squatting on public land,” she notes. “In Hutchings, Burns found the model antihero to provide the narrative structure of his entire story: each sacred place that would become a park faced a threat from developers, a threat that only the concerted efforts of passionate nature lovers and the federal government could defeat. While elements of this narrative are indeed true, the tale leaves out the messy complexity of historical context, while reducing the history of the national parks to a simplistic account of heroic nature lovers joined with a benign government to defeat the selfish entrepreneurs standing in the way of enlightened progress.” [p. 2] (Actually, Dayton Duncan both wrote and produced the Ken Burns series, winning an Emmy Award in each category.)
Huntley’s criticism of Ken Burns aside, she herself could have benefited from stronger critics. Certainly, if invited by her press to comment, I would have said this much: You have a wonderful book on James Mason Hutchings’s efforts to publicize the West and California. Why not be content with that? No doubt, Hutchings played a significant role—and one could argue the leading role—in introducing Yosemite to the American public.
However, her assertion that Hutchings “strove to weave together his sense of Yosemite’s sacred value with [his] daily life” demands more than quoting from William Cronon’s essay. [p. 177] “To see the value of Hutchings’s life in our day,” she continues, “we must get over the perfectionist demands that insist only on the purest of heroes.” Admittedly, Yosemite’s acknowledged heroes were themselves inconsistent, but on this point they all agreed. One person’s “sense of Yosemite’s sacred value” in no way substituted for the permanence of public ownership.
If Huntley wishes to speak about complexity, explaining the outgrowth of that awareness across the public lands is a must. Over the years, my bible has been Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936, reprint edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962). In the first place, preemption (the right of early occupation and purchase ahead of a government sale) was limited to the surveyed portions of the public lands. Consider Section 10 of the prevailing law affecting the “settlement” of Yosemite Valley, the Preemption Act of 1841. “That from and after the passage of this act, every person being the head of a family, or widow, or single man, over the age of twenty-one years, and being a citizen of the United States, or having filed his declaration of intention to become a citizen, as required by the naturalization laws, who since the first day of June, A.D. eighteen hundred and forty, has made or shall hereafter make a settlement in person on the public lands to which the Indian title had been at the time of such settlement extinguished, and which has been, or shall have been surveyed prior thereto, and who shall inhabit and improve the same, and who has or shall erect a dwelling thereon, shall be, and is hereby, authorized to enter with the register of the land office for the district in which such land may lie, by legal subdivisions, any number of acres not exceeding one hundred and sixty, or a quarter section of land, to include the residence of such claimant, upon paying to the United States the minimum price of such land.” [United States Statutes, Chapter 16, 1841, p. 455, italics mine].
In short, James Mason Hutchings had not followed the law “in good preemption fashion.” It is rather Professor Huntley ignoring the historical complexity by her undue reliance on Cronon’s essay. The point remains: The “right” Professor Huntley enumerates never existed in the first place. Only the surveyed portions of the public domain were open to preemption.
Absent the proper survey into townships [36-square mile tracts] and sections [square-mile tracts], the “legal subdivisions” specified in the Preemption Act existed nowhere in Yosemite Valley. After all, the High Sierra had not been surveyed. The surveyor general of California had other priorities—more pressing surveys—readying agricultural lands for settlement.
Did Hutchings know this? Absolutely. Everyone in California did. Nineteenth-century land law was common knowledge; after all, the country was building itself on those laws. As for preemption, its intent was to reduce speculation by allowing average citizens to compete for land. Further insisting that it be surveyed was only common sense. Imagine the disputes that would have erupted otherwise as people spilled over onto one another’s claims.
The proprietor of a hotel, Hutchings had no intentions of becoming a farmer in the true spirit of the preemption laws. As did others, he rather pinned his hopes on gaming the system, hoping somehow to skirt the law. There his skills as a publicist (aka lobbyist) initially stood him in good stead. First, he insisted that the surveyor general of California make a survey of his claim after the fact. In a letter of protest to the governor, the surveyor general then explained how Hutchings had tipped his hand. Bluntly, he wished to lay out his claim in the shape of a cross, “extending from mountain to mountain and blocking up the valley.” In no way was that a “legal subdivision,” a quarter section; in no way did it say “farm.” Once again, Hutchings’s arrogance emboldened him into thinking he could “promote” himself past any obstacle. Perhaps, if he caught Congress at the right time—and in the right mood—his forced survey and cross would stick. James Lamon, too, asked for three separate parcels, again, none in keeping with the law.
Their ploy in fact nearly worked. Twice Congress split on the issue, the House siding with their plea to enjoy a “little homestead” in Yosemite Valley and the Senate not. It is a marvelous story, rich in intrigue; unfortunately, the best congressional documents are again absent from Huntley’s book. No matter, the Supreme Court vindicated the surveyor general—and the Yosemite Grant—when Hutchings pursued his case on appeal. Hutchings had no right to force a sale on the government, and clearly should have known Yosemite would not be sold. In his greed he made the national parks constitutional, for which we indeed owe him a debt of thanks.
Again, the value of Professor Huntley’s book lies elsewhere. She certainly opened my eyes to Hutchings’s prominence in every category of promotion and western art. Unfortunately, getting lost in William Cronon’s argument only leads her down a rabbit hole. Perhaps the heroic narrative of wilderness is jaded, but yes, that is the narrative Hutchings himself invited by defying two congressional acts. For that matter, name your national park. Where is the narrative false? Commercial interests are always pleading for exemptions. My government owes me to get out of the way.
Agreed, wilderness mirrors a duality between “out there” and “home,” but again, critics misread the history. No serious preservationist ever wanted the duality. As a historian, I have lived for 45 years in the personal papers of dozens of preservationists, all of whom wanted something more from “home” and wilderness. All fought for the “country beautiful” and “the city beautiful” every bit as much as they defended wilderness. They were not retreating to wilderness, looking “backward,” as it were. They wanted the entire country secured for beauty. Economics just didn’t allow it, and if anything, it was the sheer abundance of public lands no one wanted that allowed us to have national parks.
How Yosemite inspired the nation to keep those lands public thus elevates the importance of Dayton Duncan’s book. His metaphor, built around the giant sequoias, is as eloquent as it convincing. What if the national park idea, like the seeds of the giant sequoia, had failed to take root in the public mind? “At age 150, the national park idea seems such a natural part of our landscape that we often forget that it wasn’t always so,” Duncan writes. “We assume that an exquisite valley with the continent’s highest waterfalls and a grove of Creation’s biggest trees would of course be saved for future generations to enjoy and experience. ‘Of course,’ we think, ‘that’s only natural. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it’s always been.’ But in this last thought, we are mistaken.” The seed of the national park idea “could just as easily have failed to take root and survive. There was nothing inevitable about it. Because history asks us to look backward, already knowing how things will end, we tend to ignore or overlook how uncertain the ending was at the beginning, or how many different endings were possible.” [pp. 5-6] Neither the Yosemite Grant nor Yosemite National Park was ever “certain” until special people made it so.
Five people are singled out, and of note, James Mason Hutchings is among Duncan’s five. The other four—Galen Clark, John Muir, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Theodore Roosevelt—also receive chapter treatment. Each critical figure becomes a seed in the story of Yosemite that led to the great park we know today. As for Hutchings, Duncan emphatically agrees with Huntley. He indeed put Yosemite on the map. However, Duncan is just as emphatic about Hutchings’s failures and why his contributions to the park eventually dimmed. His contemporaries held out for a public park. That is why they are honored. Yosemite was the place—and they the instruments—to begin saving the public lands as a public treasure.
Stunning illustrations, many in full color, complement Duncan’s engaging text. It is arguably the most beautiful book—and the best written—published on Yosemite by any historian. To be sure, no one should mistake it for a coffee table book. No less than the text, every illustration has been carefully researched. All add to the story. The historical illustrations especially hit the mark. My favorite is the handwritten copy of the Yosemite Park Act with the signature of Abraham Lincoln. [pp. 70-71] Obviously, preserving wilderness did not “trouble” him.
The national parks may not be perfect. No one ever said they were. Duncan meticulously details the process by which Native Americans lost Yosemite even as conquering Americans “found” it. His point is that the tragedy might have been compounded had the national park idea failed to fill the void. Exactly so. Without the parks we would be culturally diminished—impoverished, really. Every nation needs its ideals. It remained for James Mason Hutchings to concede that Yosemite deserved better than his idea of sacred. As for those who still disagree, probably nothing from history will change their minds. Someone will always be troubled by what idealism has achieved—wilderness and the national parks included.
A frequent contributor to the Traveler, Alfred Runte is the author of National Parks: The American Experience and Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks. He is currently working on a revised edition of his Yosemite history, Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness.