By Scott Vierick, Historian
From the mangrove forests of Everglades National Park in Florida to the frozen tundra of Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, the National Park Service (NPS) protects a vast variety of natural, cultural, and historic resources all across America. Founded in 1916, the NPS celebrated its 104th birthday last week, but the story of the national parks dates back to the 19th century.
In 1832, Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas (today’s Hot Springs National Park) became the first area explicitly protected by the federal government for the benefit of the public. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. During this time, a variety of departments and agencies, including the military, were tasked with protecting these sites and making them accessible to visitors. Early visitors to Yellowstone and Yosemite were greeted not by park rangers wearing the familiar gray and brown uniform, but by the famed Buffalo Soldiers—African American soldiers who served in all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments in the American West following the Civil War.
The patchwork of authorities managing the national parks caused advocates to worry that the sites were not receiving the funding and support they needed to thrive. In response, Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act of 1916, which established the National Park Service as a federal agency within the Department of the Interior. It also laid out the NPS’s mandate, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Under its first two superintendents, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, the NPS established standards and worked to professionalize its operations. It also expanded, adding new units and resources to its supervision. In the 1930s, Executive Order 6166 transferred sites like Gettysburg National Military Park from the War Department to the NPS. During the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camps were established in many NPS units, and workers built roads, trails, and facilities for guests. In the late 1940s, after years of acceding to segregationist demands and maintaining separate facilities for Black and white visitors, the NPS also began to integrate its parks.
While visitation decreased during World War II, it began to skyrocket in the postwar years, placing stress on NPS infrastructure. In response, the Mission 66 Initiative funded numerous improvements in the parks to accommodate the influx of visitors arriving by automobile, including new roads, lodgings, observation points, and visitor centers. As the years went on, more and more sites were added to the NPS’s purview. Today, the agency manages more than 400 units, ranging from urban parks like the monuments on the National Mall in Washington D.C., to historic buildings like the Maggie Walker Historic Site in Richmond, Virginia, to roadways like the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, to vast wilderness areas like Gates of the Arctic National Park.
As the type of units managed by the NPS has grown, so too have the topics covered and interpreted by park rangers and volunteers. While some sites protect natural treasures like the Old Faithful Geyser, others highlight troubling or complicated stories from this country’s past. Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site tells the story of how U.S. soldiers murdered over 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in a brutal slaughter in 1864. Manzanar National Historic Site offers guests the chance to learn more about the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. At other sites, park staff, elected officials, and activists have led efforts to expand and diversify narratives, allowing visitors to hear new stories and gain new perspectives. Starting in the 1990s, for instance, in response to both internal and Congressional pressure, many NPS Civil War sites began expanding their interpretations to go beyond simply discussing the battles and instead cover the political and social factors at play before, during, and after the war. To support the work of the NPS, professional historians have produced detailed studies of park histories. Today, many NPS sites also work with local communities, stakeholders, and outside experts to improve interpretation.
Today, the NPS continues to safeguard the United States’ natural, cultural, and historic treasures. The park units serve as anchors for local economies, while also drawing visitors from around the globe. The NPS understands that its role in telling the stories of these parks is never done, and works with a variety of partners to improve its interpretive offerings. HAI has been fortunate to work with the NPS on a variety of archives and exhibit projects over the years. Our work on the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, Everglades National Park, Hot Springs National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and other sites has helped to preserve and interpret the unique histories protected by the NPS. Check out our recent case study to learn more about our work for the NPS.