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Abe Lincoln and the National Parks: A Bit of History


Image: Abraham Lincoln with General Grant. Credit:

150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln died due to a gunshot wound inflicted by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington DC. Most Americans know Lincoln as a great moral leader, the champion of the Union during the Civil War, the emancipator of the slaves, and a renowned public speaker. But Lincoln also played a critical role in the establishment of the US National Parks.

In 1864, Lincoln signed into law an act that set aside California’s Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove for public use and recreation. This was the first time a federal government had ever set aside land for this purpose.


Image: Mariposa Big Tree Grove early visitors and tourism (c. 1875). Credit: Watkins, C. C., NPS Archival Collections.

Natural lands set aside for public use and recreation was a completely novel idea in Lincoln's time, and one that would have huge implications for people everywhere. The designation of Yosemite as federally protected land led to the creation of Yellowstone, the first national park on Earth, in 1872. Yosemite itself would not become a National Park until 1890, when it became apparent that Federal regulation, as opposed to the limited state regulation, was needed to protect the park’s resources from the growing number of tourists and visitors.


Image: Early hunters at Yosemite (c. 1890). Credit: NPS Archival Collections.

Today, Yosemite and Yellowstone, as well as 56 other National Parks, are icons of American democracy. None of this would have been possible without Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the original Yosemite legislation. So, as we remember this great leader on the 150th anniversary of his death, we should also bear in mind his contribution to the protection of the lands we all enjoy as backpackers and citizens of the United States.

For more information on the history of the National Parks, click here.


June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln creates Yosemite Park. (2009).

National Park Service Harpers Ferry Center Historic Photos Collection.

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