Yosemite National Park celebrates the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the Yosemite Grant Act. Proposed by California Senator John Conness, the United States Congress passed the act and it was signed by President Lincoln on June 30th, 1864. The act entrusted close to 40,000 acres to the state of California for preservation and public recreational use including the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley as well as the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees.
The Yosemite Valley had been inhabited by the Ahwahneechee for thousands of years. Many other tribes also visited the area including the Northern Paiute, Mono and Central Sierra Miwok tribes. The Miwok called the Ahwahneechee, Yosemite, or “those that kill” as they were feared by the surrounding tribes. L. H. Bunnell, who gave Yosemite its name wanting to honor the natives being displaced by the Mariposa Wars, mistakenly used the Miwok name for the valley dwellers.
Amongst the first tourists to visit Yosemite was American businessman James Mason Hutchings and artist Thomas Almond Ayres who publicized the beauty of the area through magazine articles and sketches of the natural wonders. As a result, tourism to the area increased and settlers were drawn to Yosemite. Early Wawona settler Galen Clark “discovered” the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias and would fight to preserve the magnificent trees.
While the Civil War raged a continent away, Californians became increasingly aware of the need to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. Realizing that political action was required, the activists convinced the junior Senator from California, John Conness, to present a bill to Congress designed to preserve the valley and grove of big trees. Images by 19th century California photographer, Carleton Watkins, of the natural wonders of the area, helped spur the Congress to pass the Yosemite Grant on June 30th, 1864 preserving the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. President Lincoln then signed the act which entrusted the area to the State of California.
Although the Grant, itself did not establish Yosemite as a National Park, the intent was there. It was the first grant to protect wild lands for future generations to enjoy. Twenty-six years later, President Benjamin Harrison would sign legislation making Yosemite the fourth U.S. National Park. The park remained under state control until 1903 when conservationist, John Muir, made a persuasive argument to President Theodore Roosevelt that control of the park should belong to the federal government.
Somewhat lost amid the turmoil of the Civil War was the lasting significance of the Yosemite Grant. This was the first time a government preserved an area for the enjoyment of its people. The visionaries who played a part in preserving Yosemite have inspired countries around the world to protect their natural wonders for future generations. The grant also led the way for establishment of the US National Park Service which today oversees 59 national parks and numerous other significant sites. The US continues to set aside wilderness areas for the public to enjoy. The youngest National Park is Pinnacles National Park, also in California, established in 2013.