The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, is a multimedia collection that documents the movement to conserve and protect America's natural heritage. It includes complete works of authors such as John Burroughs, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau; prints lithographs, and engravings of American scenery; an Alaska Expedition album; and records of legislation establishing national forests and parks.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
- Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847-1920
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
Recommended additional sources of information.
- Secondary Sources on the History of the American Conservation Movement
- congress.gov: Select Bills: Major Legislation By Topic
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement collection covers the movement to preserve and protect America's wildlife, wild lands, and other natural resources from 1890-1920. The collection complements key history content such as the Progressive era, the American frontier, eastern urbanization and population growth, and public policy.
1) The Progressive era brought reforms to American society including child labor laws, women's suffrage, and food and drug safety regulation. Progressives also supported environmental protection. This collection contains the writings of conservationists and nature lovers who helped convince Americans that preserving land, water, and wildlife was important national business. Search on John Burroughs, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell, Henry David Thoreau and others for images and writings of these influential people.
2) As cities became more crowded, citizens began to look for peaceful retreats. Leisure activities and the conservation movement came together as Americans took up camping, bird watching, and other outdoor recreation as a way to escape crowded cities.
The 1857 book, Wild Northern Scenes; Sporting Adventures with the Rifle and the Rod is an example of the connection between recreation and preservation. In this book, S.H. Hammond writes:
Hurrah! hurrah! We are in the countryóthe glorious country! Outside of the thronged streets; away from piled up bricks and mortar; outside of the clank of machinery; the rumbling of carriages; the roar of the escape pipe; the scream of the steam whistle; the tramp, tramp of moving thousands on the stone sidewalks; away from the heated atmosphere of the city, loaded with the smoke and dust, and gasses of furnaces, and the ten thousand manufacturies of villainous smells.
We are beyond even the meadows and green fields. We are here alone with nature, surrounded by old primeval things. Tall forest trees, mountain and valley are on the right hand and on the left. Before us, stretching away for miles, is a beautiful lake, its waters calm and placid, giving back the bright heavens, the old woods, the fleecy clouds that drift across the sky, from away down in its quiet depths.
Search on camping, fishing, hunting, picnics, and recreation for photographs, documents, and laws that show how Americans' desire for nature-based recreation grew into an interest in preserving wildlife and wild lands.
3) Explorers of the American frontier brought back beautiful images of wild lands. When citizens saw these pictures of the nation's wilderness, they began to appreciate and value our country's natural wonders. Picturesque America, a popular 1872 book, included eye-catching engravings of our nation's scenic lands.
Search on Picturesque America for engravings of Mirror Lake and other sites. Search on drawings, engravings, paintings, photographs, and prints to find more beautiful, early images of America's wilderness.
4) An example of nature writing that influenced Americans is Wild Animals I Have Known, a best-selling book published in 1898. In this book, Ernest Seton Thompson wrote warm stories about wildlife. His stories made people feel sympathetic toward animals they might have otherwise feared. In the chapter Lobo The King of Currumpaw, Thompson wrote about a captured gray wolf that lost its mate:
I set meat and water beside him, but he paid no heed. He lay calmly on his breast, and gazed away past me down through the gateway of the caÒon, over the open plains - his plains - with those steadfast yellow eyes; nor moved a muscle when I touched him. When the sun went down he was still gazing fixedly across the prairie. I expected he would call up his band when night came, but... he would never call again.
A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; ... This only I know, that when the morning dawned, he was lying there still in his position of calm repose, but his spirit was goneóthe old king-wolf was dead.
Read more animal stories in Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Seton Thompson. Search on nature writing and natural history for other interesting nature books, journals, and articles written in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The conservation movement had an important effect on government policy in the United States. Many laws were passed, including those that established national parks, national forests, and policies for protecting fish and wildlife throughout the nation.
Examples of landmark legislation for the conservation movement include the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, of Yosemite National Park in 1890, and the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.
The law establishing Yellowstone, "An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park,"  says:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone river, ...is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people... .
Search on National Park Service, Yellowstone, Yosemite and other national parks by name to see images of and read the laws that created our country's national parks. Search on birds, fishing, game, parks, timber, and water to find out about laws that helped conserve America's natural resources.
This collection provides an excellent illustrated timeline that can help students develop chronological thinking skills. Using the Chronology of Selected Events, students can trace the roots of modern day environmental concerns.
For example, in the 1869 book Our New West, Samuel Bowles combines interest in natural wonders with enthusiasm for exploitable natural resources. Bowles covers the hardships and benefits of mining, and the role of government land titles in mining ventures -- all issues still widely debated today. He writes:
Chapter XV. THE MINES OF NEVADA
(page 284) In 1859, Nevada was not; and its mineral wealth was unknown. In that year, the outcroppings of the great Comstock lode ... were revealed ... . Adventurers of every sort hurried over the mountains from California, regardless of weather, or means, or any other element of comfort and success. There were of course wide disappointment and terrible suffering, much social disorder, and shocking political anarchy. But the greatest silver deposit in America was revealed; the science of mining was rapidly carried to a greater perfection than was ever reached before; and Nevada soon became a State. ...
(page 300) It is well understood that there is a government title, which, if ultimately insisted on, is beneath all titles to mining property; but Congress has already sufficiently settled the principle that the claims of the discoverers and miners...shall be respected by the government. It should be added that the minersí rights are superior to all other rights of property except the government title. The survey, location and ownership of a piece of land as real estate gives no right, under the minersí laws, to the minerals which it contains.
Search on national parks, water conservation, endangered species, public lands, Hetch Hetchy, and mining for evidence of early conservation debates on appropriate use of federal lands.
By studying the monographs and nature writings within the collection, students can begin to comprehend the social and political movements that influenced conservation. For example, biologists, ecologists, and other scientists developed the concept of endangered species. Through the conservation movement, this concept became a question of public policy.
The collection contains early warnings of human impact on animal species. Examples include The Extermination of the American Bison, 1889, and Our Vanishing Wild Life; Its Extermination and Preservation, 1913, both by William T. Hornaday. Hornaday writes:
CAUSES OF THE EXTERMINATION [OF BISON]
(page 464) The primary cause of the buffalo's extermination, and the one which embraced all others, was the descent of civilization, with all its elements of destructiveness, upon the whole of the country inhabited by that animal. From the Great Slave Lake to the Rio Grande, the home of the buffalo was everywhere overrun by the man with a gun; and, as has ever been the case, the wild creatures were gradually swept away, the largest and most conspicuous forms being the first to go.
EXTERMINATION OF BIRDS FOR WOMEN¥S HATS
(page 114) It is high time for the whole civilized world to know that many of the most beautiful and remarkable birds of the world are now being exterminated to furnish millinery ornaments for women¥s wear. The mass of new information that we have recently secured on this traffic from the headquarters of the feather trade is appalling. Previously, I had not dreamed that conditions are half as bad as they are.
Search on wildlife, nature writing, and natural history to find readable selections about social and political aspects of the conservation movement.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Using monographs and congressional debates found in the collection, students can analyze the persuasive arguments that helped secure the success of the conservation movement.
For example, by studying the National Park Conference of 1917, students can review the testimony of Mr. Enos Mills, of Estes Park, Colorado, who tells the story of the first national park, Yellowstone. Mills uses the history of Yellowstone to set out persuasive arguments in favor of wide public access to the national park system. Mills says:
THE NATIONAL PARKS FOR ALL THE PEOPLE.
(page 36) Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, the Yellowstone was the first national park in the world. There is an inspiring story in connection with the making of this park.... Prominent Montana men...had found the Yellowstone, had found it greater than the wildest, strangest stories that had ever been told concerning it. ...They had seen the marvelous canyon and the white waterfall that went plunging over into it. They had seen the petrified forests, the greatest geological wonder of the world. They had seen those strange, poetic geysers. They had seen all of those things.
But this night they were camping near the geysers, and a number of the men were discussing ...how they might obtain control of the Yellowstone wonderland that they might exploit it and make a fortune out of itóa perfectly natural thing for the American business man to think of. But there was one man, a statesman, who sat by the camp fire for a time and said nothing. Finallyóand I hope you will tell your children of this manóCornelius Hodges rose to his feet. ìBoys,î he said, ìyou are on the wrong track. The Government owns this wonderland, and it ought forever to own it. This region ought to become a national park for the benefit and welfare of all mankind.î
Search on John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and National Park Conference to find understandable arguments in favor of the conservation movement.
This collections offers many research opportunities for students. Successful research themes include conservation of natural resources, social policy issues (such as public recreation on public lands, natural resource management, endangered animals, grazing and mineral rights), development of ecological science, and state and regional conservation issues.
For example, students could research the relationship between recreation and conservation within the collection and find resources such as the 1864 work, Man and Nature, by George P. Marsh. Marsh writes:
(page 235) It is desirable that some large and easily accessible region of American soil should remain, as far as possible, in its primitive condition, at once a museum for the instruction of the student, a garden for the recreation of the lover of nature, and an asylum where indigenous tree, and humble plant that loves the shade, and fish and fowl and four-footed beast, may dwell and perpetuate their kind, in the enjoyment of such imperfect protection as the laws of a people jealous of restraint can afford them. The immediate loss to the public treasury from the adoption of this policy would be inconsiderable, for these lands are sold at low rates. The forest alone, economically managed, would, without injury, and even with benefit to its permanence and growth, soon yield a regular income larger than the present value of the fee.
Search on camping, conservation of natural resources, hunting, fishing, national parks, public lands, public recreation, wildlife, and states by name to launch research projects.
Historical Issues Analysis
The central issue, conservation, is shown throughout the collection as the battle to balance human needs with the environment. Students can study issues such as the relationship between humans and wildlife; the preservation of public lands for human enjoyment; and the use of natural resources.
For example, students could trace debate on conservation of natural resources through the collection, and find resources such as The Fight for Conservation, a 1910 book by Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot writes:
CHAPTER X: AN EQUAL CHANCE
(page 109) The American people have evidently made up their minds that our natural resources must be conserved. That is good. But it settles only half the question. For whose benefit shall they be conserved for the benefit of the many, or for the use and profit of the few? The great conflict now being fought will decide. There is no other question before us that begins to be so important, or that will be so difficult to straddle, as the great question between special interest and equal opportunity, between the privileges of the few and the rights of the many, between government by men for human welfare and government by money for profit, between the men who stand for the Roosevelt policies and the men who stand against them. This is the heart of the conservation problem today.
Search on conservation of natural resources, endangered animals, forests, grazing land, national parks, public lands, public recreation, soil, water, wildlife, and Hetch Hetchy to trace the debate on conservation issues.
1) Descriptive Writing
This collection features fine examples of descriptive writing on travel, scenery, and nature topics. Students can review examples of descriptive writing in the collection, then try their hand at writing a description of a trip, scenic area, or natural element from their own experience.
For example, in the 1908 book The Lay of the Land by Dallas Lore Sharp, students can find lyrical descriptions of nature such as:
Chapter I: The Muskrats Are Building
(page 1) We have had a series of long, heavy rains, and water is standing over the swampy meadow. It is a dreary stretch, this wet, sedgy land in the cold twilight, drearier than any part of the woods or the upland pastures. They are empty, but the meadow is flat and wet, naked and all unsheltered. And a November night is falling.
The darkness deepens. A raw wind is rising. At nine o¥clock the moon swings round and full to the crest of the ridge, and pours softly over. I button the heavy ulster close, and in my rubber boots go down to the river and follow it out to the middle of the meadow, where it meets the main ditch at the sharp turn toward the swamp. Here at the bend, behind a clump of black alders, I sit quietly down and wait. I am not mad, nor melancholy; I am not after copy. Nothing is the matter with me. I have come out to the bend to watch the muskrats building, for that small mound up the ditch is not an old haycock, but a half-finished muskrat house.
Search on essay, nature writing, travel, and wildlife to find examples of descriptive writing.
2) Persuasive Argument
Throughout the collection, persuasive writing and speeches champion causes such as conservation, public access to wild lands, and preservation. Students can study the collection to find examples of persuasive argument, then stage a mock debate -- taking two sides of an issue covered. For example, students can research the Hetch Hetchy Dam controversy. John Muir, leading preservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, led the fight against the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley as a reservoir for the city of San Francisco. Muir wrote many eloquent essays about Hetch Hetchy.
In the pamphlet entitled, Let everyone help to save the famous Hetch-Hetchy Valley..., Muir calls on the public to fight to preserve the valley. Muir combined his own writing and quotations from others to outline the case for preserving the valley, and to show what supporters could do to persuade Congress to defeat the dam. The pamphlet outlines many steps for influencing the debate in Congress, including:
HOW TO HELP PRESERVE THE HETCH-HETCHY VALLEY AND THE YOSEMITE PARK
1. Write at once to Hon. Richard A. Ballinger, Secretary of the Inerior [sic], Washington, D. C., requesting him to revoke the Garfield permit to flood the Hetch-Hetchy Valley.
2. Send a copy of the letter to President William H. Taft.
3. See personally if possible, or write to, the Seantors [sic] and Congress-men from your State, and as many others as you can reach, requesting them to vigorously oppose any bill having for its object the confimation of the Garfield permit to flood Hetch-Htchy Vally [sic], and request them to favor legislation to protect our parks from invasion, and particularly to favor improving the Yosemite Park....
Search on debate, Hetch Hetchy, and Muir to find persuasive arguments for and against conservation issues of the day.
3) Journal Writing
Several interesting examples of journals and journal-like documents are included in the collection. Students can review these documents, then write and illustrate their own nature journals or travel journals.
For example, students might research The Harriman Alaska Expedition: Chronicles and Souvenirs May to August 1899. This was the private souvenir album created by members of a scientific expedition to the Alaskan coast in the summer of 1899. The expedition party included the family of railroad magnate Edward Harriman (who funded the trip) and scientific, literary, and artistic thinkers who contributed to the album.
Students might also read passages from travel journals such as Ramblings through the High Sierra, in which Joseph Le Conte describes a five week horseback and camping trip to the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras in the summer of 1870.
Students might also discover The Table Rock Album  which published entries from public albums provided at Table Rock, a site for tourists viewing Niagara Falls in the mid-nineteenth century. (Table Rock has since tumbled into the Falls). The album records impressions of ordinary men and women seeing the beauty and grandeur of wild American scenery. One entry says:
In the evening I again visited the Cataract to behold it by moonlight. Taking my seat on a projecting rock, at a little distance from the Falls I gazed till my senses were almost entirely absorbed in the contemplation of this most magnificent scene. Although the shades of night increased the sublimity of the prospect, and ëdeepened the murmur of the falling flood,í the moon, in placid beauty, shed her soft influence upon the mind, and mitigated the terror of the scene. The thunders which bellowed from the abyss, and the brilliancy of the falling waters, which glistened like molten silver in the moonlight, seemed to exhibit in absolute perfection the rare union of the beautiful and sublime.
-- Thomas Day
Search on album and journal to find writings, logs, sketches, and reminiscences of travel and nature.