Abraham Lincoln had a lot on his mind that last day of June 1864.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been slugging it out for a month and a half in the brutal Overland Campaign. Only two weeks earlier, Grant suffered 13,000 casualties at Cold Harbor, yet gained no advantage.
At the White House, the President received another provocative resignation letter from his ambitious Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase—but on this day, Lincoln finally decided to call Chase’s bluff and accept.
And that was aside from the usual stream of callers and messengers, and the stack of bills awaiting the signature, “A. Lincoln.”
But among the items on his desk that day was legislation that would change the nation more than anyone could have imagined. It concerned, of all unlikely things, two pieces of land in far-off California.
It’s often forgotten that California was a Union state, providing troops for federal service and much of the wealth that paid for the North’s prosecution of the war. The flow of gold and silver from the Sierra Nevada was such that Lincoln hoped to offer thanks himself. “Nothing would give me more pleasure,” he told his old friend Charles Maltby, the superintendent of Indian affairs for California, “than a visit to the Pacific shore, and to say in person to your citizens, ‘God bless you for your devotion to the Union’…I have it now in purpose when the railroad is finished, to visit your wonderful state.”
At the same time, others had begun to see a different kind of wealth in California. In 1851, in one of the many conflicts between new settlers and the people who had lived on the land for generations, an armed band of Americans pursued a native tribe up the canyon of the Merced River. What they found was a valley unlike any they had ever seen—with granite monoliths, waterfalls cascading thousands of feet, and a split mountain nearly 5,000 feet high. New names were given on the spot: El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Half Dome. Misunderstanding the local dialect, they gave the valley itself the name they thought belonged to the tribe they were pursuing: Yo-Semite.
A year later, prospectors working to the south stumbled on another wonder: a grove of sequoia trees nearly 2,000 years old, some nearing 300 feet in height. It became known as the Mariposa Grove.
By the early 1860s, a wagon road had been built, livestock grazed in the valley, there was a sawmill to provide lumber, and a hotel catered to visitors. The future of Yosemite was taking shape, and it was in the hands of whoever could exploit its resources and attractions first.
At this point, an unprecedented idea was proposed: this extraordinary land should be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. Horace Greeley, who visited in 1859 and pronounced himself disappointed in the waterfalls (which, it being summer, had slowed to a trickle), wrote about the sequoias: “I am sure they will be more prized and treasured a thousand years hence than now, should they, by extreme care and caution, be preserved so long, and that thousands will then visit them…” (See his entire description here.)
An early champion of preservation was the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who believed strongly that public parks were essential to democracy—that every American was entitled to enjoy the beneficial effects of nature on their health and well-being, regardless of economic or social class. “Without means are taken by government to withhold them from the grasp of individuals,” Olmsted wrote a few years later, “all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body will be closed against the great body of the people.”
But there was no legal basis for setting aside land for public use—until March of 1864. Backed by supporters such as Olmsted, California Senator John Conness introduced “An Act authorizing a Grant to the State of California of the ‘Yo-Semite Valley,’ and of the Land embracing the ‘Mariposa Big Tree Grove.’” For the first time, a government declared that places of exceptional natural value “shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation”—and, crucially, “shall be inalienable for all time.” The bill passed both houses with little debate and was sent to President Lincoln.
Though originally a state park, Yosemite established the precedent for the National Park system, which began in 1872 with Yellowstone. Largely thanks to the efforts of legendary naturalist John Muir, it was returned to the federal government as a National Park in 1890, and expanded from its original holdings. Today it encompasses nearly 1,200 square miles—94 percent of it designated wilderness.
Abraham Lincoln never made his journey to the Pacific. But the thousands of visitors Horace Greeley foresaw became, last year, nearly four million. Along with the millions who enjoy any of America’s National Parks—now numbering 59—they are heirs to a gift first deeded with the Yosemite Grant. On a busy last day of June 1864 with the signature: “A. Lincoln.”
Richard Hellesen is author of the Ford’s Theatre plays Necessary Sacrifices, One Destiny,The Road From Appomattox and Investigation: Detective McDevitt. He lives three hours from Yosemite, where he can be found hiking or at his favorite campsite.