Today marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service. The NPS, the Organization of American Historians, and the Journal of American History have long been intertwined. To commemorate this day, we peeked into the OAH’s archives to see how the NPS has evolved and grown over the past century.
The 2016 past OAH Meeting in Providence, R.I., featured a number of important conversations marking the centennial. Previewed by Joan Zenzen, a Friday evening plenary with Robert Stanton, Gary Nash, and William Cronon marked the centennial and honored Stanton’s leadership. Live tweets for the plenary are collected here. After the plenary, NPS historian Christine Arato remarked,
“I hope that the work of the NPS in our next century creates spaces for the courageous practices of reciprocity and empathy, skills learned not just through knowing but also in doing. We need these places to be better citizens of the world not only through frank encounters with our past, but in conversation about our responsibilities to one another.”
Other sessions at the 2016 meeting included a panel on “Old Stories, Young Leaders: Oral History and Leadership Development in the National Park Service” and a round table on the centennial.
Looking back to the turn of the twenty-first century, the JAH featured a 2002 essay by J. Todd Moye on “The Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project and Oral History in the National Park Service.” The OAH’s radio show Talking History interviewed Chief Historian of the NPS Dwight Pitcaithley in 1998 about the politics of interpretation.
The 1990s were an important moment in the histories of both the OAH and NPS. In 1994, they joined to collaborate on bringing the latest in historical scholarship to the United States’ public history sites. The collaboration sparked numerous projects over the years, not least of which was the 2011 report Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, authored by Anne Whisnant, Marla Miller, Gary Nash, and David Thelen. The JAH’s April 2013 podcast featured editor Ed Linenthal and a panel of prominent public historians discussing the report.
If we look back to the 1940s, we see a wave of articles on National Parks in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, the journal’s name before it became the Journal of American History. Two articles, for example, discuss the early history of Yellowstone. Merrill J. Mattes wrote a 1949 essay titled, “Behind the Legend of Colter’s Hell: The Early Exploration of Yellowstone National Park,” while a 1942 article by W. Turrentine Jackson narrates “The Creation of Yellowstone National Park” with the style typical of the era. It includes gems like these:
“At this point in the discussion Cornelius Hedges, a member of the expedition, interrupted the conversation to propose a plan which marked him as one of the farsighted men of his generation… He thought there should be ‘no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great National Park.” (p. 189–190)
A 1943 article by Alvin P. Stauffer and Charles W. Porter offered broader thoughts. Titled “The National Park Service Program of Conservation for Areas and Structures of National Historical Significance,” their article discussed the history (to that point) of the NPS and made the case that historians need to visit the sites that they study:
“In spite of the changes which time brings to an historical area, neither the readings of books nor the study of documents can supplant the poignant imagery and understanding which one direct contact with the site evokes.” (p. 25)