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Lesson Plan Explorations in American Environmental History: The Photographer, the Artist, and Yellowstone

In this lesson, students use Library of Congress primary sources to recognize the impact photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran had on the creation of Yellowstone National Park. As members of the 1871 Hayden Expedition, Jackson's and Moran's images helped to shape Americans' ideas of the West. Students compare the photographic images with the paintings that resulted. They explore the legislative records and historical mapping of the area and produce an essay describing how Jackson's and Moran's artistic talents contributed to the creation of the American West.


Students will be able to:

  • Select images from the Library of Congress online collections.
  • Discuss how images played an important role in the creation of the national parks and American's ideas of the West.
  • Write a short essay using complete citations.

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

  1. Display an image of a Thomas Moran painting. For examples, see Thomas Moran paintings in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
  2. Discuss with students the various images and impressions that emerge related to the Western experience and the Moran image. Students analyze the image, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  3. Explain to students that Yellowstone Park was created as a result of the artistic images sent to Congress after the V. Hayden Geological Expedition.
  4. Invite students to particpate in a 'voyage of discovery' as they work within the digital collections to discover the impact of William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran.
    • Ask students to consider why an artist and a photographer were taken with this geological survey.
    • What contribution did these men make as a result of that journey?
    • What is the relationship between the advent of photography and the creation of a National Parks system?
  5. Students examine other Library of Congress online collections.
    • You may direct them to explore the lives and careers of William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran using the timeline on William Henry Jackson and other resources as needed, and write a short paragraph describing what they have learned about the two men.
    • Explore World's Transportation Commission and choose a photograph you particularly enjoy. Write a short paragraph describing the photograph.
    Pair students and assign half of the pairs to work with the first set of images, and half of the pairs to work with the second set of images.
    • Set One
      Analyze Jackson’s photograph, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River. Analyze Moran’s painting, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. In what ways does Moran’s painting differ from Jackson's photographic image?
    • Set Two
      Analyze Jackson’s photograph, Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Analyze Moran’s painting, Tower Falls and Sulphur Mountain, Yellowstone. In what ways does Moran’s painting differ from Jackson's photographic image?
    • Optional activity: What other Moran paintings can you discover that have been reproduced from Jackson's photos?
    • Direct students to the collection, Mapping the National Parks. Read the Special Presentation on Yellowstone. Consider how Yellowstone came to be established as the first national park and the outcomes of the expedition. Collect written student responses or discuss.
    • Ask students to reflect, in writing, or in another format:
      As members of the V. Hayden's U. S. Geological Survey of the Territories, how did William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran's artistic talents contribute to the creation of the American West?
  6. Read the reflections aloud in class and record the themes that emerge as a result of the responses.
    These may include:
    • What is our relationship to the land?
    • Why is public land ownership so important to Americans?
    • How do we define our stewardship to the enviornment?
    • What responsilities do we share related to land preservation and care?

The lesson can be extended to include:

  • students researching and writing management plans for issues of local concern;
  • students interviewing community members and experts in environmental management, creating their own primary sources as part of their research; and
  • extensive involvement of local resource managers as presenters and student mentors.

Lesson Evaluation

Evaluate student participation and products according to criteria specified by the teacher or generated in dialogue with the class.


Marta Brooks & Jodi Allison-Bunnell