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[Detail] The Harvest Moon. Currier & Ives, between 1860 and 1870.

U.S. History

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.

John Muir

John Muir, c1902.

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:

Men and women eating breakfast off wooden barrels in front of tents. 1885 Sept 5.

Breakfast in Camp - West Branch, Penobscot, Maine. Kirkbride, Joseph J., photographer. September 5, 1885.

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.

Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley Hunt, S. V. (Samuel Valentine), engraver. c1872

Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley. Hunt, S. V. (Samuel Valentine), engraver. c1872.

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:

Lobo, The King of Currumpaw

Illustration from Wild Animals I Have Known, and 200 Drawings (page 54, first illustration). By Ernest Seton Thompson, 1898.

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.

Tower Falls and Sulphur Mountain, Yellowstone TM; Prang's American Chromolithograph. L. Prang & Co. c. 1875

Tower Falls and Sulphur Mountain, Yellowstone TM; Prang's American Chromolithograph. L. Prang & Co. c. 1875.

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," [1872] 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, 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.