Artist George Catlin Proposed Creation of National Parks

The Famed Painter of American Indians First Proposed Enormous National Parks

Painting of a Mandan Chief by George Catlin
George Catlin's painting of a Mandan chief. Getty Images

The creation of the National Parks in the United States can be traced to an idea first proposed by the noted American artist George Catlin, who is best remembered for his paintings of American Indians.

Catlin traveled extensively throughout North America in the early 1800s, sketching and painting Indians, and writing down his observations. And in 1841 he published a classic book, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.

While traveling the Great Plains in the 1830s, Catlin became acutely aware that the balance of nature was being destroyed because robes made of fur from the American bison (commonly called the buffalo) had become very fashionable in the cities of the East.

Catlin perceptively noted that the craze for buffalo robes would make the animals extinct. Instead of killing the animals and using nearly every part of them for food, or to make clothing and even tools, Indians were being paid to kill buffalo for their fur alone.

Catlin was disgusted to learn the Indians were being exploited by being paid in whiskey. And the buffalo carcasses, once skinned, were being left to rot on the prairie.

In his book Catlin expressed a fanciful notion, essentially arguing that the buffalo, as well as the Indians who depended upon them, should be preserved by being set aside in a "Nations Park."

The following is the passage in which Catlin made his startling suggestion:

"This strip of country, which extends from the province of Mexico to Lake Winnipeg on the North, is almost one entire plain of grass, which is, and ever must be, useless to cultivating man. It is here, and here chiefly, that the buffaloes dwell; and with, and hovering about them, live and flourish the tribes of Indians, whom God made for the enjoyment of that fair land and its luxuries.

"It is a melancholy contemplation for one who has traveled as I have through these realms, and seen this noble animal in all its pride and glory, to contemplate it so rapidly wasting from the world, drawing the irresistible conclusion too, which one must do, that its species is soon to be extinguished, and with it the peace and happiness (if not the actual existence) of the tribes of Indians who are joint tenants with them, in the occupancy of these vast and idle plains.

"And what a splendid contemplation too, when one (who has traveled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in future be seen (by some great protecting policy of government)preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A Nations Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!

"I would ask no other monument to my memory, nor any other enrollment of my name amongst the famous dead, than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution."

Catlin's proposal was not seriously entertained at the time. People certainly didn't rush to create a huge park so future generations cold observe Indians and buffalo. However, his book was influential and went through many editions, and he can be seriously credited with first formulating the idea of National Parks whose purpose would be to preserve the American wilderness.

The first National Park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872, after the Hayden Expedition reported on its majestic scenery, which had been vividly captured by the expeidition's official photographer, William Henry Jackson.

And in the late 1800s the writer and adventurer John Muir would advocate for the preservation of Yosemite Valley in California, and other natural places. Muir would become known as the "father of the National Parks," but the original idea does actually go back to the writings of a man best remembered as a painter.