The Conservation Movement in America

Writers, Explorers, and Even Photographers Helped Preserve American Wilderness

The creation of National Parks was an idea that sprang out of 19th century America.

The conservation movement was inspired by writers and artists such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and George Catlin. As the vast American wilderness began to be explored, settled, and exploited, the idea that some wild spaces had to be preserved for future generations began to take on great significance.

In time writers, explorers, and even photographers inspired the United States Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872. Yosemite became the second National Park in 1890.

John Muir

Photograph of John Muir reading
John Muir. Library of Congress

John Muir, who was born in Scotland and came to the American Midwest as a boy, left a life of working with machinery to devote himself to preserving nature.

Muir wrote movingly of his adventures in the wild, and his advocacy led to the preservation of the magnificent Yosemite Valley of California. Thanks in large part of Muir's writing, Yosemite was declared the second United States National Park in 1890.

George Catlin

The PEN Club
Catlin and his wife, English novelist and autobiographer Vera Mary Brittain, talk to the secretary of the PEN Club Herman Ould. Picture Post / Getty Images

The American artist George Catlin is widely remember for his remarkable paintings of American Indians, which he produced while traveling extensively on the North American frontier.

Catlin also holds a place in the conservation movement as he wrote movingly of his time in the wilderness, and as early as 1841 he put forth the idea of setting aside vast areas of wilderness to create a "Nations Park." Catlin was ahead of his time, but within decades such altruistic talk of National Parks would lead to serious legislation creating them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photograph of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Stock Montage/Getty Images

The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leader of the literary and philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism.

At a time when industry was on the rise and crowded cities were becoming the centers of society, Emerson extolled the beauty of nature. His powerful prose would inspire a generation of Americans to find great meaning in the natural world.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, a close friend and neighbor of Emerson, stands as perhaps the most influential writer on the subject of nature. In his masterpiece, Walden, Thoreau recounts the time he spent living in a small house near Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts.

While Thoreau was not widely known during his lifetime, his writings have become classics of American nature writing, and it's nearly impossible to imagine the rise of the conservation movement without his inspiration.

George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh

Wikimedia Commons

Writer, lawyer, and political figure George Perkins Marsh was the author of an influential book published in the 1860s, Man and Nature. While not as familiar as Emerson or Thoreau, Marsh was an influential voice as he argued the logic of balancing man's need to exploit nature with the need to preserve the planet's resources.

Marsh was writing about ecological issues 150 years ago, and some of his observations are indeed prophetic.

Ferdinand Hayden

Hayden Survey Members in Camp Study
Ferdinand V. Hayden, Stevenson, Holman, Jones, Gardner, Whitney, and Holmes at Camp Study.

Corbis/Getty Images

The first National Park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872. What sparked the legislation in the US Congress was an 1871 expedition led by Ferdinand Hayden, a doctor and geologist assigned by the government to explore and map the vast wilderness of the west.

Hayden put together his expedition carefully, and team members included not only surveyors and scientists but an artist and a very talented photographer. The expedition's report to Congress was illustrated with photographs which proved that the rumors about the wonders of Yellowstone were absolutely true.

William Henry Jackson

William Henry Jackson

Corbis/Getty Images

William Henry Jackson, a talented photographer and Civil War veteran, accompanied the 1871 expedition to Yellowstone as its official photographer. Jackson's photographs of the majestic scenery established that the tales told about the area were not merely exaggerated campfire yarns of hunters and mountain men.

When members of Congress saw Jackson's photographs they knew the stories about Yellowstone were true, and they took action to preserve it as the first National Park.

John Burroughs

Author John Burroughs wrote essays about nature that became extremely popular in the late 1800s. His nature writing captivated the public and turned public attention toward the preservation of natural spaces. He also became revered in the early 20th century for taking well-publicized camping trips with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Conservation Movement in America." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). The Conservation Movement in America. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Conservation Movement in America." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).