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98 years of National Parks

It is a most unprepossessing piece of legislation, the act that appears in volume 39 of the U.S. Statutes at Large.

NPSIt begins, mundanely, by noting that it was “enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there is hereby created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service, which shall be under the charge of a director, who shall be appointed by the Secretary…”1

It isn’t until the last sentence of that section that the lawmakers get around to explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing:

The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations… by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose … to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.2

Known as the National Park Service Organic Act, the law was signed by President Woodrow Wilson 98 years ago today.

And what a wonderful gift it has been to the nation.

You can celebrate, if you happen to have today free, by going to any of the now 401 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands that are included in the National Park Service system; the usual entry fee is waived as part of the birthday celebrations.3

Or you can spend time on its website, the kind of website that — even with its technical glitches — warms the cockles of a genealogist’s heart.

Just turn to its history pages and read.

“Sometimes all you need to know is that there was a Homestead Act of 1862,” one web page begins. “Sometimes, you want to understand the life of a homesteader, someone like Adeline Hornbek. A single mother of four, Hornbek made her own way for her family and became the owner of a prosperous ranch in Colorado’s Florissant Valley.” The page continues:

Thomas Edison earned 1,093 United States patents, a record that still stands. He kept a cot in his New Jersey lab so he could work through the night when inventing.

In his autobiography, Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington wrote, “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into paradise.” He founded Tuskegee Institute in 1881.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte’s dream was a hospital to care for her people on the Omaha Indian Reservation. The first American Indian woman to practice medicine in the United States, she graduated from medical school in 1889 and realized her dream 14 years later with the first privately-funded reservation hospital.

People make history. Find them here.4

The NPS history website also has an entry page for stories:

Stories are the big picture…or a snapshot in time. They provide the basics – who, what, where, when, why, and how – and may offer context and analysis. Stories can evolve, expand, and change over time as more is learned through new technology or new scholarship.

Stories include the personal – memories of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island – and the impersonal recitation of data and dates. They can be thousands of years old – the petroglyphs of the Rio Grande Valley – and as fresh and raw as the events of 9/11.

Stories recount the challenges and opportunities faced by individuals, communities, and nations.

Stories are shared history. Read them here.5

And for places:

Some historic places are easy to find because they have national park signs out front or brass plaques on the wall. Others take a little digging – sometimes quite literally (like archeological sites). These authentic places of history offer opportunities to experience where real history really happened. To trace the steps of a Civil War soldier on the battlefield at Gettysburg. To climb a 32-foot ladder to Balcony House and watch the morning light glide across this prehistoric cliff dwelling. To glimpse the desolation faced by more than 10,000 Japanese Americans confined at Manzanar during World War II.

Set aside as national or state parks, designated as National Historic Landmarks, listed in the National Register of Historic Places or state registers, or recorded in measured drawings, large-format photography, and written histories by HABS/HAER/HALS, this nation recognizes historic places of triumph and tragedy…and 75-foot long wooden elephants.

History happened. Find out where.6

And those are just the teasers. The actual resources of the National Park Service online are simply stunning.

It’s the National Park Service, for example, that maintains the Soldiers and Sailors Database, with information about the men who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Overall, its Civil War resources are amazing, and include a timeline of the war, detailed information on key events and places and more. The main entry page for the Civil War material is here:

For other features, because of those technical glitches I mentioned (the link to a collection of more than two million photographic images times out on a regular basis, for example), the best access points into the genealogically-useful aspects of the website are the history links:

For Travelers
For Teachers

And there’s also a Virtual Museum with highlights of the millions of items held by the National Park Service, including exhibits from the Battle of Gettysburg, Alcatraz Prison, and the Revolutionary War Battle of Guilford Courthouse, just to name a few. The full listing of parks with online museum exhibits includes:

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site
Andersonville National Historic Site
Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
Big Bend National Park
Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Castle Clinton National Monument
Charles Pinckney National Historic Site
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Clara Barton National Historic Site
Edison National Historical Park
Harry S Truman National Historic Site
Glacier National Park
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
Museum and Archeology Resource Center including Vietnam Memorial
Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
Sitka National Historical Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Weir Farm National Historic Site

And, of course, since copyright does not apply to materials created by federal employees in their official functions for the government, “Information created or owned by the NPS and presented on (its) website, unless otherwise indicated, is considered in the public domain. It may be distributed or copied as permitted by applicable law.”7

Yes indeed… It’s the kind of website that warms the cockles of a genealogist’s heart.

Even if we have no clue what heart cockles or… or why we might want to warm them…


  1. “An Act To establish a National Park Service, and for other purposes,” 39 Stat. 535 (25 Aug. 1916); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 24 Aug 2014).
  2. Ibid., §1.
  3. NPS Birthday,” National Park Service ( : accessed 24 Aug 2014).
  4. Discover History: People,” National Park Service ( : accessed 24 Aug 2014).
  5. Discover History: Stories,” National Park Service ( : accessed 24 Aug 2014).
  6. Discover History: Places,” National Park Service ( : accessed 24 Aug 2014).
  7. Disclaimer: Ownership,” National Park Service ( : accessed 24 Aug 2014).
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