Environmental History + Yosemite National Park

I recently decided to join the American Society for Environmental History. Not only do I (obviously) love the outdoors and the environment, but as an archivist, one of my favorite things in the world is to mix these two passions together. I’ve also been reading several books lately, when I can make the time, relating to environmental history, and SOMETIMES, I secretly consider going back to school someday for environmental history as related to ecological or conservation records.

(I think I should finish this masters degree first though).

 So much of what we know about the environment now, and the ways in which we envision and understand the “outdoors”, is deeply related to the history of industrial development, economic development (i.e wage labor) and urbanization (amongst other things).

(gasp, yes, we can probably even trace some of the history of hiking/backpacking to these histories).

So, in light of this, I was just thinking I’d like to repost something I wrote last summer related to environmental history and Jen Huntley’s book The Making of Yosemite: James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of American’s Most Popular National Parkwhich among the many topics, looks at the relationship between the industrial complex of the gold-mining era of California and the development of the “sublime” concept of Yosemite Valley.

Here is the original post:

I’ve recently been reading Jen Huntley’s The Making of Yosemite: James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of American’s Most Popular National Park, I’ve and stumbled onto some really interesting topics related to the environment and California history. As a lover everything outdoors, I’ve always been especially fascinated by the history of conservation in my state,  especially as related to the mining boom of the late 1800’s. While you wouldn’t immediately expect there to even BE a connection, you’d be surprised to find that  the the history of mining and the history of out favorite park, Yosemite, is actually deeply entwined.

(Note: I’m not saying that Yosemite National Park is necessarily our BEST park, but, I will say that statistically, it is the most visited National Park in California, and the third most visited National Park in the United States).

Huntley’s book primarily looks at the life of James Mason Hutchings, who was one of the first individuals to promote tourism in Yosemite Valley, where he and his wife would eventually purchase a hotel (then known as the Upper Hotel, later renamed the Hutchings House). The history of how he came to be in Yosemite, where he would eventually hire a young John Muir, is related to his role as a businessman in the booming mining industry of California in the 1800s.

Hutchings, who left England in 1848, spent a winter in New Orleans, and from there arrived in California in 1849 during the mining boom. Through his profits made through mining, Hutchings eventually invested in other ventures, one of which was a continued involvement in the newspaper industry.

While standing in for a friend at the Placerville Herald in 1853 he wrote “The Miner’s Ten Commandments” which, if you read it, is pretty funny. I was inspired to learn more about this particular document and style, finding the image I’ve shared above. It actually ended up being a very popular piece, and was reprinted in different mining camps around California. It was then turned into an letter sheet (a new term for me, here is what wikipedia says), which is a beautiful piece of work. Looking at the photograph above, one can see beautifully drawn illustrations on the sides related to the text.

As some people know, Hutchings was intimately entwined with Yosemite’s early history as a new tourist destination, and is generally viewed as somewhat of a villain cast against the forces that wanted to conserve the park in it’s “natural “state. From the perspective of thinking about Hutchings, it’s interesting to make the connection between nature, conservation, economics, and tourism, and to realistically see that in many ways, these cannot be separated. Interestingly, Huntley correctly (in my opinion) makes the connection between our own perceptions of conservation and nature and the industrial complex of the 1800’s. That is,the exhalation and conservation of natural beauty was a direct result of industrialization, because without industrialization the construct of preserving these unique (and “untouched”) places might not hold the same value. That is, the sublime natural landscapes were suddenly seen as separate and distinct from the urbanization and industrialization due to the mining industry (and all that came with it). It’s vastly more complicated, but that is one of the main take home messages that I’ve been particularly struck by.

Environmental history, wow! This really makes me think: Is some of my own attraction to the “pristine” backcountry (in quotes, because we know that there is VERY little wilderness that is in fact not shaped by man in some way, even by indigenous practices for generations) actually, within the spectrum of history, a result of my own experiences with development and urbanization? Do I look for the antithesis to the urban in nature? Big things to think about for the weekend 🙂

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