In late June 1864, with the country still reeling from Ulysses S. Grant’s bloody Overland Campaign, President Lincoln signed legislation granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. I speak in my manuscript about how forward-thinking many were even in the worst depths of the war about what might come afterward, hence the passage of the Pacific Railroad, Homestead, and Land-Grant College bills as early as 1862. The 1864 Yosemite Act was a part of that optimism. Eight years after this, President Grant put Yellowstone under federal control. In between, in the summer of 1865, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax led an expedition out west just after the Civil War to review the situation. Three years after all this Colfax became Grant’s running mate and then served four years as vice-president from 1869-73.
Frederick Law Olmsted left his position as secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in mid-1863 and took a position in California managing the Mariposa mining estate. There he was horrified by the corruption and environmental depredations he saw. A bright spot was that he was eventually placed on a committee to examine how the state of California might preserve Yosemite and Mariposa. Back in Washington on 14 April 1865 Grant and Colfax both begged out of attending My American Cousin at Ford’s Theater with President and Mrs. Lincoln. That same day Lincoln spoke to Colfax excitedly about the Speaker’s upcoming trip out west. As Colfax remembered it, Lincoln told him, “Mr. Colfax, I want you to take a message from me to the miners whom you visit. I have very large ideas of the mineral wealth of our nation. I believe it practically inexhaustible. It abounds all over the Western country, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, and its development has scarcely commenced.” Later that evening Booth shot Lincoln and the president died the next morning.
Colfax and his entourage headed west shortly after the president”s assassination and traveled many thousands of miles by various means, taking in what they saw and thinking optimistically about the possibilities for the reunified country. By early August they reached Yosemite and toured that beautiful valley along with the sequoias at Mariposa Grove. On 9 August 1865 Speaker of the House Colfax and others listened to Frederick Law Olmsted read his “Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report,” the study that Olmsted and his team had written for state officials outlining how California might best preserve these sites. The state eventually did nt pursue many of the commission’s recommendations, deeming them too expensive and impractical. It was not a total loss. The Colfax Expedition helped lay the groundwork for President Grant’s signing in March 1872 of the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. It was the start of the environmental movement here in the United States. Yosemite and the great sequoias too eventually came under the management of the National Park Service.
(image by Carleton Watkins; Courtesy Yosemite National Park Research Library)