By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
A sizable portion of field books we’ve cataloged document field work in the US National Parks. It seems logical. National park sites are chosen and preserved because they are unique natural resources; environments like these are bound to attract researchers as well as require environmental monitoring. A cursory search of our catalog records yields results on field notes taken in national parks from 1879 to the 1970’s, around 100 years worth of observations and collecting. However, it is the early years of collecting in national parks that most fascinate me.
I realized while looking through the chronology and content of the materials we’ve cataloged, that the earliest materials document a period of time when the nation was still figuring out how to best manage these sites. The first park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. Field books about Yellowstone National Park date back to 1887 or earlier in our collection, which is fascinating when considering that the National Park Service (NPS) wasn’t created until 1916. Before NPS, responsibility for managing historical and natural landmarks resided with the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture. (More about the early management of these landmarks is found on the National Park Service website). Furthermore, the field work documented for locations like Yosemite National Park (established 1890) and Grand Canyon (established 1919) extends decades before their national park status. We have field books for work conducted in the Grand Canyon by Charles D. Walcott in the 1870’s; C. Hart Merriam in 1889; and J. W. Toumey in 1892. William Brewer’s field books document collecting in Yosemite Valley in 1862 – 1865.
I contemplated the range of topics I could discuss about national parks before realizing I had the chance to share one of my first “finds”. During my first months of cataloging, I worked on the field notes of Charles Doolittle Walcott. He is best known for his work in the mountains of British Columbia and the discovery of the Burgess Shale. Some of his oldest field books, dating back to 1870’s, document time he spent in the Grand Canyon. I have included a few sketches from his collection below.
The first sketch is from 1879, when Walcott was working in the Kanab Canyon along the north rim for the USGS. The subsequent sketches document Chuar Valley, Grand Canyon, Arizona, c. 1883, and most likely were drawn by B. L. Young who accompanied Walcott.
These drawings show different levels of drawing acumen and were created for different purposes. Walcott’s sketch with a note indicating the location of his tent marked “yours truly” seems to be for the purpose of showing the immense scale of the canyon. B. L. Young’s dramatic depictions of the valley probably prove a more accurate recording of the valleys current geological state. However, both sets of drawings impart important information about the scale and beauty of the region.
This grandeur of scale, biodiversity, and beauty of the Grand Canyon and other National Parks has been depicted in countless other researchers' field notes for well over 100 years. These notes stand as a testament to the enduring quality and importance of our nation's parks.