On this day in 1890, the United States Congress decrees that about 1,500 square miles of public land in the California Sierra Nevada will be preserved forever as Yosemite National Park.
Once the home to Indians whose battle cry Yo-che-ma-te (“some among them are killers”) gave the park its name, Anglo-Americans began to settle in Yosemite Valley as early as the 1850s, eventually driving out the native inhabitants. Early settlers quickly recognized the unique beauty of the narrow Yosemite Valley with the sheer-faced Half Dome Mountain looming nearly a mile above the valley floor and three stunning waterfalls. At that time other awe-inspiring natural wonders like Niagara Falls were already becoming popular American tourist destinations, and a few early settlers tried to profit from the wonders of the Yosemite Valley by charging tourists hefty fees. But thanks to the popular paintings of Albert Bierstadt and the photographs of Carlton Watkins, Americans who would never see the magnificent valley in person began to call for its preservation from crass commercial development. In June 1864, President Abraham Lincoln agreed, signing a bill that ceded the small Yosemite Valley area, along with the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees, to the state of California with the requirement that it be held as a national public trust “for all time.”
But in subsequent years, the state of California proved a less than vigilant caretaker of the Yosemite, inspiring the famous naturalist John Muir to publish several widely read articles exposing the destruction of the valley by large herds of sheep that Muir called “hoofed locusts.” In 1890, Muir’s efforts, as well as those of the newly founded Sierra Club, convinced Congress that Yosemite would be better protected as one part of a 1,500-square-mile national park. Though later reduced in size to 540 square miles, Yosemite National Park has ever since been one of the most popular nature preserves in the world. Today the park receives more than four million visitors annually.