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Preservation of the West

Photographs taken on government-sponsored expeditions promoted the scenic beauty of the West and helped make the case for its protection.
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About the Images

Most of these images are the result of government-sponsored expeditions to record the mineral wealth and landscape of the western United States. They show the land in transition, and some of the people and politicians responsible for trying to preserve it.


During the late 1800s, American industry's demand for more and more natural resources pushed Congress to recognize the need to explore and chart the geological characteristics and mineral wealth of the country. In 1864, William Brewer (seen third from the left in "Field Party of 1864"), chief botanist of the California Geological Survey, led the first state-sponsored expedition to survey, map, chart, document, and photograph vast, previously unexplored areas of California.

The government sponsored several such expeditions to survey and map the territories of the United States. The many photographs taken on these expeditions were used to promote the geographic wonders and scenic beauty of the West to the rest of the country and led to a move to preserve areas of natural beauty and protect them against development.

In 1871, photographer William H. Jackson traveled to Yellowstone with an expedition led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, a Civil War veteran and later head of the US Geological Survey (the USGS was officially established in 1879). Jackson took the stereoscopic views of the park included here. The following year, as a result of this expedition, Congress passed the Yellowstone Act of 1872 to protect over 2 million acres in northwest Wyoming, designating the Yellowstone area as the world’s first National Park. In California, naturalist and conservationist John Muir (shown seated on a boulder in one photograph) educated and informed the public about the beauty of the state and its need to be preserved. He was instrumental in the move to set aside Yosemite as a National Park. Muir was influential in convincing President Teddy Roosevelt of the need to conserve these lands. One photograph of the president's visit to Yosemite shows Muir and Roosevelt standing on a rock at Yosemite's Glacier Point. Another shows Roosevelt with a party of Secret Service men and government officials at Mariposa Grove.

Carlton Watkins was among the first to photograph Yosemite. He became well known for his magnificent, large plate images of the park, including the images of Bridal Veil, El Capitan, and Nevada Fall, shown here. His images played a significant role in promoting the West to the rest of the country. An image of sheet music from 1873 called "Yosemite Waltzes" reflects how the park was quickly incorporated into popular culture.

The logging industry, which began during the Gold Rush years, had gained a foothold in California and the Pacific Northwest. One 1872 photograph depicts loggers in Mammoth Forest about to cut down a massive tree (said to be 5,000 years old) that would later be reassembled for the World's Fair in order to show the rest of the world just how big things were in the West. But as logging and other industries grew, and it became clear that the West had a finite amount of natural wealth, the conservation movement gained momentum. In 1892, the Sierra Club began at the University of California, Berkeley, to promote conservation and involve people in the great outdoors by organizing hikes and outings. One photograph shows club members on an outing in Sequoia Forest in 1902. Other photographs picture two women hiking to Glacier Point, and a family camping in Yosemite in 1906.

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Definition: stereoscopic view

Stereoscopic views were a new form of entertainment in the mid-1800s. These photographs of people and places, which appeared three-dimensional when viewed, offered viewers a way to "travel" without leaving home. The technology is fairly simple: two nearly identical photos offering slightly different views of the same scene are printed next to each other on a card. When seen through a stereo viewer (a simple handheld device), they create a 3D effect.


"Preservation of the American West" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

Preservation of the American West curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.