The National Parks: Democracy and Exploitation in "America's Best Idea"

Maggie White '16

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The project: The founding of our National Parks had a “darker side,” Ms. White argues. Reviewing the history, she shows that the price of creating Yosemite, Yellowstone, Denali, and Mount Rushmore National Parks was often the exploitation of native peoples and their sacred lands.

Notable quote: “The story of America’s National Parks is really two stories, running parallel to each other throughout history. Looking back from today, Americans remember the history of our parks as a great triumph for democracy. What history tends to forget is the story of loss and neglect faced by the American Indians living on the land that the parks now occupy.”

Her biggest challenge as a scholar: “Finding an idea. I got to the National Parks idea pretty quickly, just because of my own personal interest in the outdoors, but then it’s such a huge topic it took me a while to figure out what aspect of the National Parks I wanted to study.”

Surprising discovery: “How much the early days of the National Parks were actually about making money. It was a little shocking to me to learn the history, of Yellowstone especially, which was just basically a park to make money for a railroad company.”

Tip for future scholars: “Don’t worry too much about finding the best idea before you start researching. A lot of your ideas are going to come once you start writing.”

From her presentation: Early advertisements for Yellowstone National Park reveal the connection to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.