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People Behind the Parks

Gustaf Nordenskiold Add To Scrapbook

Gustaf Nordenskiold

Gustaf Nordenskiold (1868–1895)

Episode(s): 2
Associated Park(s): Mesa Verde

Gustaf Nordenskiold was a young Swedish nobleman with a keen interest in archaeology. In 1891, he came to the American desert to treat his tuberculosis. There he encountered the Wetherill brothers and the ruins they had found at Mesa Verde.

Excited by what he saw, Nordenskiold taught the brothers how to excavate using more scientific methods. But when he tried to send a shipment of 600 artifacts, including a mummified corpse, back to Sweden, he created an uproar.

Upon his return to Sweden, Nordenskiold published the first scientific study of the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde and brought worldwide attention to the ruins.

Charles Sheldon, promoter of Mt. McKinley (later Denali) National Park Add To Scrapbook

Charles Sheldon, promoter of Mt. McKinley (later Denali) National Park

Charles Sheldon (1867–1928)

Episode(s): 3
Associated Park(s): Denali

Sheldon was a self-made millionaire in the railroad business who retired at a young age to pursue his passion as an amateur naturalist by studying the wild sheep of North America. That quest eventually brought him to the region around Mount McKinley in Alaska, home of the distinctive white Dall sheep. Sheldon made two extended trips to the remote region, one for an entire year. To protect the rich variety of wildlife from extinction by market hunters, Sheldon proposed that the region be made a national park.

A friend of Stephen Mather's and a member of New York City's influential Boone and Crockett Club, Sheldon threw himself into the effort. He moved to Washington to help usher the bill through Congress, and on February 26, 1917, he personally delivered the bill creating Mount McKinley National Park to President Woodrow Wilson for signing.

Sheldon had originally suggested that the park and mountain at its core be named "Denali," the Athabaskan Indian name for the peak, but Congress had settled on Mount McKinley. In 1980, the park's name was changed to Denali.

William Gladstone Steel, 1929 Add To Scrapbook

William Gladstone Steel, 1929

William Gladstone Steel (1854–1934)

Episode(s): 2

In 1870, William Gladstone Steel was a 15-year-old in Kansas when he read an article in the newspaper used to wrap his lunch. It described a clear and deep lake in Oregon, and he vowed to visit it one day. Fifteen years later, he finally made it to the remote spot – Crater Lake – and immediately started a long quest to preserve it as a national park. That effort lasted 17 years before Crater Lake National Park was created in 1902.

Steel was later named the park's superintendent and remained involved with its protection until his death in 1934.

The Wetherill brothers, 1887 Add To Scrapbook

The Wetherill brothers, 1887

Richard Wetherill (1858–1910) and the Wetherill Brothers

Episode(s): 2
Associated Park(s): Mesa Verde

The Wetherill brothers were five cowboys from a Quaker family that moved from Kansas to a ranch in southwestern Colorado in the early 1880s. In 1888, the oldest brother, Richard Wetherill, and his brother-in-law Charles Mason discovered Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, in what is now Mesa Verde National Park. Al Wetherill, the second oldest of the brothers, may have seen Cliff Palace as early as 1885, but it was Richard and Charles Mason who entered the dwelling three years later.

Richard and his brothers excavated artifacts for sale to museums and were hired by the Swedish nobleman Gustaf Nordenskiold to do more digging at Mesa Verde. The uproar over Nordenskiold, a foreigner, extracting ancient American treasures for shipment to Europe helped fuel the movement to protect Mesa Verde as a national park.

Wetherill went on to make important excavations in other parts of the Southwest, and though not a professionally trained archaeologist, made significant discoveries. At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, he undertook extensive excavations as carefully and scientifically as possible. But once again, his activities created a furor in the professional community, leading to the passage of the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities in 1906. The act gives presidents the unilateral authority to set aside parcels of the public domain for historic or scientific reasons.

Though originally disparaged by professional archaeologists and, at times, the National Park Service, Richard Wetherill is now seen as important to the protection of Mesa Verde and other southwestern ruins. He and his family had proposed that Mesa Verde become a national park early on, and their suggestions were ignored. At Chaco Canyon, he offered to give up his homestead claim if the government would take over the ruins and protect them properly – which happened in 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to create Chaco Canyon National Monument.

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

Send Email Postcards

Create personalized postcards using images from The National Parks series and email them to friends or family.

View with fog in valley and peaks lighted by sunset, winter; Yosemite National Park

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Untold Stories

Untold Stories

Discover the "hidden" stories of the national parks that explore the role of minorities in the creation and protection of the parks.

National Park Service rangers

Visit America's Best Idea

You own 391 national parks. Come for a visit and take away the experience of a lifetime. Help the National Park Service make America's Best Idea even better!

Bank of America Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr Fund Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Park Foundation

National Park Foundation The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation The Pew Charitable TrustsGM

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

Florentine Films and WETA

 

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