Historic conservation has been part of the conservation program of the Department of the Interior since 1906, and of the National Park Service since its establishment. The National Park Service Act itself named historic conservation as an important responsibility of the organization. Pursuant to the American Antiquities Act of 1906, the Department of the Interior, as early as 1916, had under its jurisdiction seven national monuments of historic and archeologic interest, as well as Mesa Verde National Park, which possesses the best preserved cliff dwellings in the United States. These areas were placed under the National Park Service on its establishment and formed the nucleus of its system of historic sites.
In the period between 1916 and 1931, the number of historic and archeologic areas administered by the Service steadily increased, and by the latter year totaled 19, among which were such important areas as George Washington Birthplace National Monument and Colonial National Monument (now a national historical park), commemorating the establishment of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the United States, and the decisive American victory at Yorktown over Lord Cornwallis in 1781. Under the personal guidance of Mr. Albright, a program was evolved and a definite basis was laid for historical development.
The growing importance of historic areas in the system of national parks and monuments, and the wide variety of questions new to the Service that these areas presented, led, in 1931, to the creation of an historical division in the Branch of Research and Education to study problems relating to historic conservation. Verne E. Chatelain was appointed head of this division and under his supervision significant progress was made in formulating policies and methods of procedure. The necessity for specialized study of historical problems was greatly emphasized two years later when, by Executive Order, the 59 historic and archeologic areas administered by the War Department and the Department of Agriculture were transferred to the Department of the Interior. Included in the transferred areas were such outstanding battlefields of the War Between the States as Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Through this development, the National Park Service became the recognized custodian of all legally designated historic and archeologic monuments of the Federal Government.
As the historical and archeological program continued to broaden, it was recognized that it was desirable to extend the system to include most historic sites of national importance and to integrate the various pre-Columbian, colonial, military and other historically significant areas into a unified system which would tell the story of the United States from the earliest times. In order to facilitate the achievement of these objectives, the Branch of Historic Sites was established July 1, 1935, with Mr. Chatelain as acting head. The administration of scenic parks and historic sites, although involving many common problems, yet required such different methods of treatment that a separate branch to care for the broader planning and development of the historical program was essential. The functions of the branch were defined as the formulation of general policies, the supervision and coordination of the administrative policy and the interpretative and research programs of the different areas, and the Nation-wide survey of historic sites to determine which are of national importance.
In November 1934, with a view to formulating a national policy for historic conservation, Secretary of the Interior Ickes appointed J. Thomas Schneider to survey the progress made in this field in the United States and to study the legislation of the leading foreign countries.
It was largely on the basis of Mr. Schneider's recommendations that the Historic Sites Act of August 21, 1935 (49 Stat. 666), was framed. This Act, a landmark in historic conservation in the United States, greatly strengthened the legal foundation of the work of the Federal Government in this field. It declared as a national policy the preservation of historic American sites, buildings, objects and antiquities of national significance for the benefit and inspiration of the people, and empowered the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, to effectuate this policy. The Act authorized a survey of historic and archeologic sites to determine which possessed exceptional value historically, and empowered the Secretary to make cooperative agreements with states and other political units, and with associations and individuals to preserve, maintain, or operate a historic site for public use, even though title to the property did not rest in the United States.
For the guidance of the Secretary and the National Park Service in carrying out this work, the Historic Sites Act created an Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments, which from the very beginning has been composed of eminent authorities in the fields of history, archeology, architecture, and human geography, such as Dr. Herbert E. Bolton, Dr. Waldo G. Leland, Dr. Clark Wissler, Mr. Frank M. Setzler, Dr. Fiske Kimball, and Dr. Hermon C. Bumpus.
Since the Historic Sites Act provided for a large measure of inter-bureau and inter-departmental cooperation, as well as for outside assistance, the National Park Service has taken advantage of this fact to obtain technical advice from a variety of organizations and institutions. Many invaluable benefits have been derived from the advice and assistance of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the staffs of numerous university departments of history and archeology. Through a constant interchange of ideas with these groups and with the assistance of its own Advisory Board, the National Park Service has developed a body of policies governing the survey, development and operation of historic sites, which constitutes the underlying basis for a national program of historical and archeological conservation.
Mr. Chatelain, who had been an important factor in the passage of the Historic Sites Act, and who had been acting head of the Branch of Historic Sites since its establishment on July 1, 1935, resigned in September 1936 and was succeeded by Branch Spalding, superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefield Memorial National Military Park. Under Mr. Spalding, the architectural and archeological work of the Branch was broadened, and important steps were taken toward establishing a permanent organization.
In May 1938, Ronald F. Lee was made head of the Branch. Under him, the technical services of the Branch have been greatly strengthened, notably in the field of archeology, and a system of cooperation was worked out with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives whereby these institutions give technical advice to the National Park Service and assist in research problems.
At present, of the 155 areas administered by the National Park Service, 90 are primarily of historic or archeological interest.