The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 2

February, 1940

The National Archives
Storehouse of National Park History

Associate Archivist,
Division of Interior Department Archives,
The National Archives,

The most important function of The National Archives is to serve as a depository for non-current records of the federal government which are of permanent administrative value or historical interest, and to make them available for use. In accordance with this purpose there is being brought together gradually in the National Archives building in Washington a vast accumulation of the papers on which have been recorded the day-to-day operations of our national government. Because materials of this sort have not been readily accessible hitherto for government officials and scholars and because of their very magnitude, the richness of the records already deposited in The National Archives as sources for historical research is not yet generally realized even by those to whose daily work they are most closely related.

The National Park Service, however, is one agency that has made frequent use of the resources of The National Archives. Park Service employees have been supplied with materials ranging from copies of letters containing the offer, and acceptance by the United States, of the Statue of Liberty, to correspondence concerning the early construction of bath houses at Hot Springs, Arkansas. In view of the rapidly growing reliance on the materials in the Archives for information in connection with Service problems, a concise description of them may serve a useful purpose. These materials may be divided broadly into two groups:

1. Records produced in the course of the administration of the national parks and monuments themselves, and hence related directly to the functions of the Service.

2. Records produced by other agencies of the federal government which contain information of importance to the Service.

The first national park was Yellowstone, which was created by Act of Congress in 1872.1 From 1872 to 1916 the national parks and those national monuments under jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior2 were administered directly by the Office of the Secretary3. The records that resulted from this function are hence a part of the files of the Secretary's Office, the entire body of which, for the years from the creation of the Department in 1849 to 1907, have been transferred to The National Archives. Thus the basic materials for the early history of the national parks are now in the archives, insofar as early policy-making decisions and actions are reflected in correspondence and reports passing between Washington and Superintendents in the field4.

Also of interest to students of the early history of the parks are the records of the Appointments Division of the Secretary's Office. These contain the letters and supporting endorsements of applicants for positions as Superintendents of Yellowstone and as Hot Springs Commissioners, the personnel papers of the men actually appointed, and records of charges, protests and investigations5.

Of the records of the Service itself, there are still but few in the Archives. Somewhat as an experiment the Service is transferring at intervals its daily file of outgoing letters (known as the "daily yellows") which, up to 1936, had been destroyed because they are duplicated in the regular classified files. For historical purposes, however, a general daily file may be more valuable than a file broken down by subject. Both the General Land Office and the Office of Indian Affairs, which have been preserving their daily files of outgoing letters since 1909, have found them to be of great value. Director Cammerer recently approved the transfer to the Archives of all Superintendents' monthly narrative reports for the period 1924-35, which will add an important historical series to the National Park Service materials already in hard.

Much older than the Service itself are the records resulting from one function which did not devolve upon it until 1933 --- the task of the care of the public buildings and parks in the District of Columbia6. The history of this function goes back to 1790 when a Board of Commissioners was provided for by Congress to build a capital city on a site to be chosen by the President. Since then the care of the public buildings and grounds has been entrusted to a variety of offices and officials, but the integrity of the files relating to the work has remained more or less unbroken. The Archives came into possession in 1938 of the records of all the agencies which have supervised buildings and grounds in the District of Columbia from 1790 to 1909, as well as the records of the many temporary independent agencies which have had charge of the construction of public buildings and works in Washington. This extensive collection contains the basic land records of the District (the record of the division of the land in the District between the federal government and the original proprietors, and of land sales by the government). It also contains all the general correspondence and papers of the Commissioners of Public Buildings and Grounds, and special series of papers pertaining to the construction and maintenance of the Capitol, The White House, the Washington Monument7, other public buildings, bridges, streets and all statues and memorials in the District. To anyone interested in the history of the city of Washington, it is a fascinating group of papers, replete with sidelights on the personalities, motives, and tastes of those who have been responsible for the general design and physical appearance of the nation's capital. In these papers can be found the answers to such questions as: "When and how was running water installed in the Capitol?" "How were the streets kept in repair during the Civil War?" and "What repairs were made to the White House during Jackson's Administration?"

Recently, when the Department of the Interior acquired title to the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, it found that it also had come into possession of a valuable collection of business archives, the papers of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company and its predecessor, the Potomac Company, which date back to 1785. Although the canal restoration program required the constant use of these records, the Service wisely decided that the proper place for them was not in its current files, and they were transferred to the Archives, which furnished desk space in its research rooms for two National Park Service historians and a stenographer. Thus the records are receiving the protection they deserve, and they are at the same time fully and easily available for the daily use that is made of them.

That the old records of any agency are of value to it in its work is obvious. Less obvious, and even frequently forgotten by many agencies, is the fact that they may find invaluable information among the older records of other agencies, which the Archives now is making available, in some instances for the first time. There are, for example, at least two large collections of records of primary importance in the historical research program of the Service. They can be described briefly here.

The Office of Indian Affairs has placed in the Archives (with certain minor exceptions) its entire group of records, including some 17,000 maps, for the period from 1789 to 1921. No one who has not wandered down the long rows where these papers are stored can appreciate the immensity of a collection of this kind. Containing as they do the entire story of the administrative relations of the federal government with the Indian tribes from the formation of the Union down to recent times, the records are a vast quarry of information on innumerable phases of our national life. To the Service these files have proved a constant source of assistance. They have provided information on the history of the Natchez Trace, on the Modoc War (which took place in what now is Lava Beds National Monument, California), on the Pipestone area of Minnesota, and on the plans of the Indian agency buildings at Yakima, to mention only a few examples. Yet, from the Park Service point of view, many of the most interesting potentialities of these records still are untouched. For instance, despite the interest shown in recent years in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains, there has been no adequate investigation of the flight of a portion of the Cherokee Nation into that region in 1838 to seek refuge from the government's removal policy. The richest single source for any such study undoubtedly would be the correspondence, reports, and other papers bearing on this matter in the Indian Office records now in the Archives. Similarly, there is a vast amount of material bearing on relations between white men and the pueblo Indians and Apaches, the Navajos, and other tribes in the Southwest; these relations are certainly of fundamental importance to those who must study the history of the many existing and proposed Service areas in that region.

Perhaps of even greater utility is the collection of War Department records. The acquisition by the Service in 1933 of many historical areas in the East, which were the scenes of battles of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, has made many aspects of military history a necessary part of its research program. One has only to mention the fact that all the Revolutionary War records of the federal government formerly in the possession of the War Department now are in the custody of the Archives to indicate the importance of a familiarity with the resources of the Archives to the staffs of such areas as Morristown and Colonial National Historical Parks, of New Jersey and Virginia. The Civil War records (of both the Union and Confederate Armies), which are vastly greater in bulk, should help to supply the answers to many puzzling questions in the minds of the Superintendents and Research Technicians of Civil War parks regarding the nature of the terrain and the details of troops movements and actions in their respective areas. In recent years there has been a marked growth in interest in local history in the western states, an interest which frequently has been coupled with movements to erect markers at old western posts, or even to restore these structures. In connection with the preparation of reports on such projects, the Army post records and old Military Department records, many of which are in the Archives, prove to be of great value. Mention should be made also of the great map collection of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, which is being transferred gradually to the Archives, as well as the document files of that Office; they are invaluable in the study of Army post sites, roads, and battlefield areas.

Still ether collections touch directly or indirectly on National Park Service history and problems. The records of the National Conservation Commission and the early records and correspondence of the United States Forest Service are vital sources on the origin of the conservation movement in this country, of which the National Park Service is one of the results. Similarly, the administrative correspondence of the General Land Office, large parts of which are about to be transferred to the Archives, contains much information on the early history of withdrawals of land from the public domain for national park purposes and on specific subjects such as the long-drawn-out Hot Springs litigation.

Examples of the close relationship to the work of the Service of the records in the Archives of other agencies could be multiplied almost indefinitely. The files of the old Office of the Supervising Architect, which begin in 1837, contain much information on historic public structures, such as the Sub-Treasury Building (Federal Hall National Historic Site, New York City) and the Philadelphia Customs House National Historic Site, both now under Service jurisdiction. The ship's registers, enrollments, and licenses, among the records of the former Bureau of Navigation, contain detailed information on every vessel built or registered since 1789 at Salem, Massachusetts, surely a matter of great interest to a national historic site which was so designated because of its maritime importance.

It should not be forgotten that the National Archives, in addition to the services it renders on records actually in its custody, also is frequently able to act as a clearing-house for information concerning the existence and whereabouts of records in the possession of other federal government agencies. Thus, when the Regional Supervisor of Historic Sites for Region IV (San Francisco) desired information concerning the construction of the original lighthouse built about 1854, which stands on the site of what is now Cabrillo National Monument, California, the Archives was able to direct him to the United States Lighthouse Service, which furnished a set of photostat copies of the construction plans and drawings of that structure.

The National Archives welcomes all competent persons who wish personally to carry on research on either governmental or private projects. For those unable to visit the building, the staff undertakes to answer all inquiries for information based on its records which do not require so much time as to constitute a piece of extensive research. Photostat or microfilm copies can be obtained of records in the Archives.

(1) Hot Springs sometimes is referred to erroneously as the earliest national park, because the area was withdrawn from the public domain in 1832. But the federal government did not actually decide to preserve and use the area for public benefit until 1877, when the Hot Springs Commission was created.

(2) Before 1933 many national monuments were administered by the Departments of Agriculture and War.

(3) Until 1881 this function was exercised by the Pension and Miscellaneous Division, Between 1881 and 1907 it was called the Patents and Miscellaneous Division. From 1907 to 1916 the national parks were administered by the Miscellaneous Section of the Chief Clerk's Office.

(4) None of the early field records, that is, the old office files of the Superintendents themselves, have been received thus far.

(5) Most of the western parks, of course, had Army officers as Superintendents in this period. There are no personnel records for these men in the Interior Department files.

(6) By President Roosevelt's Reorganization Plan No. II, the care of public buildings in the District was transferred to the new Federal Works Agency in July, 1939.

(7) The National Archives also has custody of the records of the Washington National Monument Society, the private organization which began the construction of the monument.

<<< Previous
> Contents <
Next >>>
Date: 04-Jul-2002