America's National Monuments
The Politics of Preservation
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Chapter 1:
The Sequoia Stone Dish Incident

ON 25 AUGUST 1904 CAPT. GEORGE F. HAMILTON of the United States Army the acting superintendent of both Sequoia and General Grant National Parks in California, informed Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock that a laborer "in an unfrequented part of the park, found a [prehistoric] stone dish, apparently roughly gouged out of a piece of soft stone, the dimensions being approximately, 12 X 7 x 5 inches." [1] According to the captain, this was not the first artifact found within the boundaries of Sequoia National Park. Because he expected that others might find "Indian relics," Hamilton requested guidelines for handling this and other similar cases.

The Department of the Interior immediately responded. Since the 1890s preserving prehistory had been a concern of the federal government, and by 1904 officials at the department had the makings of a policy in place. On Hitchcock's behalf, Acting Secretary Thomas Ryan expressed an interest in the situation. He instructed Hamilton to require the man who found the dish, J. F. Seabright, to turn it over to the superintendent. "Do not permit tourists," his telegram continued, "to remove Indian relics or other objects of interest found on Government lands." [2] Ryan believed that his action was essential if the government was to safeguard prehistoric ruins in the public domain.

The discovery of the stone dish in Sequoia also excited the interest of cultural institutions affiliated with the federal government. On 3 September 1904 Ryan asked the acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Richard Rathbun, if Hamilton's description of the dish intrigued him. Interested, Rathbun asked to have the dish forwarded to the Smithsonian for examination. [3] When others in cultural circles in Washington, D.C., heard of the discovery, they added their perspective. The acting commissioner of the Bureau of Ethnology, William Harris, thought that the dish belonged in the National Museum. He also recommended the passage of legislation that would require individuals to obtain authorization to comb government lands for relics of any kind. Charles D. Walcott of the U.S. Geological Survey concurred, suggesting that the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the head of the Bureau of Ethnology were the logical people to administer a system of permits. W. A. Richards, the commissioner of the General Land Office, also agreed and indicated that anyone removing artifacts from the public domain could be charged with trespassing. [4] All these, however, were stopgap measures. Clearly the government needed a comprehensive system.

There was a larger question that also required consideration. Hamilton had wondered whether people could legally keep artifacts that they found within the boundaries of the park. In response to this query, Rathbun informed the secretary of the interior that letting the public take what they wished from public land was a flawed policy. Allowing people to carry away artifacts "piecemeal" affected scientific efforts to understand prehistory, and he suggested that collecting the pieces only gratified the curiosity of visitors "in a small way." Rathbun "did not know that any specific law exists that would cover this subject, but it would seem elementary that objects found in the public domain should remain the property of the United States, and may not be appropriated by private persons." [5]

Contrary to Rathbun's expectations, resolving the question was anything but elementary. The government had no way to prove that it owned the artifact, and Seabright clearly stated in two interviews with Forest Ranger Ernest Britten, the officer of the Department of the Interior responsible for national parks in California, that he did not intend to give it up. In the first interview, Seabright intimated that he no longer had possession of the bowl. In the second, on 23 September 1904, Britten asked Seabright for the artifact point-blank and the latter "refused to deliver the dish. He stated that the government would be compelled to prove their right to [it] before he would deliver same." Seabright's recalcitrance continued. On 10 October Seabright acknowledged receipt of three letters from Captain Hamilton pertaining to the matter and referred the superintendent to Ranger Britten, refusing to answer any further questions. [6]

By late January 1905 Britten was in a quandary. He could not decide on a proper course of action. Seabright refused to succumb to pressure, and without legal authorization, Britten could not compel him to turn over the artifact. He believed that the man had the dish and that an itinerant laborer like Seabright would soon depart, taking the artifact with him. The situation became urgent. Britten pleaded with his superior: "If the Hon. Secretary of the Interior, can suggest any means by which Seabright can be forced to return the dish, I most urgently recommend that it be applied, for the reason that the taking of this dish is widely known, and if allowed to remain in Seabright's possession, similar cases will follow.... [I]f any action is to be taken it should be at once." [7]

In actuality, there was nothing that the secretary of the interior could do. Keeping artifacts was technically illegal, but there was no statute that empowered Britten to seize the dish, to arrest Seabright, or even to prevent Seabright from leaving California. The Department of the Interior could only give orders to Seabright to return the dish. If Seabright chose not to comply, there was little that the combined might of the Department of the Interior, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Bureau of Ethnology could do.

"The matter of [the] 'stone dish,' taken from the Sequoia Park," as federal officials came to call the incident, pointed out a critical gap in the laws governing publicly owned land in the United States. [8] Existing laws covered the land and its mineral and water rights, but the federal government had no law that prevented people from walking off with material treasures that they discovered. This oversight, so clearly illustrated in the incident at Sequoia National Park, required immediate rectification. For too long the government had been forced to tolerate this situation. As more people settled in the West, federal officials recognized that this sort of incident would become more common. If the situation persisted, private citizens might appropriate the physical evidence of the prehistoric past on the North American continent at the very moment when American scientists were beginning to explore its ruins systematically. If allowed to become dispersed in private collections all over the world, further knowledge of this heritage would be lost before the general public was aware of the extent of the cultures that preceded Europeans in the Americas.

At the time, the preservation of archaeological resources by the federal government was a new concept. Before the turn of the twentieth century, only a few Americans expressed any scientific interest in the pre-European past of North America; a few American professional archaeologists were describing ancient monuments in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, but most were trained in Europe and concentrated their work upon European and Middle Eastern sites. Government surveys of the West reported the existence of massive prehistoric structures among their many findings, and although these were of interest to antiquarians, the value of archaeological treasures paled when compared to the potential of western mineral, agricultural, and timber resources. Although the government supported the early archaeological surveys carried out by agencies such as the Bureau of Ethnology, federal officials did not see the preservation of archaeological areas as a responsibility of the federal government or its institutions.

The Sequoia stone dish incident was just one of many times that the need for legislation regulating the collecting of archaeological artifacts had come to the attention of the Department of the Interior. In 1904 Congress considered three separate preservationist bills, one of which the department had put forward, but failed to vote on any of them. Despite increasing federal bureaucratic recognition of the need for governmental regulation and control of archaeological ruins upon the public domain, there was not enough support to pass any legislation. A number of issues prevented consensus. Eastern and western regional interests came into conflict over this issue, as they did over so many natural resource questions. As experts from different fields offered their input, the range of viewpoints on preservation seemed to preclude compromise.


America's National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation
©1989, Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
©1994, University Press of Kansas
All rights reserved by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

rothman/chap1.htm — 04-Feb-2005

Copyright © 1989 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Material from this edition published by the University Press of Kansas by arrangement with the University of Illinois Press and may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University of Illinois Press.