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NPS Expansion: 1930s







New Deal



NPS 1933-39




Expansion of the National Park Service in the 1930s:
Administrative History

Chapter Five: New Initiatives in the Fields of History, Historic Preservation and Historical Park Development and Interpretation
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B. Creation and Activities of History Division

The growing importance of historical areas in the National Park System and the wide variety of new questions, issues, and problems that these areas presented led to the creation of a historical division in the Branch of Research and Education, headed by Harold C. Bryant, in 1931. On September 10 of that year, Verne E. Chatelain, chairman of the history and social sciences department at Nebraska State Teachers College in Peru, was appointed to head this division with the title of park historian. Chatelain's responsibilities belied the title he was given. He was assigned responsibility for extending and coordinating the historical and archeological research program of the Park Service, supervising the Service's activities in the fields of history and archeology, assisting in the formulation and implementation of policies and methods of procedure for preservation, interpretation, and development in the parks, initiating studies of policies relative to new area acquisition and techniques of restoration and reconstruction, and providing professional judgment on a wide range of new historical area proposals emanating from Congress. [3]

In his role as the first historian employed in the Washington office, Chatelain had the task of attempting to reorient the organization from its longstanding concern with western natural areas to a new awareness of its responsibilities for eastern historical parks and preservation issues. As part of his effort to educate the Park Service to historical values, he called a history conference in Washington in November 1931. Among the recommendations that Chatelain supported for inclusion in the overall philosophy of the agency's programs and policies were:

1. Historical activity is a part of the educational activity of the National Park Service.

2. Historical activity is primarily not a research program but an educational program in the broader sense.

3. Education presupposes accurate, scientific knowledge, and all educational-type personnel in the Park Service should have the knowledge necessary to interpret their parks or monuments and see their individual areas in relation to the entire Park Service.

4. The historian should know his park or monument from every possible standpoint.

5. The historian should be ready at any time to disseminate accurate information in an interesting manner.

6. The historian should make at the earliest possible moment an accurate and comprehensive inventory or bibliography of every type of historical material bearing on his park or monument.

7. The historian should draw up an attractive historical information bulletin or brochure dealing with his park or monument.

8. Tracts, articles, and books dealing with special phases of historical work and problems in the region of the park or monument should be acquired, studied, and catalogued in the park library.

9. The historian should prepare and deliver talks, lectures, and guide instruction as well as be in charge of all interpretive and historical services in his park or monument.

10. Park and monument historians should prepare a regular monthly publication similar to "Nature Notes."

11. The historian should aid in the preparation of museum and library! archive collections and be involved in all field work endeavors in his park or monument. [4]

During the next eighteen months Chatelain refined his thinking further regarding the function of a historical program in the National Park Service and the formulation of a policy for the development of a system of national historic sites. On November 19, 1932, a committee consisting of Chatelain and Roger W. Toll, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, was appointed by Director Albright to address these topics. On December 12 they submitted a report to the director which included the following excerpts:

The National Park Service is the bureau of the Government that has been set up and equipped to handle such a system, and it is believed that if we do not actively advocate, investigate and promote a proper National Historical policy, we are not fully complying with the desires of Congress. Such a policy cannot be established in a helter-skelter fashion, but must be based on a complete and comprehensive study of the entire system.

Historic sites include areas of military significance. In addition, a system of acquiring historic sites should include all types of areas that are historically important in our national development. This entire subject is of greater importance at the present time due to the recommendations in the President's plan of transferring to the National Park Service the military historical areas from the War Department. An examination of the list of areas that have been set aside as national military parks, battlefield sites and national monuments administered by the War Department, indicates that the selection has not been the result of a plan or policy determined in advance, but rather the acceptance of areas that have been advocated from time to time by various proponents. Some of these areas are undoubtedly of the highest importance, but others may not be. Certainly the list does not represent all of the most important historical shrines of American history, even in the field of military endeavor. The pressure that has been brought in the past to bear on the War Department in the establishment of these national military areas will be transferred to the National Park Service along with the sites themselves.

The setting up of standards for national historical sites and the listing and classification of areas pertinent to the development of the Nation seems to be of utmost importance. The committee believes that it is unsound, uneconomical and detrimental to a historical system and policy to study each individual area when presented and without reference to the entire scheme of things. [5]

Later on April 21, 1933, Chatelain submitted another lengthy memorandum to Assistant Director Arthur E. Demaray that detailed his conception of a historical program for the agency. The memorandum read:

I think that the historical work of the National Park Service is dependent upon the acquisition of an historical mind by those who control its administration, or at least upon their willingness to leave the problem to the historically-minded. Of course it is conceivable that those with authority and opportunity may acquire for the Service in the name of the Nation one historic site or another under one or many standards of selection. What areas are acquired, however, and how these are then interpreted will in the long run show whether or not we know what we are doing. Unless there is a real philosophy of history, it will be easy enough to spend our time in academic discussions over this or that museum or antiquarian problem, and never seriously tackle the bigger task.

The historian is an expert and there are relatively few of his kind. Most of those who work with history are struggling students and should be properly alluded to as students of history--not as historians. The historian is a philosopher because his work is essentially synthetic. He is constantly studying causes and effects, processes, patterns, and cycles, in short everything connected with the development and relationship of human beings in their environment and the recording of what he sees. His professional knowledge has been acquired by the study--not simply of many facts--but of many processes and patterns. . . .

No conception of the historical activity of the National Park Service is complete unless it attempts to tie the individual problem to the larger patterns of history. He must find these patterns and then relate the Wakefield or any other problem with which we are working to that scheme.

The sum total of the sites which we select should make it possible for us to tell a more or less complete story of American History. Keeping in mind the fact that our history is a series of processes marked by certain stages of development, our sites should illustrate and make possible the interpretation of these processes at certain levels of growth.

It is going to be impractical for the Federal Government to take a lot of unrelated historical sites--no matter how significant any one of them might seem at the moment. What I feel we must do is to select bases from which the underlying philosophy can be developed, and expanded to the best advantage. [6]

In June 1935 Chatelain wrote on the role and interpretive objectives of the historical and archeological areas in the National Park System:

. . . The conception which underlies the whole policy of the National Park Service in connection with these sites is that of using the uniquely graphic qualities which inhere in any area where stirring and significant events have taken place to drive home to the visitor the meaning of those events showing not only their importance in themselves but their integral relationship to the whole history of American development. In other words, the task is to breathe the breath of life into American history for those to whom it has been a dull recital of meaningless facts--to recreate for the average citizen something of thy color, the pageantry, and the dignity of our national past. [7]

Chapter Five continues with...
Historical Program at Colonial National Monument


Last Modified: Tues, Mar 14 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

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