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The National Park System's Cultural-Historical Wing: America's Story in 10 Chapters


Mount Rushmore Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota is an iconic cultural-historical park. Photo by Jim Bowen via Wikipedia.

The National Park System units that were established to preserve and interpret nationally significant cultural-historical resources act in concert to "tell America's story." One might argue, in fact, that this is their mission boiled down to its essence. If it can be said that the nature-based parks exist to preserve hallmark features of this country's physical inheritance, the cultural-historical parks exist to help us understand, appreciate, and remember what American culture is and how it got to be that way.

Just what is a Cultural-Historical Park, Anyway?

Although the question seems simple enough, the answer is actually a bit complex. Nearly all NPS units preserve both natural and cultural resources, so it comes down to a matter of degree. There are examples of parks on the entire gradient from true wilderness to buildings in central business districts of big cities. More than 50 National Park-designated units that seem quintessentially nature-based – including Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon – have National Register-quality historic sites and structures within their borders. At the same time, some cultural-historical units preserve nationally or regionally significant natural resources. Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, which preserves Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites, has extensive wilderness areas. Ninety Six National Historic Site, which preserves a Revolutionary War battle site, has South Carolina's largest stand of Oglethorpe oaks.

To simplify matters, a cultural-historical park can be defined as any unit of the National Park System that was established primarily to preserve and interpret cultural-historical resources, and which has cultural-historical resources as its primary visitor attractions.

Evolution of Cultural-Historical Parks

In the early years, national parks were nature-based and typified by grand western parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. It wasn’t until 1906 and the passage of the Antiquities Act that parks commemorating the works of humans were established.

The earliest cultural-historical parks were pre-Columbian Indian ruins. Mesa Verde National Park and Montezuma Castle National Monument were both established in 1906, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park (1907), Navajo National Monument (1909), and Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (1909) quickly followed. As additional cultural-historical units were established, the scope broadened to include the homes of famous Americans, Colonial era historical sites, Civil War battlefields, and various other themes.

Numerous cultural-historical units were added to the Park System during the Great Depression of the 1930s.The Federal Reorganization of 1933 gave the President the right to transfer national monuments from one federal agency to another. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used this new authority to transfer military-historical areas and national monuments to the National Park Service from the Department of War and the Department of Agriculture. The Park System thereby gained 57 new sites, including many of the great Civil War battlefields.

Passage of the Historic Sites Act of 1935 was another landmark event for the cultural-historical wing of the Park System. The Historic Sites Act established the first national policy on historic preservation, ordered a site survey to determine what historic sites are “worth preserving,” and provided a rationale for additional history-themed national parks. The park service began using the designator National Historic Site, which has since become commonplace. In 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act put the Park Service in charge of the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation.

Many cultural-historical units have been added since the end of World War II. By the early 1970s, Congress was emphasizing the creation of new parks in and close to urban centers where they would be more accessible. This policy heavily favored the creation of cultural-historical parks. While America’s urban day-tripping zones offer relatively few opportunities to establish nature-based national parks, there are many nationally significant cultural-historical sites in densely settled areas, especially in the eastern states. Other factors that have favored the addition of cultural-historical parks include public support for historic preservation , relatively low initial costs, and political incentives.

Political incentives loom large, since creating new parks is a time-tested way to generate jobs, boosts tax revenues, and curry favor with voters. Unfortunately, some of the new sites are not nationally significant, fail to meet standards, or have other serious shortcomings, such as excessive cost or duplication of resources already in the system. Steamtown National Historic Site and First Ladies National Historic Site are two cultural-historical sites that critics commonly point to as examples of "park barrel politics."

Cultural-Historical Park Designations

Designations for cultural-historical parks can be confusing. As new kinds of parks or administrative arrangements were established, Congress (and in some cases, the National Park Service) created new kinds of titles. As these examples illustrate, 11 different designations have been employed so far:

Hot Springs National Park (AR)
Statue of Liberty National Monument (NY)
Flight 93 National Memorial (PA)
George Washington Memorial Parkway (MD & VA)
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site (GA)
St. Croix Island International Historic Site (ME)
Colonial National Historical Park (MS)
Cowpens National Battlefield (SC)
Richmond National Battlefield Park (VA)
Gettysburg National Military Park (PA)
Brices Crossroads National Battlefield Site (MS)

Given Congress' annoying lack of concern for conceptually tidy park designations, we can expect even greater confusion in the decades to come.

How Many Cultural-Historical Parks Are There?

Putting aside for the moment the question of how cultural-historical parks should be designated, it's a simple matter to arrive at reasonably accurate count. The cultural-historical wing of the Park System may be seen to consist of 229 units -- about 58% of the 394 NPS units -- when tallied in this way:

(1) There are 176 NPS units that have been clearly designated as cultural-historical parks:

77 National Historic Sites
45 National Historical Parks
28 National Memorials
11 National Battlefields
9 National Military Parks
4 National Battlefield Parks
1 National Battlefield Site
1 International Historic Site

(2) In addition, there are about 53 cultural-historical parks that have ambiguous designations:

43 of the 75 National Monument-designated units
2 of the 58 National Park-designated units (Hot Springs and Mesa Verde)
2 of the 4 Parkway-designated units (Natchez Trace and George Washington Memorial)
6 of 11 "Other" (miscellaneous) designations*

* Includes White House, National Mall, Constitution Gardens, Rock Creek Park, Fort Washington Park, and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Although National Capital Parks is counted as one of the 394 NPS units, it is not counted here because it is functionally an administrative unit, not a national park in the usual sense of the term.

A more rigorous analysis than the one I've used here might yield a different total, but the tally wouldn't vary by much. It's safe to say that that there are more than 200 cultural-historical parks, and that cultural-historical parks account for a clear majority of the 394 NPS units that exist today.

Thematic Orientations of the Cultural-Historical Parks

The cultural-historical parks represent a very eclectic collection of themes. While teaching a national parks course at the University of South Carolina, I found it useful to group these themes into the following 10 reasonably discrete categories. An example of each is included.

• Original inhabitants (Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site)
• European Exploration and Early Settlement (San Antonio Missions National Historical Park)
• Colonial Life and the Revolutionary War (Boston National Historical Park)
• Pioneer America, Western Settlement, and the Indian Wars (Fort Laramie National Historic Site)
• The Civil War (Gettysburg National Military Park)
• Commemorating Famous Americans (Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial)
• Transport Systems, Industrial Development, & Technological Progress (Lowell National Historical Park)
• Twentieth Century Wars (National World War II Memorial)
• Cultural diversity and Religious Freedom (Statue of Liberty National Monument)
• The Struggle for Equality and Justice (Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site)

This is certainly not the only logical categorization of the cultural-historical parks. I am only pointing out that these ten themes offer a systematic basis for examining the role of the cultural-historical parks as vehicles for interpreting "America's story."

I'll have more to say about this later.

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Indeed. In fact, if you were to step back and take a look at the amount of money, number of employees, and number of parks that are devoted in whole or substantial part to preservation of history and culture, you would have to conclude that this is the primary mission of the National Park Service. As has been noted, there are many parks with no natural resources. But, there are no parks without cultural resources. In fact, if you add in such programs as the National Register of Historic Places, Historic American Buildings Survey, National Heritage Areas, and National Historic Landmarks program, the amount of time and money spent on historic places far out paces that spent on the natural parks. In fact, the only place the natural parks take first is in the number of acres.

Is it part of the NPS mission statement or within their power to alter or eliminate cultural history that has lived on through the entire history of a National Park say for 100 plus years? Is it desirable to take such action? The elimination of access for the physically challenged that have had access for the entire 100+ years? I and many others would like these simple questions answered and whether or not this is going to be the ongoing policy throughout the NPS system? Would someone please respond?

Anon 10:13, I do not understand your questions, and in any event, I most certainly don't believe they are simple. What do you mean by "alter or eliminate cultural history"? Are you concerned about the possibility of Congress eliminating some of the cultural-historical national parks? Your reference to access for the physically challenged is also confusing, at least in this particular context. How are access issues relevant here?


No, I'm not concerned that Congress (at least the 112th) will eliminate some of the cultural-historical National Parks. What I've seen is the attempted elimination of cultural/historical aspects of some National Parks by NPS themselves because of personal agenda/bias of leadership (unelected). The physically challenged aspect of my comment? In attempting to alter living history to just history has almost eliminated entirely, access to what has been available to the physically (and mentally) challenged for over 100 years.
You can probably guess the particular Park I am referring to here but have been a bit cryptic because it could be indicative of a wider change in policy and not just this individual instance.

Perhaps you could be more specific about the park you have in mind. I'd be grateful if some Traveler readers would register their thoughts and feelings about these issues. Count me in favor of preserving cultural-historical-archeological resources and improving access wherever possible in the parks.

Grand Canyon, Bob. Kurt should have quite a file on the situation by now.

We've been closely following the issue of mule rides management in Grand Canyon National Park in the Traveler. It's certainly triggered heated debate. In fact, it's one of the hottest access issues we've seen in a while. Like me, Kurt is not real comfortable with the policy- and decision making we've seen. Then again, they didn't ask us.

Allow me to suggest that the comment section of the article I've provided the link for here would be a much more appropriate place for this thread.

Bob, although the Mule Issue at the Canyon does raise serious scrutiny of NPS and how they implement cultural, historical, preservation and priorities when considering (or not) deeply moving public experiences that have been wildly successful for over 100 years, I'll do as you ask so the "Thematic" element can be furthered :).

Great site, Bob! Rock On, Parks!

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