You Said How Many National Parks?????

In honor of National Park Week April 20-28

Webmaster Kathryn here today with a guest blog entry. Recently, on a list I’m on, someone mentioned that she had been to 358 of 398 National Park System units.  (And, BTW, it looks like the total is now 401). I replied that I had no idea there were that many, that I thought there were two or three dozen. Virginia R Hetrick PhD,, replied with such a great tutorial that I asked her permission to pass it along on Arlene’s blog. Arlene teaches us to look at all kinds of sources. We might all remember to check the Battlefield Parks for our ancestors, but I wonder how many of the others Parks might have information that would be of help to us in our quest.

Tutorial on: The deal is that about 58 actually have the name National Park, places like Acadia National Park (ME), Death Valley National Park (CA), Yosemite National Park (CA). Then, most of the remainder have names like National Historic (or Historical) Park, National Historic Site, (the difference between a Park and a site is at the end of this paragraph) National Preserve, National Monument, National Battlefield.  Then, some places have other more functional names such as National River, National Wild River, National Seashore, and National Recreation Area. Finally, some don’t have any specific designation such as The White House.  The major distinction is that any of the above types except most of those designated as a National Monuments happen because Congress passed an actual bill to form the unit and some President signed the bill into law. When referring to all of the different locations, we normally refer to them as units so as to be inclusive.

By now, you’re probably asking, “So, what’s the deal with the National Monuments?”  Particularly when the idea of national parks was first getting started in the early 1900s, many of the units had spectacular scenery or some singular natural landmark or cultural feature such as a river or geologic feature that warranted preservation.  So, places like Devils Tower NM (WY, 1906) and Gila Cliff Dwellings NM (NM, 1907) were proclaimed by Presidential Executive Order under the terms of the Antiquities Act of 1906.  And, in fact, it’s looking like Delaware may soon have its first unit called the First State NM.

But, other National Monuments are authorized by Congressional action such as John Day Fossil Beds (OR, 1974) and Alibates Flint Quarries (TX, 1965).  Finally, some units originally proclaimed as National Monuments by the President have been redesignated by Congressional Action, for example Chaco Culture (NM, 1907) was both renamed and redesignated as a National Historic Park by Congress in 1980 and then designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.

The important point for all of this is that all units are treated the same regardless of how they became units of the National Park System because Congress passed and the President signed the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916 and amended the act in 1970.  So, three years from this writing, the National Park Service will be celebrating its 100th birthday.

Some of the other kinds of places get started because a member of Congress or a Senator wanted them to happen. But, some of those places and many other ones happen because a President wrote an executive order to put them into place. And, finally, a good many others happened in the historic past because (a) they were already state-created sites but were found to be national resources and, when given to the federal government by states, were put into the National Park System which is run by the National Park Service.  The main reason seems to be that’s where they most easily fit in terms of managing the resource(s), or they’re a national resource in the National Capital Area (these seem to be either statues or similar monuments or former military resources — for example, the NPS is the only piece of the national government that seems to know the location of all the Civil War defenses of Washington, DC.  Certainly, it is the only one which has a map of all the locations) or were “expansive areas”, mostly grass and/or trees, that were set aside before the District of Columbia had much of a government with money to spend on parks (the National Mall, the Vietnam Wall, the WWII Memorial, and the John Ericcson National Memorial — he’s the guy who designed the Monitor).

National Seashores and National Lakeshores are usually created because they have a spectacular experience or because they are literally, again, a national resource like Padre Island NS (TX), Cape Cod NS (MA), or Pictured Rocks NL (MI).

Then, some sites are “cooperative” units, like Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (samo), my “local” unit, which is opening a new Visitor Center this weekend, and which were formed because of the danger that the land may be developed which would remove it from use as a significant recreational resource.  A bunch of private organizations have bought and preserved pieces and parts of the samo area over time, some of which have been deeded over to the NPS.  But, a good many public (not federal) areas are still run by their state or local government organization such as state parks or beaches or city parks and all the organizations’ events are promoted together in a single document (.pdf available on front page, rightmost column of published each quarter). — Kathryn’s side note: I’m leaving that part intact even though it’s local to Virginia and me, because all this type of thing creates paperwork. Were YOUR ancestors instrumental in creating something like this?

So that’s pretty much why you haven’t heard of them as “National Parks”. For more information, you can take a look at the general website, You can find all the units run by the NPS in your state (and every state but Delaware has at least one) or in other areas of the country, like the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and Micronesia.  I call those, plus Alaska and Hawaii, the off-shore units and 28 of my unvisited sites to this point are those places (I visited some of the US Virgin Islands units when we used to go sailing around that area).

Tutorial off. Now it’s our turn. I’m sure we’ll never have time to come close to Virginia’s numbers of real-life visiting of our national resources. But figure out what Parks your ancestors might have been involved with. Visit them, in real life or virtually. See what records there are. Who knows what you might find!

Thanks to Virginia for the permission and the great food for thought!

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