Photography and the National Park Service

How did photographs of the western frontier influence Congress’ decision to designate national parks?


Key Staff

Social Studies or Visual Arts teacher

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


As Americans migrated westward in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers captured the splendor of the American west. Ultimately, it was their work that influenced Congress to create and protect national parks.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Observe photographs of 19th century city life and compare them with photographs of the western wilderness.
  • Write about their impressions of both groups of photographs.
  • Discuss, in groups, the contribution of photography to the creation of the National Park Service.

Teaching Approach

Arts Inclusion

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Visual Instruction
  • Discussion

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
Technology Notes

Internet Access is needed.

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

As Americans migrated westward in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers captured the splendor of the American west. Ultimately, it was their work that influenced Congress to create and protect national parks.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Familiarity with national parks
  • Familiarity with the history of photography
  • Familiarity with late 19th and early 20th century American history

Physical Space



  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Explain to students that in the mid to late 1800s, settlers were rapidly moving to the West. As the frontier moved westward, people were becoming exposed to environments that they had never experienced in the industrialized East. The vast wilderness, the wide expanses of land, and the natural beauty of the land were in sharp contrast to the densely populated urban areas that were rising in the East.

2. Explain that many photographers documented their journeys westward, sending incredible images back to the East. Two of these photographers were Carleton Watkins and Charles Weed, who began to photograph the Yosemite Valley in the mid 1800s. Their breathtaking photographs helped to convince the U.S. Congress to grant Yosemite Valley to California as a state park in 1864. A few years later, in 1867, the United States government commissioned an exploration of the area delineated by the 120th meridian eastward to 105th meridian along the 40th latitude. The area extended north and south to include the lines of the Central and Pacific railroads. Clarence King headed the 40th Parallel survey.

3. Point out the area explored during the 40th Parallel Survey on a map, noting that "meridians" are theoretical lines that run between the north pole and the south poles, and that "latitudes" are theoretical distances around the earth, which are north or south of, and parallel to, the equator.

4. Tell students that photography was used as an important documentary tool during the exploration. Show students some of the images from the 40th Parallel Survey . Explain that this landmark exploration was followed by other surveys and expeditions. The reports and images of the West that explorers sent back eastward were part of the reason that Congress made the Yellowstone area a national park in 1872. Other national parks were set aside in the 1800s and 1900s.

Build Knowledge

1. Tell students that they will now investigate the differences between the eastern U.S. and the frontier during the late 1800s.

2. Distribute copies of a map of the United States . Ask students to mark where they think most of the cities were located during that time, as well as where the national parks would eventually be located.

3. Allow the students to get an idea of what cities were like during this period of American history. Have them read the first two paragraphs of a description of New York City on this American Memory resource. Then, have them view images of Richmond, Virginia, at the close of the Civil War. Using the T-chart provided in the Resource Carousel, students should make a list of words that describe these two cities, and these can be used as the basis for comparison with a similar list that they will make made to describe the photographs of the West.


1. Students should now focus on the western frontier.

2. Have them view the works of Carleton Watkins.

3. Allow them to read about the visual, scientific, and spiritual points of view brought to the geological surveys on this University of Virginia Library resource.

4. Read the opening paragraph, then scroll to the paragraph that begins with "Richard Dingus tells us..." It is not necessary for the students to read the entire text; you may summarize the information for them.

5. Show students "Mirror Lake, Yosemite" by Carleton Watkins and have them read the accompanying text.

6. Next, view "Spirit Land, Down the Valley" by George Fiske. Also allow students to review a chronology of William Henry Jackson, which includes general information about the development of early photo techniques.

7. Then, have students use the interactive, Photographs of William Henry Jackson.

8. After students have reviewed these resources, have them make a list of descriptive words that describe the photographs of the West on the Photographs of the West worksheet located in the Resource Carousel.

9. Take a few minutes to introduce the idea of manifest destiny. (A good explanation of the concept is available on the University of Virginia Library site.

  • Ask students if they agree with the reasons given as to why photographers traveled westward.
  • Tell them to think about the impact the photographs of the natural wonders of the West must have had on Congress. Remind students that many members of Congress came from urban areas that shared the same conditions as New York City.


1. Divide the students into groups of four or five to discuss the impact of the photographs on Congress. Distribute the Discussion Notes handout located within the Resource Carousel and have each group designate a recorder.

During their discussion, students should consider the following:

  • Why did the photographers decide to depict the images in the way they did?
  • Were they trying to produce literal images of the places, or were they attempting to show spectacular and poetic views?
  • Why would these images help bolster the argument to create national parks?

(Students should reference their lists of descriptive words about images from eastern cities and the frontier.) After a 10-minute discussion, the recorder of each group will be present a "report" of what each group concluded.

2. For homework, ask students to write their own conclusion about the effect of photography on the creation of national parks. Students should use the Homework Assignment handout located within the Resource Carousel to complete the assignment.


1. Students will be graded on their participation in the group discussion and the presentation to the class by the group leader. Also evaluate homework, which should summarize the reasons that these photographs were taken, as well as why they influenced people in the eastern part of the United States, including Congress.

2. Students should also complete a written notebook or journal reflection, focusing specifically on two or three photographs. The written essay should include the names of the photograph and the photographer, where was it taken, and the reason they think it may have been an influential image. Students should be specific and site examples.


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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

Margaret Paris
Original Writer

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