U.S. Congress: American Antiquities Act of 1906; Passed into Law on June 8, 1906

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U.S. Congress
American Antiquities Act of 1906; Passed into Law on June 8, 1906

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"Keep it for your children and your children's children and all who come after you."
Theodore Roosevelt, on the Grand Canyon in 1903

In 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was established for the purpose of advancing science throughout the world by means of education and professional organization. As the century progressed and as the United States expanded, it became obvious that some of the more valuable resources and archaeological sites, ruins, and artifacts needed federal protection if they were to be preserved. Most of these sites were in the Southwest, remainders of once-thriving Native American cultures.

The AAAS joined forces with the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) in 1899 and developed a bill that would allow for federal protection of these sites. The bill was introduced to Congress by U.S. representative Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver (1858–1910) of Iowa in 1900. His bill marked the beginning of a six-year struggle to protect these valuable sites from private greed and exploitation (using something to one's own advantage). The reason for the delay in passage of the bill was the scope of the proposal. Some members of Congress felt a general bill protecting all archaeological sites would be most beneficial. Other members believed only specifically named sites and regions should be granted protection.

Throughout the course of debate regarding protection and preservation of archaeological sites, three individuals became key figures. Scholar Edgar Lee Hewett (1865–1946) also possessed considerable political skills. His talents allowed him to find the common ideas in the two approaches to archaeological preservation and effectively communicate them to all parties involved. His behind-the-scenes work was critical in the effort to pass the American Antiquities Act.

U.S. representative John F. Lacey (1841–1913) of Iowa was another major participant in this important conservation (preservation and protection) effort. The Republican congressman had been involved in several earlier conservation measures and was known for his concern for protection of both wilderness and wildlife. He wrote the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act of 1894, which turned the park into the first national wildlife refuge where hunting and trapping were outlawed. Lacey also wrote the first wildlife conservation law, the Bird and Game Act, which was passed in 1900.

President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9) was considered, among other things, the first conservation president. Roosevelt's personal philosophy (see Chapter 5) that man is closely connected with the land directly affected his attitude toward preserving American lands and resources. No president before him had so aggressively used his power and authority to protect the country's natural resources and wildlife.

Lacey's commitment to conservation was obvious in his persistent support for and authoring of various protective bills and legislation. Roosevelt's appreciation for the wilderness and natural resources was directly related to his love of big game hunting. Hewett's commitment to the passage of the Antiquities Act developed more gradually and was an offshoot of another, more personal attachment to the Pajarito Plateau of New Mexico.

When doctors recommended that Hewett's wife spend more time in a drier climate that would not worsen her tuberculosis (a chronic lung disease, often fatal), the couple began spending summers in New Mexico. Soon, they became deeply attached to the natural beauty of the Pajarito region. Hewett had the idea that the entire region should be designated a national park so that the ancient Southwestern cultural ruins there would be preserved for scientific research. Although much of the land in that region was federally owned public land, some of it was privately owned. Hewett hoped that his efforts to make the area a national park would encourage these private owners to take protective measures of their own.

National Parks, Monuments, and Other Designations

There are many different kinds of national designations in America, and the differences between them can be confusing. Here is a brief explanation of each:

National parks:

When Yellowstone became a national park in 1872, protected by federal law, a worldwide movement began to establish other parks. In the twenty-first century, more than one hundred nations have designated twelve hundred national parks or preserves. In the United States, national parks are available to the public for leisure activities such as hiking and camping. Only Congress can designate a national park.

National monuments:

The 1906 Antiquities Act allowed U.S. presidents to designate specific areas, structures, or landmarks as monuments in order to preserve and protect them. National monuments are usually smaller than national parks and do not offer as many attractions or as large a variety of activities.

National preserves:

Preserves are designated to protect a specific natural resource, such as a grove of trees. Certain activities like hunting or fishing may be allowed if they do not threaten the preserve. Many of these federally protected designations could qualify for national park status.

National reserves:

Similar to preserves, but protection and management are provided at the state or local level.

National rivers and wild and scenic riverways:

This designation provides protection to the land bordering free-flowing streams and rivers. These waterways cannot be dammed or altered in any way by humans. Activities allowed include hiking, canoeing, and hunting.

National lakeshores and seashores:

These areas are federally protected to preserve their natural values but also provide water-oriented recreation. Some are developed, whereas others remain in their primitive states.

National scenic trails:

These long-distance foot trails wind through scenic areas of great natural beauty. Similar to these are national historic trails, which mark routes taken throughout history by military, explorers, and migrant (traveling) groups. The Appalachian Trail is one well-known national scenic trail.

National historic site:

Contains one historical feature that is directly related to its subject. An example would be the Springfield, Illinois, home of the late U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65). Most national historic sites have been authorized by acts of Congress.

National memorial:

Used mostly for commemorative (remembrance) areas. These sites and structures do not necessarily have to berelated to their subjects. For example, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a national memorial.

National military parks, national battlefield parks, national battlefield sites, and national battlefields:

Each of these titles is used to designate an area of specific importance to the U.S. military.

In 1898, Hewett began a five-year term as the first president of the Normal University at Las Vegas, New Mexico. Hewett's program of study included many courses in anthropology (the study of human beings and how they live), and he began taking students on summertime explorations in Pajarito. Having already established a friendship with Lacey, Hewett invited the congressman to join him on a trek through Pajarito in 1902. He hoped to convince him of the need to enact federal protection. Lacey did lend his support, but the bill that ultimately went to Congress was greatly altered, reducing the size of the proposed park by three-quarters. The name Pajarito Park was also changed to Cliff Dweller's National Park.

Although that bill would go through several more changes over the years, in 1916, the Bandelier National Monument at the southern end of the Pajarito Plateau was designated by President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21). Hewett, discouraged by his defeat in the battle for Pajarito Park, realized how much he had learned throughout the process of trying to get the bill passed. The experience gained during the long struggle for Pajarito made him a powerful partner in the fight for the Antiquities Act.

Realizing that his lack of success may have stemmed from not knowing as much as he should about archaeology, Hewett obtained formal training in the field. After studying abroad in Europe, he returned to America in 1904 and found that he was not alone in his desire to promote legal protection for valuable archaeological sites and regions. The entire archeological community, along with the Smithsonian Institution, the Department of Interior (created in 1849, the department of the federal government concerned with conservation), and concerned congressmen, joined forces in the battle to protect America's precious lands.

Although Hewett was still focused on Pajarito, he did not neglect the Antiquities bill. He worked closely with government and archaeological committees and revised the proposal several times. The Department of the Interior favored the national parks approach. Hewett and Lacey, however, loudly stressed the importance of specific legislation to protect archaeological sites specifically and as something separate from national parks. Congress did not appreciate the purpose of such legislation and did not act on the bill for years.

Hewett decided that the direct approach—asking the government for protection of these valuable sites—was not working. Rather than ask Congress to make the government responsible for protecting these lands, Hewett worded the proposal in such a way that the protection was an indirect responsibility of the government. His draft stated that it would be illegal for any citizen to damage ruins on federal land. This particular issue of looting and damaging federal property was a major concern at the turn of the century. The public knew that vandalism on such a level was occurring with alarming frequency, and they wanted to see an end to it. Hewett's revision of the bill would allow the government to prevent such illegal activity directly (as stated in the provisions of the law) while at the same time indirectly (by preventing vandalism, the government was providing protection) require it to protect the lands.

After more debate about the amount of lands in the Southwest to be protected, Hewett's version of the bill finally passed Congress. On June 8, 1906, President Roosevelt signed into law the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities (otherwise known as the American Antiquities Act). The law gave the president the authority to designate as national monuments specific landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest located on lands owned or controlled by the federal government. It also made vandalism of such federal grounds a crime, and authorized permits for legitimate archaeological explorations.

Things to remember while reading
the American Antiquities Act of 1906:

  • With the closing of the wilderness frontier as more and more settlers made their homes in the West and Southwest, many sites and geologic structures were just being discovered. People vandalized these valuable historic places for personal gain. For example, they would steal rocks from structures and sites and then sell them as souvenirs.
  • Not everyone was in favor of federal protection of national monuments. Many native tribes in the Southwest considered these regions their own and felt the government had no right to intrude on their private grounds.
  • The concept of conserving natural resources was completely new in the Progressive Era. Prior to the conservation movement, many, if not most, Americans believed there was an endless supply of natural resources. Society, including the government, had a basic mindset that protective measures were unnecessary.

American Antiquities Act of 1906

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States, without the permission of the Secretary of the Department of the Government having jurisdiction over the lands on which said antiquities are situated, shall, upon conviction, be fined in a sum of not more than five hundred dollars or be imprisoned for a period of not more than ninety days, or shall suffer both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.

Sec. 2. That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected: Provided, That when such objects are situated upon a tract covered by a bona fied [sic] unperfected claim or held in private ownership, the tract, or so much thereof as may be necessary for the proper care and management of the object, may be relinquished to the Government, and the Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized to accept the relinquishment of such tracts in behalf of the Government of the United States.

Sec. 3. That permits for the examination of ruins, the excavation of archaeological sites, and the gathering of objects of antiquity upon the lands under their respective jurisdictions may be granted by the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and War to institutions which they may deem properly qualified to conduct such examination, excavation, or gathering, subject to such rules and regulation as they may prescribe: Provided, That the examinations, excavations, and gatherings are undertaken for the benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums.

Sec. 4. That the Secretaries of the Departments aforesaid shall make and publish from time to time uniform rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Act.

Approved, June 8, 1906.

What happened next …

President Roosevelt used his new power for the first time three months after the signing of the bill. Devil's Tower in Wyoming was the first national monument, quickly followed by the Petrified Forest in Arizona. Shortly after that, two cultural monuments were declared: El Morro, New Mexico (a 200-foot sandstone bluff used as a landmark for travelers in the desert), and Montezuma Castle in Arizona (a five-story, twenty-room cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua Indians).

Roosevelt loosely interpreted the guidelines of the Act, which specifically stated that objects must be of scientific interest. In 1908, he stretched that specification and proclaimed more than 800,000 acres (3,237 square kilometers) of the Grand Canyon as a national monument. President Woodrow Wilson went even further with Roosevelt's interpretation when he created Katmai National Monument in Alaska in 1918. That monument included more than one million acres (4,000 square kilometers) of land. It was later enlarged to almost 2.8 million acres (11,331 square kilometers) by other Antiquities Act proclamations and was the country's largest national park system. The Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and Katmai were eventually converted to the status of national parks.

Congress did not oppose such relaxed use of the Antiquities Act until 1943. At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) declared Jackson Hole in Wyoming a national monument. He did this so that he could accept a land donation by John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960). This donation would be added to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Earlier, Congress had denied authorization to expand the park. By making Jackson Hole a national monument, Roosevelt was able to expand the park despite Congress's wishes.

Although subsequent presidents used their authority under the Antiquities Act, none did so with such enthusiasm. It would be 1978 before a president would use his power in such a way. President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81) proclaimed fifteen new national monuments in Alaska. In doing so, he doubled the acreage protected by law in that state.

It would be 1996 before another national monument was proclaimed. President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah that year. He also used the Act to enlarge existing national monuments, as did several presidents before him.

The ruins and archaeological sites in the Southwest spurred progressive thinkers and politicians into the conservation movement of the Progressive Era. Those same ruins and sites are, in the twenty-first century, under threat of collapse from natural erosion (wearing down of the soil and land) and the tourism industry. Throughout the twentieth century, the ruins consistently needed repair, and an organized group of craftsmen used mortar made from cement to repair the antiquities. Even though the craftsmen used all the skills and knowledge they had at that time, by the 1970s, it became clear that the mortar was not preserving the ruins but hastening their decay.

Throughout the 1980s, the threat to the ruins was largely ignored, as key personnel in the Park Service retired, the repair unit disbanded, and finances were scarce. Left unattended, the ruins were at the mercy of the weather and the unceasing visitation by tourists from all over the world. By the 1990s, the situation was worse than ever, causing a handful of park rangers to begin comparing notes of what they observed among the various ruins on these federally protected lands. The result was a program called "Vanishing Treasures."

The program attacked the problem from three different angles: by documenting the rate of deterioration; by repairing those ruins in the most immediate danger, while experimenting with and researching new materials and repair methods; and by training a new generation of craftsmen. The program remains active into the twenty-first century.

The Antiquities Act was an important piece of legislation when it passed Congress. Without it, commercial developers would have divided the Grand Canyon into parcels of land and sold it to businesses. This law saved countless natural and archaeologically important sites in America. Undeniably, the Act provided protection when congressional indifference prevented conservation bills from passing in a timely manner. The wording and protective measures of the Act remain virtually the same as they were when signed into law in 1906.

Did you know …

  • California has more national monuments (thirteen) than any other state.
  • Congress also has the power to declare national monuments, though that power does not come from the Antiquities Act. Whereas a president's declaration takes immediate effect, it can take Congress years to declare a national monument.
  • Of the 105 national monuments proclaimed under the Antiquities Act, 46 have been larger than 5,000 acres (20 square kilometers); 28 have been larger than 50,000 acres (202 square kilometers).
  • Nearly 25 percent of America's national parks were originally designated national monuments, including the Grand Canyon.

Consider the following …

  • If you could visit just one national monument, which one would you choose and why?
  • The Antiquities Act is still in effect in the twenty-first century. In what ways is it more important than it was in 1906? In what ways is it less important?
  • Giving the U.S. president the sole power to declare something a national monument implies a certain level of trust and knowledge. Some presidents invoked that power more than twenty times, others none at all. Do you think someone else should have a say in deciding what will be a national monument, and if so, who?

For More Information


Butcher, Devereux. Exploring Our National Parks and Monuments. 9th ed. Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1995.

Harmon, David, McManamon, Francis P., and Dwight T. Pitcaithley, eds. The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006.

Place, Chuck. Ancient Walls: Indian Ruins of the Southwest. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1992.


"Archeology Program: Antiquities Act 1906–2006." National Park Service.http://www.cr.nps.gov/archeology/sites/antiquities/ (accessed on August 13, 2006).

"Archeology Program: Edgar Lee Hewett and the Political Process." National Park Service.http://www.cr.nps.gov/archeology/pubs/antiq/antiq01.htm (accessed on August 13, 2006).

"Archeology Program: Vanishing Treasures." National Park Service.http://www.cr.nps.gov/archeology/vt/crisis.htm (accessed on August 13, 2006).

Library of Congress. "The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850–1920." American Memory.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amrvhtml/conshome.html (accessed on August 13, 2006).

"A National Monument, Memorial, Park … What's the Difference?" National Atlas.http://www.nationalatlas.gov/articles/government/a_nationalparks.html (accessed on August 13, 2006).

"U.S. National Monuments." GORP.http://gorp.away.com/gorp/resource/us_nm/main.htm (accessed on August 13, 2006).

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U.S. Congress: American Antiquities Act of 1906; Passed into Law on June 8, 1906

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U.S. Congress: American Antiquities Act of 1906; Passed into Law on June 8, 1906