The Antiquities Act of 1906 (part 1): Why and What?

A friend recently posted a video of Glenn Beck reacting to Patagonia’s campaign against President Trump’s reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. The purpose of this series of blog posts is not to argue with Mr. Beck and his followers. Merely, I wish to present a few historical and contextual facts that Mr. Beck left out of his tirade. It would behoove all of us to do a bit more research before giving credence to his words; he is, after all, merely a member of the media, paid for his ability to create shock and outrage among conservatives. From what I can tell, he does this job very well. However, he leaves out information that does not support his arguments. I have to break up my thoughts into multiple blog posts, simply to help me keep my thoughts straight and simple(r).

Native American cultures have lost a lot. And because history textbooks were generally written by the “winners” of wars, campaigns, events, etc., some facts are actually not represented and have been lost to time. It is these facts and perspectives that will give us a more complete view of history. It is this ignored or lost information we must seek. Often times, the truth is somewhere between the two perspectives.

Please feel free to explore the links I have provided and please read the full texts of these historic documents.

What is a National Monument?

According to the Antiquities Act, “…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.”

However, what this DOESN’T acknowledge is the tie Native American tribes have to the land itself. Far more than the “European” or “Near Eastern” cultures that arrived here within the last 300 years, at least from my perspective. “Objects to be protected” is misleading verbiage to me as the land itself is often the object which cultures want preserved.

But… Why?

Of note is the first part of the Antiquities Act (conveniently not mentioned in Mr. Beck’s video), which states, “…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.”

From my reading, this actual first clause of the act really hits on why the act was proposed and eventually passed. I say ‘eventually’ because the origins of the Antiquities Act (as a piece of legislation) started almost 25 years earlier – well before Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House.

A combination of archeologists, scientists and concerned citizens, interested in studying and preserving historic sites and artifacts abroad started to turn to reports of pueblos and diminishing settlements and cultures in what would become the southwestern United States, specifically the states of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1882, Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts, along with (what is now known as) the New England Historic Genealogical Society, presented to the U.S. Senate a document outlining why the nation should preserve and study sites and artifacts associated with Native Americans:

“…that these remaining are the remnants of very ancient races in North America whose origin and history lie yet unknown in their decayed and decaying antiquities; that many of their towns have been abandoned by the decay and extinction of their inhabitants; that many of their relics have already perished and so made the study of American ethnology vastly more difficult; that the question of the origin of those Pueblos and the age of their decayed cities, and the use of some of their buildings, now magnificent ruins, constitute one of the leading and most interesting problems of the antiquary and historian of the present age; that relic-hunters have carried away, and scattered wide through America and Europe the remains of these extinct towns, thus making their historic study still more difficult, and, in some particulars, nearly impossible; that these extinct towns, the only monuments or interpreters of these mysterious races, are now daily plundered and destroyed in a most vandal way…” (For the full text of this document visit the the NPS history of the Antiquities Act or, better yet, go through the archives of the New England History Genealogical Society.)

So where do we draw the line? The history of the United States, as it applies to events and actions upon this continent, is inextricably linked to the decimation of cultures other than those of European descent. I am not placing blame on past U.S. citizens, merely just pointing out that we, as a nation, have contributed to destroying the history of our continent often before we had a chance to learn from said history.

And who was it who said, “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it,”? (Actually, I believe that quote comes in many forms from many sources. )

Mr. Beck may not like how many acres have been set aside, but the legislation predates Roosevelt by several presidents. Congress just simply didn’t pass the legislation until more pots were hunted and structures were destroyed.

For further research, I recommend the following sites and organizations. From my reading, the National Park Service is actually the newest of these groups, and the collective histories of these groups are somewhat intertwined. Also do some reading on the explorations and studies of John Wesley Powell, Adolph Bandelier, and Lewis Henry Morgan, among many, many others.

  1. National Park Service Archeological Program: The Antiquities Act
  2. The New England Historic Genealogical Society
  3. The Archeological Institute of America
  4. The American Anthropological Association


Up Next: The First National Monument and The Great Multi-Use Debate


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