One hundred and seven years ago tomorrow Theodore Roosevelt signed the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities. A few months later he first exercised the executive power provided by the law to declare Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming the first National Monument.
Devils Tower is a curious columnar igneous rock formation that appears to have risen abruptly out of the ground. From base to summit, the formation stands 1,276 feet tall above the surrounding area, and is a staggering 5,114 feet above sea level.
Devils Tower held tremendous significance for Native American tribes and is steeped in folklore about its origins and sacred nature. It was also an important landmark, not only for indigenous peoples, but also for early European settlers, who arrived in the mid-1800s.
Surrounded by Ponderosa Pine forests, the area had already been designated a U.S. Forest Service Reserve by Congress in 1892. However, the path to establishing it a National Monument would be a long, difficult one, hinging on the creation of the Antiquities Act.
Archaeologists exploring and studying the ruins of indigenous tribes in the southwestern United States during the late 1800s had long been concerned that sites were being plundered by looters and artifacts were being destroyed or stolen. Thus, the valuable scientific and anthropological information that could be gleaned from these sites and relics was quickly being obliterated. By 1899, interest in preserving these sites had accelerated enough to provide the push for Congress to consider legislation to protect them. After seven years and numerous drafts, the American Antiquities Act of 1906 was passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and was finalized by the autograph of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Although Devils Tower is important as the first National Monument, it is just one of 18 that Roosevelt designated during his years as President. Currently, there are 103 National Monuments in 28 U. S. states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Minor Outlying Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Source: Lee, Ronald F. The Antiquities Act, 2001.