The Antiquities Act: Preserving History by Presidential Proclamation

Devils Tower National Monument. Photo credit: NPS/Avery Locklear

The American Antiquities Act of 1906 was legislation that made it possible for the president of United States to designate sites on federal land as national monuments by presidential proclamation. This was enacted after years of private collectors taking artifacts from prehistoric sites in the southwestern U.S. that dated back to approximately the 11th century and earlier where Native Americans known as Ancestral Puebloans had lived. By the end of the 19th century, the private removal of artifacts from federal lands had become a significant problem.

A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, John F. Lacey of Iowa, and anthropologist Edgar Lee Hewett, visited the Southwest in 1902 to see what artifact collection had done to the area. At that time, Congressman Lacey was chair of the House Committee on Public Lands and had already written two pieces of legislation that protected wildlife and plants. The first one was the Lacey Act of 1894 which specifically dealt with protecting the birds and animals in Yellowstone National Park; the second was the Lacey Act of 1900 which made it a crime to trade wildlife, plants, and birds that had been obtained illegally.

Hewett’s subject of expertise was the Native Americans of the Southwest, particularly the prehistoric civilizations of New Mexico. He served as Lacey’s guide on the 1902 trip and, at the congressman’s request, gave an extensive report to Congress about the archaeological importance and resources of the area.

The two men continued to push for the preservation law from both the archaeological side and the congressional side. The result was the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906. This gave the president the authority to name portions of federal lands as national monuments without having to go through Congress. The land had to be significant in either historical or scientific purposes, such as containing ancient ruins or distinctive geology.

Roosevelt didn’t waste any time putting the legislation to use. The first location he proclaimed as a national monument was not one of the prehistoric sites Lacey and Hewett had worked with, but a uniquely-shaped rock called Devils Tower in the Wyoming Black Hills. Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908.

Every president since 1906 can use the Antiquities Act to preserve and protect federal lands. The legislation is seen as controversial by some, but welcomed by others. President Barack Obama used it the most, designating 23 national monuments that represent the varied history of this nation.

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For more information:

American Antiquities Act of 1906

Devils Tower National Monument