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Celebrating the Centennial of the Antiquities Act of 1906 -- and what it meant for Alaska

 by
Robert E. King
BLM-Alaska State Archaeologist

President Theodore Roosavelt

President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906. To read the act, click here

In 2006, BLM celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Antiquities Act. It was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 as the first federal legislation to recognize the importance for the nation of protecting "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." More formally known as "An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities," this law is the basic legislation that enables the BLM and other federal agencies to protect and preserve archaeological and historic properties on federal lands.

The Antiquities Act was a watershed piece of legislation in the early 20th century. It came at a time when the frontier era had closed and popular concern was rising that many of the country’s resources, such as its forests, were not infinite and needed protection or they would be gone.   Some preservation efforts for archaeological sites and historic buildings had already been undertaken in the United States, but those were by private or state initiative, such as the protection of George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, initially by private efforts. But some leaders in the country felt that more was needed as the country was undergoing rapid change and development.

In some areas, such as the Southwest, tourism was increasing. Previously remote and little-seen places on federal land with monumental ruins left by past people were being increasingly impacted. Until the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, such places were open to artifact hunting with the federal government not asserting any specific claim of ownership. That led to sometimes wanton destruction of archaeological sites, the news of which helped fuel a growing movement in the nation. It was recognition of the need to have the federal government step in and help save such one-of-a-kind places before they disappeared.  

With the passage of the Antiquities Act, a new federal philosophy was enacted. The federal government thereafter laid claim to such resources on federal land and began a program for their management and use that continues to evolve today. After the 1906 law was enacted, it became illegal to remove objects of antiquity off federal lands without federal permission, which came through a permit system.

After 1906, Congress passed more laws for historic preservation, including the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, during the 60th anniversary year of the earlier law. That law, passed in another era of reform and preservation in the United States, strengthened the ways in which the federal government could achieve the earlier vision and broad purposes set out in the earlier Antiquities Act now over 100 years old.  

As to specifics of the Antiquities Act, this important law for the first time allowed the federal government to issue permits for scholarly use of cultural properties, and to impose criminal penalties for unauthorized use. The Antiquities Act also empowered the President to designate outstanding federal lands as National Monuments for long-term preservation of their natural or cultural resources and scientific values.

Specifically, it allowed the President "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."

photo: Sitka National MonumentIn Alaska, the first use of the Antiquities Act to protect a specific historical or prehistoric site was by President William Howard Taft in 1910 when he proclaimed Alaska's first National Historic Monument.   It was at Sitka, Alaska and is now called  the Sitka National Historic Park.

President Taft was impressed that the site commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka, the last major conflict between Europeans and Alaska Natives.   Following Taft, later presidents embraced this same power of proclaiming National Monuments, with President Carter’s use of the 1906 Act to withdraw millions of acres of federal land causing much local controversy in Alaska at the time.

Totem poles in SitkaWhile BLM has no National Monuments in Alaska under its jurisdiction, we do manage many other significant areas of archaeological or historic importance that are authorized under later preservation laws that were passed in the wake of the 1906 Act.   That includes many deriving from the comprehensive National Historic Preservation Act, of 1966, one of the “children” of the 1906 Act.

In all, with the passage in 1906 of the Antiquities Act,   the cornerstone was laid for what has become today's comprehensive federal program that serves to protect and preserve many of our nation's outstanding and irreplaceable prehistoric and historic treasures for present and future generations.