Ken Burns Classroom

George Melendez Wright

Ken Burns Film: The National Parks

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

George Melendez Wright and Totuya
When the last survivor of the expulsion of the Ahwahneechees returned to her former homeland, Yosemite Valley, 1929, George Melendez Wright, a young Park Service employee, was asked to help translate her Spanish into English. Totuya had been with her grandfather, Chief Tenaya in 1851, when a band of white men arrived to drive Tenaya’s people onto a reservation. Source: Pam Wright Lloyd.


George Melendez Wright was born into a wealthy San Francisco family. His father was a ship’s captain and his mother was from one of El Salvador’s most prominent dynasties. He exhibited an early interest in the natural world, hiking from San Francisco to California’s northern border in his mid-teens, and earning a degree in forestry and zoology from the University of California, Berkeley. During a field trip to Alaska, he was credited with being the first scientist to locate and describe the nest and eggs of the rare surfbird.

In the late 1920s, Wright went to work as an assistant park naturalist at Yosemite National Park, where his fluency in Spanish helped with interpretation during the emotional return of Totuya, the granddaughter of Chief Tenaya and the last survivor of the expulsion of the Ahwahneechees in 1851. In 1930, he persuaded his superiors to let him and two colleagues conduct a four-year survey of wildlife and plant life conditions in the national parks, funding the ambitious program with his own funds. His first-of-a-kind survey resulted in two landmark reports that urged the Park Service to change ingrained practices such as feeding bears at dumps and killing predators, in order to allow nature to take its course in the parks.

In 1933, Horace Albright named him the first chief of the newly created Wildlife Division. Only 29 years old, Wright supervised the hiring of more biologists and investigated new sites for national parks, such as the Florida Everglades. He continued to push for park policies to preserve the animals and plants as well as the dramatic scenery. In 1936, he was part of a commission studying a potential international park along the Big Bend of the Rio Grande in Texas and Mexico. On his way home from Texas, he was killed in a car accident at the age of 31.

Mountains in Big Bend National Park and Denali National Park now bear his name. In his honor, admirers formed the George Wright Society, a nonprofit association of researchers and managers working on behalf of scientific and heritage values in protected areas.

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