An Address by J. Sterling Morton on Arbor Day 1885

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An Address by J. Sterling Morton on Arbor Day 1885


By: J. Sterling Morton

Date: April 22, 1885

Source: Morton, J. Sterling. "An Address by J. Sterling Morton on Arbor Day 1885." Nebraska City, NE: 1885.

About the Author: Public official, newspaper editor, and naturalist Julius Sterling Morton (1832–1902), commonly called J. Sterling Morton, is known as the Father of Arbor Day after founding the first tree-planting holiday in Nebraska. Born in Adams, New York, Morton eventually settled in the Nebraska Territory, where he founded and edited the Nebraska City News. During his career, Morton served in the Nebraska Territorial legislature from 1855 to 1856 and from 1857 to 1858. He was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1893 to 1897 under President Grover Cleveland. Morton also served as president of the Nebraska State Agricultural Board and a charter member, in 1869, of the Nebraska State Horticultural Society.


In 1854, Morton and his wife, Caroline, arrived from Detroit, Michigan, to the wide-open prairie of the Nebraska Territory. After enjoying nature for so many years, especially its trees, shrubs, and flowers, and finding themselves living on an almost treeless plain, the couple quickly planted a variety of trees and plants at their new home in Nebraska City, which they called Arbor Lodge.

As a journalist, Morton soon became the editor of Nebraska's first newspaper, the Nebraska City News. Due to his interest in agriculture, Morton regularly authored nature and environmental articles and editorials. He especially saw the need for planting trees and shrubs on the windy Nebraska plains to be used as materials to break the wind, prevent soil loss, consume as fuels, use as building materials, absorb moisture in the normally dry soil, and shade people and animals from the hot sun. In his community position as newspaper editor, Morton also encouraged various organizations and groups to join him in promoting the planting of trees. As people saw his dedication to his job and his strong environmental principles, he was offered the position of Secretary of the Nebraska Territory. This prominent political position allowed him to further his environmental opinion on the importance of planting trees in Nebraska.

On January 4, 1872, while at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture, Morton proposed a tree-planting day to be called "Arbor Day." (About five years earlier, on March 1, 1867, the territory of Nebraska had become the thirty-seventh state of the United States.) The state government approved his idea and the first holiday was set for April 10, 1872. Publicity for the event was circulated throughout the state, with prizes offered to the counties and individuals that planted the most trees on that day. In fact, it is estimated that in one day, the people of Nebraska planted over one million trees.

Two years later, on March 12, 1874, the citizens of Nebraska again observed Arbor Day on April 19, 1874. Then, in 1885, Arbor Day was named a legal holiday by the Nebraska state legislature. That same year, the date April 22, which was Morton's birthday, was selected as the day for its permanent observance. It is recorded that the first sixteen years of the Arbor Day observance in Nebraska resulted in approximately thirty-five million trees being planted throughout the state. Largely because of Morton's urgings to plant trees in Nebraska, the state was known as the Tree Planters State from the years 1895 to 1945.




Animal nature is engaged in a constant effort to tear down and destroy vegetable life, for it is upon the vegetable that the animal, in all its forms, founds and has its being. Take mankind. It is a fact that every physical individualism was not long since animate in growing fields of grain, in gardens of succulent and nutritious roots, and in orchards of brilliant and delicious fruits. So dependent is man life on plant life, that the intermission of a single year of plant growth would turn from life into death every animal organism on the globe. And, on the other hand, the wealth, beauty and luxuriance of harvest fields, orchard fruits, and forest glades are rehabilitated animal life that has gone to decay, baptized into new form and glorified by the light of the sun—the sun light and sun power which plants, leaves, flowers, trees catch and invisibly imprison in the cells of their growth until these are freed and liberated for new uses. The oil which lightens the darkness of the night and the coal which warms our winters derive their qualities from the light which some sort of plant sometime in the misty past during its period of animate growth took captive by absorption from the sun, and, in this marvelous unity of nature, before these plants were either parts of the sea weed fields, or of earth borne trees they were particles of some kind of animal existence. If the doom of decay and death had not been written for animals then life would not have been decreed for flowers and foliage, forests and orchards. The generations of flesh pass away; and plants and trees, by root and leaf, take the substance of the dead forms into their being rebuilding again the vegetable kingdom whence they were ravaged for the sustenance of animals. In this earthly round of being ages come and go, as shadows and sorrows come and go over each individual human life.

The animal kingdom of today was the vegetable kingdom of an age that has been; and the physical man—all the animals—will be the plants, flowers, fruits and forests of the years yet to be. So proceed the cycles of trans-mutation—inevitable as death, and wonderful and the mystery involved in eternity: change unceasing, but loss never, for frugal nature permits no waste, and, though her forms disintegrate and disappear, substance, mental and material, lives forever, defying decay with the smile of conscious and ineffable immortality.


Each generation of humanity takes the earth as trustees to hold until the court of Death dissolves the relation, and turns the property over to successors in trust. To each generation the trust involves the duty of, at least, permitting no deterioration in the great estate of the family of man during the continuance of the temporary trust. Comprehending thus the dependence of animal life upon contemporaneous plant life, it must be conceded that we ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed. One statistician, from date that seems reliable, declares that the fifty-five millions of Americans consume daily for their varied uses 25,000 acres of forest. Basing the calculation on this estimate, on Nebraska's "Arbor Day" in 1886—one year hence—their will be 8,750,000 acres less of forest lands than there are to day—a statement which may well startle into beneficent activity a class of men who otherwise would declare "Arbor Day" a sentimental and useless holiday, and deride its statutory legislation. Hitherto the prominent fact in this land, in connection with wood, has been denudation, and no planting to repair the waste—a denudation portending evil to our people by floods and droughts, infertility and barrenness of soil, and even the extinction of entire communities. Mr. Geo. W. Hotchkiss, secretary of the Chicago Lumberman's Exchange, declares that, during the six years ending January 1st 1885, the receipt of lumber at Chicago alone amounted to 10,728,941,322 feet, and of shingles 5,235,509. The lumber would cover with a floor one inch thick, 246,301 acres of land, or more than all the plowed fields in the fertile and thrifty county of Otoe, and at 1 1/2 cents per foot, would be worth $160,934,120, while the shingles at $2 per thousand, have a value of $10,471,531, and, allowing 10 shingles to a square foot, they would enroof more than 12,000 acres of land. Such figures as these suggest the importance of humane converted action, as a matter of human necessity, for the conservation of woodlands and forests. They teach the imperative necessity of tree planting.


The argument here suggested is enough to enforce the necessity of tree planting; but, greater than the dollar value as affecting man in his higher being, is the beautiful in nature. To preserve beauty on the earth, beauty herself beseeches us to plant trees, and renew dead landscapes with the shadow and light of plant life flitting through the pendant limbs, the willowy boughs and the waving foliage of sturdy, yet graceful woods. Our ancestors planted orchards to fruit for us, and homes to give us shelter; and, though it is a commendatory ambition, it is also no more than a desire to pay a just debt, when a man is inspired with the ambition thus also to endeavor to make the world lovely because he has been a dweller on it, during the brief space we call life, and which lies between the cradle and the grave.

In some European countries a tree is planted when a child is born; in others a few acres are devoted to trees—the heritage of the infant when it becomes of age. So the beautiful and the useful are combined; and so, on the lines thus indicated, the tree planter of today "arbor-phones" his good wishes, his name, character and tastes to generations centuries beyond his time.


Years ago General Harrison, afterwards president of the United States, planted catalpa trees on his farm at North Bend, Ohio. After the lapse of years that farm came into the hands of Dr. John A. Warder, the distinguished botanist, and ardent advocate of arboriculture. Dr. Warder sent seeds from these trees to Governor Furnas, of Nebraska, which were planted in the rich alluvial of his Evergreen home in Nemaha county. The seed became trees; and, on his fiftieth birthday—three years ago today—the speaker set out fifty of the Harrison catalpas at Arbor Lodge, which trees will convey to his posterity a story of home culture—a perpetual and perfect poem singing to them of hearts and heads that hold the highest human happiness to find its expression in the embellishment and conservation of permanent and delightful homes, and uniting the names of those who have labored for tree culture, not only in Nebraska, but in the fertile state of Ohio.


We are yet in the early days of forestry in Nebraska and the youngest here is not too late to join the "argonauts" in the pursuit of those golden fleeces of autumn-dyed foliage that shall clothe the grand forests with which Nebraska is yet to be crowned. In no system of religion can a ceremonial be found that so incarnates faith as the act of tree planting. We place the roots of the infant tree in their bed of mould with serene and confident certainty that the sun and earth will nourish, warm and quicken the sapling into the forest giant. Our's is an act of devotion to nature and the Supreme law; it is faith expressed in a deed; and it is a deed which conveys health, happiness and consolation to generations not our own. A monk of the seventeenth century described the place we hope for beyond the grave as substantial and no shadow—a world beautiful in grass, flowers, fruits, forests, rivers, lakes and oceans, and hills and valleys, sensible to sight and to touch; and, in picturing the heaven we long for, man's brain has always drawn largely for its imagery from man's vegetable co-tenants of the globe. This being man's concept of human happiness, let us endeavor then by our words on "Arbor Day"—and all other opportune occasions—to so embellish the world with plant life, trees, flowers and foliage, as to make our earth homes approximate to those which the prophets, poets and seers of all ages have portrayed as the Home in Heaven.


After Morton founded Arbor Day in Nebraska, his environmental message quickly spread around the world. Today, Arbor Day, which is commonly celebrated on the last Friday in April, is held throughout all fifty states of the United States. Throughout the world, tree planting holidays and festivities trace their roots back to Morton's Arbor Day creation in the late nineteenth century in Nebraska. Although often called by various names, the purpose of these celebrations is to acknowledge the importance of trees to all living things on Earth. A few synonymous names for Arbor Day celebrated around the world include: Arbor Week in Australia and Canada, Greening Week in Japan, New Year's Day of the Trees in Israel, Tree-Loving Week in Korea, National Festival of Tree Planting in India, Student's Afforestation Day in Iceland, and Tree Holiday and Tree Festival in various countries of the world.

The establishment of Arbor Day has had a significant impact on the landscape and environment of Nebraska and countless other areas throughout the world. Whenever tree-planting celebrations are held at various towns and cities on Earth, they all promote the importance of trees, the Earth's oldest living organisms and a critical indicator for the health of the world's environment. Within the United States, for example, it is estimated that each U.S. citizen uses over 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) of wood each year—the equivalent of a tree with a length of 100 feet (30.5 meters) and a diameter of 18 inches (45.7 centimeters). During that same year period, about 1.5 billion trees are planted by people throughout the United States, replacing those that they used.

Trees are tremendously significant to people and their environments worldwide due to the fact that they:

  • Provide a renewable source of fuel, shelter, and food
  • Reduce heating and cooling costs by providing shade to help moderate the interior temperatures of buildings
  • Provide protection from winds through clustering
  • Expel oxygen into the atmosphere through photosynthesis to allow humans and animals to breathe
  • Absorb airborne pollutants such as carbon dioxide to improve air quality, which otherwise would harm human health
  • Provide over 5,000 known products (or ingredients in products) such as asphalt, adhesives, chewing gum, cork, crayons, dyes, mouthwashes, paper, pencils, perfumes, shatterproof glass, soaps and shampoos, sunscreen lotions, tires, and toothpaste
  • Provide homes, food, protection, and nests for wildlife
  • Reduce levels of noises by providing natural barriers
  • Return nutrients back into the soil from rotting woods and leaves
  • Provide beautiful places to live, play, and work.

Trees directly benefit the economic, environmental and social health of people around the world. Due to the efforts of Morton in establishing a special day of tree-planting in Nebraska and ultimately throughout the country and the world, the overall integrity of the environment and the world's natural resources have improved. The future of the world's forests and tree-shaded streets, parks, homes, and businesses depends on each person's respect for the importance that trees give to mankind. Morton and his Arbor Day idea remind people each year about that importance for a healthy and prosperous future.



Olson, James C. J. Sterling Morton: Pioneer Statesman, Founder of Arbor Day. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1942.

Pakenham, Thomas. Remarkable Trees of the World. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002.

Web sites

"The Home Page of the National Arbor Day Foundation." National Arbor Day Foundation. 〈〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

"Nebraska City: Arbor Day's Hometown." Southwest Nebraska News, April 14, 2005. 〈〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

Schmitt, Beverly. "Arbor Day." Love to Learn 〈〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).