BORN: April 21, 1838 • Dunbar, Scotland
DIED: December 24, 1914 • Los Angeles, California
Conservationist; environmentalist; writer
John Muir was a conservationist at a time when the idea of conserving natural resources was still in its infancy. Muir traveled the globe, exploring nature and recording his observations. His writings heightened his readers' awareness of the world around them. In an effort to organize like-minded people with a concern for the environment, Muir and his supporters founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Muir is mostly remembered for his involvement in the protection of the Yosemite and Sierra Nevada wilderness areas in California. He is considered one of the most influential conservationists in American history.
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."
Of Scottish descent
John Muir was the third of seven children born to Daniel and Ann Muir. He was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland. The family moved to Wisconsin in 1849, when Muir was just eleven. His formal schooling ended when he immigrated to America, where he spent most of his time working long hours in the fields of the family farm. When his strict father allowed him time off, Muir and his younger brother liked to explore the woods and hills. Although vastly different from the seacoast of Muir's hometown and the craggy moors (rocky, infertile land) and mountains of the rest of Scotland, America's Midwest helped Muir develop his love for the outdoors.
Muir also enjoyed inventing things. One of his inventions was a device that tipped him out of bed before sunrise each morning. In 1860, Muir attended the state fair in Madison, where he won prizes for his inventions. That same year, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Although his grades were admirable, Muir's interests lay elsewhere, and he left college after three years to travel through the northern United States and into Canada. He supported himself with odd jobs along the way.
Temporarily loses his sight
Muir was working at a carriage parts shop in 1867 when an accident left him temporarily blind. When he regained his sight a month later, Muir vowed to see as much of the wondrous outdoors as he could and thus began a 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) trek across the world. His travels took him from Indianapolis, Indiana, to the Gulf of Mexico. He visited Cuba and eventually, Panama. There, he sailed up the west coast of America and landed in San Francisco, California, in 1868. From that point forward, Muir would consider the state his home.
That same year, Muir's travels took him to California's Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile (650-kilometer) mountain range. After wandering through the San Joaquin Valley, Muir trekked into the high country for the first time. That region would inspire and comfort him for the rest of his life. Muir spent his first summer as a shepherd in what would become Yosemite National Park in 1890. He also ran a sawmill at the base of Yosemite Falls. These jobs gave him the chance to study the nature surrounding him. He became so familiar with the region that he served as a guide for visitors to the area.
In 1871, Muir began studying glacier activity in the Sierra Nevada. He devised a theory that Yosemite Valley had developed from the movement and melting of glaciers, large rivers of ice that slowly "flow" because of their great weight. His theory was in sharp contrast to the idea that was readily accepted at the time, which stated that the valley was formed as a result of an earthquake. As time went by and geologists learned more about glaciers, Muir's theory gained wider acceptance. An earthquake in the valley in 1872 caused many people to fear the valley would deepen even more. When that failed to happen, Muir's theory made even more sense to more people. Muir's discovery of an active glacier within the mountain range further supported his theory.
In 1871, famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) visited Yosemite, and Muir acted as his guide. Emerson tried to convince the budding conservationist to leave Yosemite so that he might teach the world the lessons he had learned throughout his travels. Muir could not leave his beloved mountains, however. Another three years would pass before he left the valley.
On December 5, 1871, Muir published his first essay, for which he was paid the then-handsome sum of $200. "Yosemite Glaciers" appeared in the New York Tribune. He would spend the next few years writing and publishing essays about his observations in Yosemite. A series of articles titled "Studies in the Sierras" were published in 1874, marking the beginning of a productive writing career. Muir would produce about three hundred magazine articles and ten major books. The articles reflected Muir's lively writing style in which he melded descriptive passages of beauty with basic scientific discussion. His writings appealed to tourists and scientists alike.
Muir began leaving Yosemite shortly after his series was published. At first, he would leave for just a few months at a time, visiting friends in San Francisco and Oakland. During a visit to Oakland in 1874, Muir met Louise (Louie) Wanda Strentzel, a mutual friend of the family with whom he was staying. The two were married on April 14, 1880. They would eventually have two daughters. The day after the wedding, Muir left on an expedition to Alaska for further glacier exploration. It was his second trip, his first one having been in 1879 and resulting in his discovery of Glacier Bay.
The Muirs moved to the small town of Martinez, California (near San Francisco), the year they were married. Here, Muir partnered with his father-in-law and managed a successful family fruit ranch. During his ten years on the ranch, he continued to travel when time permitted. He went to Alaska several more times as well as to Europe, Africa, Australia, South America, and Asia. His wife accompanied him on a trip to Yosemite in 1884; it was her first and last adventure with her husband. Louie preferred to stay in the familiar confines of her home while her husband traveled. She managed the ranch capably when he did.
Ranch life made Muir a wealthy man but kept him so busy he found little time to write. Domestic life seemed to drain him of his energy. He became depressed whenever he visited the Sierra Nevada. Cattle and sheep were decimating the meadows and forests of the range. Muir knew if he did not take action soon, the region he loved so dearly would be ruined forever. Louie supported her husband, and encouraged him to do what he felt he must, even though it meant leaving the ranch and family. The two kept in touch through letters, and Louie sent Muir money to pay for any traveling expenses.
Creates Yosemite National Park
and Sierra Club
In 1890, the family moved to a 14-room Victorian mansion. To lessen her husband's responsibilities, Louie sold some of the fruit ranch. The mansion and the portion of the ranch acreage the Muirs kept is the focal point of the John Muir National Historic Site, a branch of the National Park Service.
Muir drew America's attention through a series of articles he published in Century magazine. He wrote about the destruction of the Yosemite area. The magazine's associate editor, Robert Underwood Johnson (1853–1937), worked hard to bring the issue to the attention of Congress. In 1890, Congress created Yosemite National Park. This designation gave federal protection to Yosemite. It was the first of several such endeavors for Muir, who was involved in the formation of the Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon national parks. According to his biography on SierraClub.org, Muir is considered the "Father of Our National Park System."
Muir and Johnson joined forces again in 1892 and established the Sierra Club, America's first grassroots environmental organization. Muir served as the group's president until his death. The club's original mission was to make the Sierra Nevada accessible to the public so that everyone could appreciate its natural wonders. By the twenty-first century, the club had developed into a general conservation organization working to protect the wild places of the planet, promote responsible use of natural resources, and educate the public on how to protect and restore the earth's resources.
Growth was slow at first, as people began to learn of the Club's existence. In 1901, the group began hosting annual, month-long "High Trips," in which guides took interested individuals and groups on hikes into the Sierra Nevada. By 1938, the High Trip expeditions had become so large that the Club had to devise plans for those hikers who desired more intimate, small-scale experiences. As of 2006, the organization boasted 750,000 members.
The battle for Hetch-Hetchy
Muir published his first book in 1894, but it was not until the 1901 publication of his book Our National Parks that President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9; see entry) took notice of the conservationist. Roosevelt, himself an enthusiastic outdoorsman, visited Muir in Yosemite in 1903. Muir guided the president through the Sierra Nevada, and together the two men shared ideas about what the president could do to protect the nation's natural resources. Roosevelt eventually created 5 national parks, 150 national forests, 18 national monuments, and the National Forest Service.
By the end of the 1890s, the city of San Francisco had been trying to find a source of municipal water. Although the city looked into several sources, the one it preferred was Hetch-Hetchy, a valley located in Yosemite National Park. The City wanted to dam the Tuolumne (pronounced too-AH-luh-mee) River at the mouth of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley to increase the water supply. The water supply in Hetch-Hetchy was not more abundant or of better quality than anywhere else; the city was interested in it because the valley was situated on public land, which made using it more convenient and affordable.
The Sierra Club immediately began to fight to keep Hetch-Hetchy untouched. The club and other like-minded citizens argued that tapping into the watershed would destroy the integrity of the national park. Soon, the battle for Hetch-Hetchy made front page headlines in newspapers across the country. Muir was an outspoken opponent of the plan. According to the Ecology Hall of Fame, Muir wrote, "These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar."
The battle was long and intense, but in the end, Muir and his fellow conservationists lost. In 1913, Congress approved a bill that allowed water supplies within national parks to be used for public purposes. The government never made good on its promise that the reservoir would be used as a recreational center where the public could use the lake for boating and swimming. In reality, the reservoir was closed to public use. As soon as the dam was built, the City of San Francisco decided to raise its height to increase the water supply. More land was used than had been initially planned.
The controversy over the Hetch-Hetchy issue continued into the twenty-first century. The state of California concluded that restoring the Hetch-Hetchy and compensating the city for water loss would cost more than $800 million.
Death comes to a gentle warrior
Losing the battle for Hetch-Hetchy was one of Muir's biggest regrets. He spent his final years traveling the globe and writing articles and books. Muir was still living in the house the family had moved into in 1890 (Louie had died in 1905). After a short bout of pneumonia, Muir died in a hospital in Los Angeles in 1914. Muir had been writing a book about Alaska when he died (it was published in 1915), and in his possession were approximately ten book manuscripts. His writing continued to be published into the 1920s.
In 1915, the Sierra Club convinced the California government to spend $10,000 for the construction of the John Muir Trail. The 211-mile (339.5-kilometer) trail was completed in 1938 and runs through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia national parks.
The U.S. Postal Service has issued two John Muir stamps: one in 1964 and another in 1998. He was inducted into the Conservation Hall of Fame in 1965 and was featured on the new California state quarter, released in January 2005. A minor planet was discovered and named after Muir in 2006.
John Muir Day is celebrated every year in America on April 21. The conservationist was voted the Greatest Californian of All Time in 1976, according to a poll conducted by the California Historical Society.
Muir is remembered for his passion for nature and its beauty. His moving descriptions inspired Americans to acknowledge the importance of protecting and conserving their natural resources.
For More Information
Ehrlich, Gretel. John Muir: Nature's Visionary. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2000.
Muir, John. Meditations of John Muir: Nature's Temple. Edited by Chris Highland. Berkeley, CA: Wilderness Press, 2001.
Muir, John. Our National Parks. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901. Reprint, Washington, DC: Ross and Perry, 2001.
Muir, John, and Lee Stetson. The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir's Greatest Adventures. Yosemite National Park, CA: Yosemite Association, 1994.
Meyer, John M. "Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and the Boundaries of Politics in American Thought." Polity (December 21, 1997).
Howie, Craig. "John Muir." Scotsman.com.http://heritage.scotsman.com/profiles.cfm?cid=1&id=1825412005 (accessed on September 4, 2006).
"John Muir Exhibit." Sierra Club.http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/ (accessed on September 4, 2006).
"John Muir National Historic Site." National Park Service.http://www.nps.gov/jomu/ (accessed on September 4, 2006).
John Muir Trust.http://www.jmt.org/ (accessed on September 4, 2006).
Rose, Gene. "The Ghosts of Hetch-Hetchy." Sierra Club: John Muir Exhibit.http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/frameindex.html?http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/ (accessed on September 4, 2006).
Weiss, Don. "John Muir." Ecology Hall of Fame.http://www.ecotopia.org/ehof/muir/bio.html (accessed on September 4, 2006).
Muir, John (1838-1914)
Muir, John (1838-1914)
Scottish-born American naturalist
John Muir—naturalist, conservationist, mountaineer, and chronicler of the American frontier—was born in Dunbar, Scotland on April 21, 1838. During his lifetime, Muir published more than 300 articles and 10 books recounting his travels, scientific observations, and opinions on nature conservation. His wanderlust led him on expeditions around the globe, but California's Sierra Nevadas were his home. In addition to his descriptive and inspirational nature writing, Muir advanced a number of scientific theories, including the now-accepted hypothesis that glaciers carved Yosemite Valley. His love of the Sierras, and his concern for their preservation, led him to become one of America's first environmental activists. Muir co-founded the Sierra Club in 1871, and he served as the club's first president until his death in 1914.
John Muir immigrated to Fountain Lake, Wisconsin in 1849 with his family at age 11. The Muir family's hard-working frontier life left John no time to continue the formal schooling he had begun in Scotland. He did, however, maintain his passion for reading and natural science, and excursions into the woods provided a welcome diversion from his father's strict discipline and grueling work schedule. John put his self-taught knowledge to use at the Muir homestead by inventing an assortment of machines, including a table saw and a machine that dumped him out of bed for morning chores.
In 1860, John Muir left home at age 22 to exhibit his inventions at the Wisconsin state fair in Madison. There he received his first public recognition in the form of a Wisconsin State Journal article describing his prize-winning whittled clocks. He also met one of the exhibit judges, Mrs. Jeanne Carr, and her husband, Dr. Ezra Carr, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who would become his lifelong friends and mentors. Muir attended classes at the University of Wisconsin from 1861 until 1863 when a lack of funds and the Civil War draft led him to return home.
No letter came from the draft board, and Muir set out on a summer plant-collecting trip that became a four-year walking expedition into Canada. He financed his botanical studies with a series of factory jobs and contributing his inventions to improve production along the way. In spring of 1867, Muir suffered a blinding eye injury at a carriage factory in Indianapolis. When his sight returned after a month of painful recovery, he decided to devote his newly regained vision to observations of nature. After a visit home, Muir walked 1,000 mi (1,609 km) to the Gulf of Mexico , and boarded a ship to Cuba, New York, and finally Panama. He traveled across the Isthmus, and sailed on to California. John Muir was 30 when he arrived in San Francisco in March of 1868.
From San Francisco, Muir walked east across the San Joaquin Valley. He described his first impression of the Sierras in his book, My First Summer in the Sierra : "…from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called…the Range of Light." Muir spent the summer of 1869 herding sheep, or "hooved locusts" as he would later call them, at Tuolumne Meadows.
From 1869 until 1880, John Muir systematically explored the mountains of California from his cabin in Yosemite Valley. He traveled, unarmed, through the mountains carrying a tin cup, food, and a notebook. He observed active mountain glaciers, and hypothesized that the slow grinding of ice had carved Yosemite's soaring granite cliffs. His glacial theory, published in 1871 by the New York Tribune, gained him the respect of University of California geologist, Joseph LeConte, among others. His friends, the Carrs, moved to Oakland in 1869, and encouraged Muir to pursue his writing during this period. They also sent their influential academic friends to visit him in Yosemite, including Harvard botanist, Asa Gray, and, in May 1871, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
John Muir married Luisa Wanda Strentzel in 1880, and moved to Martinez, California to run the Strentzel's profitable fruit ranch, and help "Louie" raise their two daughters. Even during that 10-year period of relative domesticity, Muir continued to write and travel extensively, exploring Yellowstone, Europe, Africa, Australia , China, Japan, South America , and, of course, the Sierras. During the 1890s, he conducted a well-timed study of Alaska that coincided with the Klondike gold rush. His most popular book, Stickeen, is an account of a summer spent exploring Alaska's glaciers with a little black dog.
By the turn of the century, Muir had become a leading literary figure. His almost-spiritual descriptions of nature inspired influential and common people alike. Muir's articles in the Century Magazine gained him the attention and friendship of its like-minded editor, Robert Underwood Johnson. Their combined efforts led to an act of Congress that created Yosemite National Park in 1890. Muir and Johnson were subsequently involved in further conservation acts that resulted in the protection of Sequoia, Mount Rainier and Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite in 1901. Camping together in the shadow of El Capitan, they laid plans for the wilderness conservation programs that became Roosevelt's legacy.
In his last years, Muir turned his considerable energy to the preservation of wild lands. Muir, Johnson, and others formed the Sierra Club in 1892 to, as Muir wrote, "do something for wildness, and make the mountains glad." The fight to prevent erection of a dam in Hetch Hetchy valley was one of the Sierra Club's most dramatic early battles. Hetch Hetchy reservoir was filled in 1913, and Muir died, disappointed, on December 24, 1914 at the age of 76. His enduring legacy, however, were his books and essays that continue to inspire new generations of nature lovers and environmental activists. John Muir was America's first environmentalist, and was perhaps America's most influential naturalist.
See also Environmental pollution; Glacial landforms; History of exploration II (Age of exploration)
The writings of John Muir, American naturalist (a scientist of natural history) and explorer, are important for their scientific observations and their contributions to the cause of conservation (the preservation and protection of natural resources).
John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838. He was the third of Daniel and Anne Gilrye Muir's eight children. Muir recalled in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913) that his father was religious and extremely strict, keeping his children in line with frequent whippings. In 1849 the Muirs moved to the United States and bought farmland near Portage, Wisconsin. Muir's father worked him hard on the farm and would not allow him to waste daylight hours on reading. Muir asked for and received permission to rise early in order to study. He invented an "early-rising machine" that dumped him out of bed at one o'clock each morning so that he could read. In 1860 he displayed this and other inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair.
Student of nature
In 1861 Muir entered the University of Wisconsin to study science. He also tried studying medicine but soon gave it up for various jobs that challenged his skill at inventing things. His interest in nature, particularly plants, was growing; he made frequent trips throughout Wisconsin and nearby states to observe plant life. In 1867 he gave up his own inventions "to study the inventions of God." He set out on the walk described in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916). Actually, he went as far as Cuba. In 1868 he traveled to San Francisco, California, and worked on a sheep ranch. Exploring Yosemite Valley occupied much of his next six years. On all of his explorations he kept a journal of scientific and personal observations and also pencil drawings.
In 1880, after returning from exploring in Alaska, Muir married Louie Wanda Strentzel, the daughter of a Polish plant grower. They would have two children. In 1881, after another trip to Alaska, Muir settled on a fruit ranch near Martinez, California. He worked for ten years to make enough money to enable him to stop. Having provided permanently for his wife, two daughters, and himself, he turned his full attention to the study of nature. Glaciers and freezing particularly interested him, and his work contributed to an explanation of the process by which glaciers are formed. He also went on expeditions to Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Pioneer in conservation movement
In 1889 Muir argued in Century magazine that Yosemite Valley should become a national park. The passage of a law in 1890 making that happen owed much to Muir's influence. The Mountains of California (1893), Our National Parks (1901), and his many articles in popular magazines greatly advanced the conservation movement, as did his creation in 1892 of the Sierra Club, an organization dedicated to preserving wild lands such as Yosemite. Muir served as the president of the club until his death.
Muir's wife died in 1905. From then until his death Muir published four books, including Stickeen (1909), which was a popular dog story, and My First Summer in the Sierra (1911). He died in Los Angeles, California, on December 24, 1914. John of the Mountain, drawn from Muir's journal of his 1899 Alaskan expedition, was published in 1938.
For More Information
Ehrlich, Gretel. John Muir: Nature's Visionary. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2000.
Muir, John. John of the Mountains; the Unpublished Journals of John Muir. Edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1938. Reprint, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Smith, Herbert F. John Muir. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965.
Teale, Edwin Way. The Wilderness World of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Wolfe, Linnie M. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945. Reprint, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
The writings of John Muir (1838-1914), American naturalist and explorer, are important for their scientific observations and their contributions to the cause of conservation.
John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838. If his recollections in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913) can be credited, his father was harsh and tyrannical, enforcing piety and industry by frequent whippings. In 1849 the Muirs moved to America, establishing a homestead near Portage, Wis. When Muir's father forbade him to waste daylight hours on reading, he asked and received permission to rise early in order to study. He invented "an early-rising machine" that dumped him out of bed at one o'clock each morning. In 1860 he displayed this and other inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair.
In 1861 Muir entered the University of Wisconsin to study science. Subsequently he tried studying medicine but soon gave it up for various jobs that challenged his inventive skills. In 1867 he made the career decision he never regretted: to give up his own inventions "to study the inventions of God." He set out on the tour described in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916). Actually he went as far as Cuba. In 1868 he traveled to San Francisco and worked on a sheep ranch. Exploring Yosemite Valley occupied much of the next 6 years. On all explorations he kept a journal of scientific and personal observations and also pencil sketches.
In 1880, returning from exploring in Alaska, Muir married Louie Wanda Strentzel. In 1881, after another trip to Alaska, he settled on a fruit ranch near Martinez, Calif. He worked 10 years to make the ranch pay enough to enable him to give it up. Having thus provided permanently for his wife, two daughters, and himself, he turned his full attention to the study of nature. Glaciation particularly interested him, and his work contributed to its explanation.
In 1889 Muir argued in Century Magazine that Yosemite Valley should become a national park. The passage of legislation for that in 1890 owed much to his influence. The Mountains of California (1893), Our National Parks (1901), and his many articles in popular magazines greatly advanced the conservation movement.
Muir's wife died in 1905. During the 10 years Muir survived her, he published four books, including Stickeen (1909), which was a much-admired dog story, and My First Summer in the Sierra (1911). He died in Los Angeles on Dec. 24, 1914. John of the Mountain, drawn from Muir's journal of his 1899 Alaskan expedition, appeared in 1938.
Linnie M. Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir (1945), is an admiring biography. Edwin Way Teale, The Wilderness World of John Muir (1954), provides an introduction to Muir and a selection of his writings. The development of Muir's ideas and character is surveyed in Herbert F. Smith, John Muir (1965). Muir is discussed at length in Norman Foerster, Nature in American Literature (1923). □