John Muir

John Muir
Conservationist John Muir

Library of Congress

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838, one of eight children of Daniel Muir and his second wife Ann Gilrye. Muir was an adventurous and active child who loved playing outdoors. His father was extremely pious and stern and would sometimes physically abuse him. During his young adulthood his father forced him to memorize the majority of the Bible, which later had a large influence on his writing. At the age of 10, the family moved to the United States where they purchased an 80-acre tract of land near Portage, Wisconsin that Muir loved exploring. He began to gain mechanical skills and made a few small inventions, even making his own alarm clock. Even though his father disapproved of his inventions, Muir continued in his pursuits and in 1860 Muir took some of them to a fair where he gained some attention and local celebrity for his ingenuity.

Muir went to the University of Wisconsin and studied science, philosophy, and literature. In particular, he discovered his love for botany and was heavily influenced by the writings of naturalist philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He spent the summer of 1863 in the wilderness hiking down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi along with two of his classmates. It was during this time that Muir realized that he loved nature more than anything else and decided that instead of going to medical school as he had originally planned, he wanted to study botany. He traveled to Canada where he collected and recorded botanical specimens. He made his way to Niagara Falls and decided to delay his return to the U.S. to avoid the Civil War draft.

He then went to work in a factory in Indianapolis where he worked his way up until 1867 when he had an accident that left him temporarily blind. The shock and horror of the accident for Muir finally pushed him to leave industry work forever. He said of the accident, "God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons." Muir determined that he would spend the rest of his life trying to absorb as much of the beauty of God's creation as he could.

Muir next made his way south towards Florida's gulf coast. He traveled by boat to Cuba with the ultimate goal of going to Brazil's Amazon rainforest. However, he became ill and decided that instead of going somewhere tropical, he should go somewhere temperate to recover, which ultimately made him decide on going to California, a decision that set much of the course of his life. He made his way to New York City which took him by boat to Panama. He took a train across the isthmus and then went by boat once more all the way to San Francisco, California. From there, Muir traveled with a companion he met on the boat to Yosemite Valley. He explored the valley and climbed the Sierra Mountains, which at this time were part of a state park. After he split ways with his travel companion, Muir visited the gigantic sequoias of the region and marveled at their incredible height. Muir got a job breaking horses at a ranch and then soon afterwards got a job as a shepherd.

In the summer of 1869, he went with his flock to the mountains. Camping on the edge of Yosemite Valley, he was enthralled like never before. In his excitement, he even climbed a very dangerous ridge by a waterfall and clung onto the rock face just so he could get closer to the water. He later recollected that he believed the experience was completely worth the risk. He spent six weeks hiking around the region and journaled extensively about what he saw, expressing joy in every page. He encountered both bears and natives, and he climbed several mountains and explored meadows. From there, Muir determined that he had to remain among the Sierra Mountains and managed to become employed at a sawmill that cut up dead trees in the valley, which was owned by James M. Hutchings who ran the hotel in Yosemite Valley, While in this position, Muir frequently interacted with the tourists and provided his expertise and opinions on the valley. Muir went against the widely-accepted opinions of Josiah Whitney, the leading geologist of that region, who said that earthquakes formed the valley. Muir, on the other hand, asserted that the valley was formed by slow-moving glaciers. For that time, Muir's theory was written off.

In 1871, Muir was able to meet his idol, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man whose philosophies Muir had obsessively read in his college days. By this time, Muir had gained some recognition for both his knowledge of and passion for the region. Because of this, Muir was able to live out his dream and to act as a guide for Emerson and to show him the mountains and Sequoias during his short visit, teaching him botany and explaining to him his glacial theory. Muir left a strong impression on Emerson, and despite the brevity of their interaction, Muir and Emerson ultimately ended up exchanging letters for the rest of the time Emerson was alive.

From this point, Muir decided to pursue his glacial theory and he wrote an essay, "Yosemite Glaciers" which was published in the New York Tribune in 1871. He wrote several more articles which successfully built up his reputation in the scientific community and made him more and more into a public figure. He began to get support for his research and studied more and more about the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada. In the meantime, he continued to explore and climb as many mountains as possible, in particular becoming the first person to climb the 13,300-foot Mount Ritter.

Muir continued publishing articles and essays in various journals, newspapers, and magazine, and around 1875 he began to focus more and more on issues of conservation. After he traveled through the Sequoia belt of the Sierra Nevada, he became impassioned to save them from loggers that were destroying the forests. Also at this time, Louie Wanda Strenzel who he had been seeing on occasion since they met in 1874, became a bigger part of his life and the two soon fell in love. It was not until 1879 that he finally proposed to her. During their engagement, Muir traveled northward and visited the Puget Sound, taking a boat from Oregon to British Colombia. Along with a few other companions, he explored Glacier Bay, expanding his research.

On April 14th, 1880, at the age of 41, John Muir finally married Louie. He bought land and became a fruit rancher so that he could hold a steady occupation to support their family. In March of 1881, Louie gave birth to a daughter they named Annie. Although Muir had planned to remain home as a much as possible, a few months later he took the rare opportunity to sail to the Arctic and spend a few months visiting Inuit villages and collecting botanical specimens. In January of 1886, the Muirs had another daughter they named Helen. By 1888 they had earned enough money from fruit ranching that they decided to sell the ranch in order so that Muir could return to his true love of exploring the wilderness, doing research, and writing.

Muir turned his conservation efforts specifically towards his desire that the U.S. government establish more national parks. In 1890, there was only one national park - Yellowstone. Muir, however, wanted the area of the Yosemite region that was currently a state park to become a national one. Because of his many impassioned articles that were being published, much of the public was persuaded and wrote letters to congress in support of Muir's beliefs, and other outside groups also lobbied congress for the establishment of a national park. There was fierce opposition to this proposal from loggers and from those who viewed the park as a "waste" of California's natural resources. Nevertheless, in September of 1890, congress passed a bill creating Sequoia National Park and in October, Yosemite National Park was also created. By now, Muir was seen as the head of the Western conservation movement and in 1892 he established the Sierra Club in order to "explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain region of the Pacific Coast" and to "publish authentic information concerning them" with the ultimate goal of conservation. He began acting as an advisor to the National Forestry Commission that President Cleveland created in 1896. He used his influence to move public opinion and to pressure friends in Washington towards conservation. He believed only government control and limitations would guarantee the protection of forests.

With the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, there was finally a conservationist in the White House. In March of 1903 Muir and Roosevelt met and went camping high above Yosemite Valley. Muir took full advantage of the opportunity, calling for Roosevelt's help to save the trees and preserve the natural beauty of the region. Roosevelt was very impressed with Muir, and the experience re-enforced his conservationist stance. Over the rest of Roosevelt's administration, he set aside 148,000,000 acres of forest reserves and the number of national parks doubled.

Immediately after his camping trip with Roosevelt, Muir went on a world tour through Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. After that, in 1905, the Sierra Club fought for Yosemite Valley to go from being under state to federal control, and in 1906 the senate approved and allowed the valley to become part of Yosemite National Park. That same year, Muir's wife died. Also in 1906, Muir was able to convince Roosevelt to establish the Petrified Forest National Monument to protect the fossilized trees of Arizona. In 1908, a donated grove of redwood trees near San Francisco became Muir Woods National Monument.

Around 1907, Muir began to battle to save Hetch Hetchy, a beautiful valley in Yosemite National Park that San Francisco had set its sights on. The city wanted to petition congress to remove the valley's protection so that it could be turned into a water reservoir. Although there were other available places for San Francisco to build a reservoir, it was viewed as the cheapest option because it was already government-owned land. Congress favored the proposal while Roosevelt worked hard to destroy it. When President Taft came into office, Muir also guided him through the area and showed him Hetch Hetchy and demonstrated to the president why he loved the valley so much. Taft was also convinced and protected the valley during his term. However, with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, both the senate and the president approved the bill to build a dam in Hetch Hetchy. The valley was completely destroyed and Muir was completely devastated by the results. Shortly afterward on Christmas Eve, 1914, John Muir died of pneumonia.

Two years later, in 1916, the National Parks Service was created to regulate the national parks. The Sierra Club also continued its work, even preventing dams from being built in the Grand Canyon in the 1960s. Today the club has over one million members. John Muir is remembered largely as a conservationist and as a bit of a naturalist philosopher, always wandering in the wilderness. While John Muir may have lost the battle to save Hetch Hetchy, he played the pre-eminent role in preserving Yosemite Valley and his scientific theory about glaciers forming the valley has been proven to be correct. Furthermore, his efforts towards conservation had major long-term effects in how our government views environmental protection and Muir ultimately helped to establish a tradition of advocating for the government to take responsibility for the preservation of important natural areas and for conserving its resources.


Perrottet, Tony. "JOHN MUIR's Yosemite." Smithsonian 39.4 (2008): 48. MasterFILE Premier.


Schaub, Michelle. "Make The Mountains Glad: John And The SIERRA

CLUB." Appleseeds 13.7 (2011): 6. MasterFILE Premier. Web.

Silverberg, Robert. John Muir: Prophet Among the Glaciers. New York: Putnam, 1972.

Last updated: November 10, 2014

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