John Muir’s place in American history endures constant assault. Not only did businessmen and politicians of his own day find Muir’s policies anathema to their hopes of profiting from the destruction of the American wild, so today do we hear that profits cannot be had without the rape of the environment.
Muir knew better, and so should you!
On July 19, 1869 — in the middle of the administration of U. S. Grant, Muir began his journals on the beauty of life in the Sierras, to be published 42 years later as My First Summer in the Sierra.
It should be required reading in more American classrooms:
Watching the daybreak and sunrise. The pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white, sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn; the silver firs in the middle ground catching the glow on their spiry tops, and our camp grove fills and thrills with the glorious light. Everything awakening alert and joyful…John Muir,
Entry for “July 19“ from
My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911.
“California As I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900
On July 19, 1869, naturalist John Muir set pen to paper to capture his experience of awakening in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Published in 1911, My First Summer in the Sierra is based on Muir’s original journals and sketches of his 1869 stay in the vicinity of the Yosemite Valley. His journal tracks his three-and-a-half-month visit to the Yosemite region and his ascent of Mt. Hoffman and other Sierra peaks. Along the way, he describes the flora and fauna as well as the geography and geology of the area.
Muir immigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin as a child. He attended the University of Wisconsin and began working as a mechanical inventor. After an 1867 industrial accident nearly blinded him, he abandoned his career as an inventor to work as a naturalist.
William Henry Jackson, photographer,
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
An early defender of the environment, Muir in 1876 advocated adoption of a federal forest conservation program. His popular articles and books describing Yosemite’s natural wonders inspired public support for the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890 and expansion of the park in 1906. At the same time, Muir continued to work and write as a serious scientist whose fieldwork in botany and geology enabled him to make lasting contributions. Alaska’s Muir Glacier is named for him. In 1892, Muir co-founded the as an association explicitly dedicated to wilderness preservation and served until 1914 as its first president, shaping it into an organization whose leadership in political advocacy for protection of the natural world continues to this day.
The popularity of President Theodore Roosevelt’s groundbreaking conservation program owed much to Muir’s writing. In 1903 Roosevelt and Muir visited the Yosemite region together. In 1908, Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation establishing the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, California, in Muir’s honor. Muir died six years later. Although sorrow and disappointment at his failure to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from becoming a reservoir for San Francisco may well have contributed to his death, Muir had succeeded more than any other single individual in establishing the preservation of wild nature as a major American cultural and political value. The clarity of his vision and the eloquence of his writing continue to inspire environmentalists throughout the world.
Learn more about John Muir and the conservation movement in American Memory:
- Search the following collections on John Muir to locate works by Muir, including The Mountains of California, My First Summer in the Sierra, and his autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth:
- Search on John Muir in Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present for photographs and drawings of Muir’s home, now a National Historic Site.
- Visit the ‘s . This fascinating presentation provides a wealth of information and links, including many photographs, a wide selection of electronic texts written by and about John Muir, and sound clips of songs written about or inspired by Muir’s work.
Yosemite National Park Wildflowers,
Yosemite National Park,
American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920
- Search on Yosemiteor the name of other national parks in the following collections to see more images of America’s natural wonders:
- American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936: Images from the University of Chicago Library
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
- American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920: a Study Collection from the Harvard Graduate School of Design
- The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
- Visit Yosemite National Park online via the National Park Service.
- Search on conservation or national park in the Today in History Archives to find features on milestones in the history of conservation in America. Topics include the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, the 1908 Governors’ Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, the creation of national parks in Washington (Mt. Rainier National Park) and Maine (Acadia National Park), and the first celebration of Earth Day.
- For access to current environmental protection bills under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, visit THOMAS and browse major legislation classified by topic using terms such as environmental protection or public lands.