John Burroughs

Author and Naturalist Helped Inspire the American Conservation Movement

John Burroughs writing in his cabin
John Burroughs writing in his rustic cabin. Getty Images

John Burroughs was an American writer and naturalist whose essays became popular and highly influential in the late 19th century. At a time when society seemed to be turning away from nature toward an industrialized world, Burroughs helped instill a great appreciation of nature in the public mind.

Burroughs became a prominent figure in the American conservation movement. He became a friend of naturalist and author John Muir and when Theodore Roosevelt became president he sought advice about conservation from Burroughs.

In the early years of the 20th century Burroughs became known for taking camping trips with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

He had been an admirer of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and as a young writer Burroughs was greatly influenced his friendship with Walt Whitman.

When Burroughs died in 1921 he was regarded as one of the most popular writers in America. The New York Times, when reporting his death, referred to him as a "world-renowned naturalist." And newspaper reports noted that Ford, Edison, and other prominent figures would be traveling to his funeral in rural New York State.

Early Life

John Burroughs was born April 3, 1837, on his family's dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York. He was the seventh of ten children, and received an education until the age of 17, when he began teaching.

For a few years Burroughs mixed teaching children with his own studies at a local seminary.

Like many young men of the time, he became fascinated with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and began to emulate the famous transcendentalist.

At the age of 20 Burroughs married, and he continued his teaching career. But he wanted to express himself, and at the age of 23 an essay he wrote, "Expression," was accepted by the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, James Russell Lowell.

It was said that Lowell, noting a similarity with Emerson, at first wondered if Burroughs had plagiarized the essay. The essay appeared without a byline in the November 1860 issue of the magazine, and for years many people assumed that Emerson had written it.

Burroughs realized there was no point in emulating Emerson to such a degree, and he began to focus on writing about the rural life he knew very well. 

A few years later, in 1863, Burroughs gave up teaching, and life in the country, and took a government job in Washington, D.C., at the height of the Civil War. Working as a clerk at the Treasury Department, he would eventually meet another writer working for the government, Walt Whitman.

Writing Career

The friendship between Burroughs and Whitman flourished, and in 1867 Burroughs published his first book, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person. The book was actually partly written by Whitman.

During his years living in Washington, Burroughs became fascinated by learning about birds. And his second book Wake-Robin, published in 1871, was a collection of essays about birds. (The title of the book, suggested by Whitman, refers to a species of bird that arrives earliest in spring.)

Four years later, Burroughs published another book of essays, Winter Sunshine.

The book received good reviews, and Burroughs was likened to a "more sociable" Thoreau. It had been written in England, where Burroughs had been transferred by the U.S. government.

Returning to America, Burroughs took up residence on a farm in upstate New York. He continued writing, though his work took on a more scientific character. He was obviously influenced by scientists of the day, and sought to meld writing about nature with reliable science.

Burroughs continued publishing, and his work became enormously popular. He also become something of a celebrity, and in 1903 he accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt on a trip to Yellowstone National Park.

He also became known for taking annual camping trips with noted industrialists, including Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Thomas Edison.