John Muir Inspired the Conservation Movement

Muir was Considered the "Father of the National Park System"

Photograph of John Muir in the woods
Library of Congress

John Muir is a significant figure of the 19th century as he stood opposed to the exploitation of natural resources at a time when many believed the resources of the earth were infinite.

Muir's writings were influential, and as co-founder and first president of the Sierra Club he was an icon and inspiration to the conservation movement. He is widely remembered as "the father of the National Parks."

As a young man Muir demonstrated an unusual talent for building and maintaining mechanical devices.

And his skill as a machinist might have made a very good living in a rapidly industrializing society.

Yet his love of nature drew him away from workshops and factories. And he would joke about how he gave up pursuing the life of a millionaire to live as a tramp.

Early Life of John Muir

John Muir was born at Dunbar, Scotland on April 21, 1838. As a small boy he enjoyed the outdoors, climbing hills and rocks in the rough Scottish countryside.

His family sailed to America in 1849 with no apparent destination in mind, but wound up settling on a farm in Wisconsin. Muir’s father was tyrannical and ill-suited to farm life, and young Muir, his brothers and sisters, and his mother did much of the work on the farm.

After receiving some infrequent schooling and educating himself by reading what he could, Muir was able to attend the University of Wisconsin to study science. He gave up college to pursue various jobs which relied on his unusual mechanical aptitude.

As a young man he received recognition for being able to make working clocks out of carved wooden pieces and also inventing various useful gadgets.

Muir Traveled to the American South and West

During the Civil War, Muir moved across the border to Canada to avoid being conscripted. His action was not viewed as a terribly controversial maneuver at a time when others could legally buy their way out of the draft.

After the war Muir moved to Indiana, where he used his mechanical skills in factory work until an accident nearly blinded him.

With his sight mostly restored, he fixated on his love of nature, and decided to see more of the United States. In 1867 he embarked on an epic hike from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico. His ultimate goal was to visit South America.

After reaching Florida, Muir became ill in the tropical climate. He abandoned his plan to go to South America, and eventually caught a boat to New York, where he then caught another boat that would take him “around the horn” to California.

John Muir arrived in San Francisco in late March 1868. That spring he walked to the place that would become his spiritual home, California's spectacular Yosemite Valley. The valley, with its dramatic granite cliffs and majestic waterfalls, touched Muir deeply and he found it difficult to leave.

At that time, parts of Yosemite were already protected from development, thanks to the Yosemite Valley Grant Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

Early tourists were already coming to view the astonishing scenery, and Muir took a job working in a sawmill owned by one of the early innkeepers in the valley.

Muir stayed in the vicinity of Yosemite, exploring the area, for most of the next decade.

Muir Settled Down, For a Time

After returning from a trip to Alaska to study glaciers in 1880, Muir married Louie Wanda Strentzel, whose family owned a fruit ranch not far from San Francisco.

Muir began working the ranch, and became reasonably prosperous in the fruit business, thanks to the attention to detail and enormous energy he typically poured into his pursuits. Yet the life of a farmer and businessman didn’t satisfy him.

Muir and his wife had a somewhat unconventional marriage for the time. As she recognized that he was most happy in his travels and explorations, she encouraged him to travel while she remained at home on their ranch with their two daughters. Muir often returned to Yosemite, and also made several more trips to Alaska.

Yosemite National Park

Yellowstone was named the first National Park in the United States in 1872, and Muir and others began to campaign in the 1880s for the same distinction for Yosemite. Muir published a series of magazine articles making his case for further protection of Yosemite.

Congress passed legislation declaring Yosemite a National Park in 1890, thanks in large part to Muir’s advocacy.

The Founding of the Sierra Club

A magazine editor with whom Muir had worked, Robert Underwood Johnson, suggested that some organization should be formed to continue to advocate for Yosemite’s protection. In 1892, Muir and Johnson founded the Sierra Club, and Muir served as its first president.

As Muir put it, the Sierra Club was formed to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” The organization continues at the forefront of the environmental movement today, and Muir, of course, is a powerful symbol of the club’s vision.

Friendships of John Muir

When the writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Yosemite in 1871, Muir was virtually unknown and still working in a sawmill. The men met and became good friends, and continued corresponding after Emerson returned to Massachusetts.

John Muir gained considerable fame in his lifetime through his writings, and when notable people visited California and specifically Yosemite they often sought his insights.

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite and was guided about by Muir. The two men camped under the stars in the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoia trees, and their campfire conversation helped form Roosevelt's own plans for conserving America's wilderness. The men also posed for an iconic photograph atop Glacier Point.

When Muir died in 1914, his obituary in the New York Times noted his friendships with Thomas Edison and President Woodrow Wilson.

Legacy of John Muir

In the 19th century many Americans believed natural resources should be consumed with no limits. Muir was utterly opposed to this concept, and his writings presented an eloquent counterpoint to exploitation of the wilderness.

It's difficult to imagine the modern conservation movement without the influence of Muir. And to this day he casts an enormous shadow over how people live, and conserve, in the modern world.