John Muir Biography

Environmental Activist, Journalist(1838–1914)
Naturalist, writer and advocate of U.S. forest conservation, John Muir founded the Sierra Club and helped establish Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

Synopsis

John Muir was born April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland. As early as 1876, he urged the federal government to adopt a forest conservation policy through articles published in popular periodicals. In 1892 he founded the Sierra Club. He served as its first president, a position he held until his death in 1914. He was largely responsible for the establishment of Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

Background and Inventions

Born on April 21, 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, John Muir immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 11 years old. Settling in Wisconsin, Muir contended with a rigid, punishing father who made his son memorize the Bible and maintain a demanding schedule. Yet the boy had a major inclination for learning and creativity, coming up with an array of inventions such as a horse feeder, a table saw, a wooden thermometer and a device that pushed the youngster out of bed in the early morning.

After showing his inventions at the state Fair, Muir attended the University of Wisconsin during the early 1860s. Leaving school in 1863, he took up studying botany and exploring the natural world via foot while taking on jobs to support himself. But in 1867, while working at a factory, he was involved in an accident in which he was blinded for a time. Upon regaining his sight, he fully embraced his devotion to nature and walked from Indiana to Florida, creating detailed sketches of the terrain. He eventually sailed to Cuba, New York and Panama, ultimately making his way to San Francisco. From there he continued his walking explorations.

Esteemed Ecologist and Writer 

After first visiting California’s Yosemite Valley in 1868 and taking on work as a shepherd, Muir landed a mill job working with James Mason Hutchings, though the two would later have a falling out. Muir began having his ecology-oriented articles published via newspapers in the early 1870s, with his first printed essay appearing in the New York Tribune. After acute observations, he offered groundbreaking theories about Yosemite’s geological structures being formed by glacial activity, countering previous scientific assertions. 

National Parks Champion

Muir became known for his articles that praised the natural world, speaking in poetic, spiritual terms about his affection for the ecology and humanity’s earth connection, garnering a large and varied readership. He also published a grouping of essays pushing for the establishment of Yosemite National Park, which was created in 1890. Muir became a major figure in the creation of parks for the Grand Canyon and Sequoia regions as well.

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike."

Muir co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892, acting as president of the environmental-advocacy organization for more than two decades. In the new century he continued to make history with his 1903 three-night camping trip with Theodore Roosevelt, which helped shape the U.S. president’s own conservationist policies. Muir was also a world-traveler who at age 73 took an extended trip to the Amazon, studying its fauna and topography and being swept away by the region’s beauty. A host of honors and accolades were bestowed upon him during his life.

Death and Legacy

John Muir died on December 24, 1914 in Los Angeles, California from pneumonia. His legacy lived on not only in the establishment of parks and his environmental activism but in the scores upon scores of articles he penned. He was the author of several books as well, including The Mountains of California (1894), Our National Parks (1901), Stickeen: The Story of a Dog (1909) and My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).  

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