Ken Burns Classroom

John Muir

Ken Burns Film: The National Parks

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

John Muir
John Muir stands beside a giant sequoia tree. Source: Harper’s Ferry National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

1838–1914

John Muir was one of the earliest advocates of the national park idea, and its most eloquent spokesman. Born in Dunbar, Scotland, he moved with his family to a Wisconsin farm in 1849. Muir’s father, an itinerant Presbyterian minister, treated him harshly and insisted that he memorize the Bible. By age 11, he was able to recite three-quarters of the Old Testament by heart, and all of the New Testament.

Muir studied botany and geology at the University of Wisconsin and had a natural flair for inventions. In 1867, after recovering from a factory accident that left him temporarily blinded for several months, he cut short a promising career in industry to walk from Indiana to Florida, creating botanical sketches on his way. From there he sailed to California and then walked from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada – the “Range of Light” that would transform his life with his “unconditional surrender” to nature.

Muir’s three-night camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 could be considered the most significant camping trip in conservation history.

After working as a sheepherder in the high country for a season, Muir took a job in the Yosemite Valley in 1869, building a sawmill for James Mason Hutchings. In his free time, he roamed Yosemite, where he developed a scientific theory that the valley had been carved by glaciers. Muir felt a spiritual connection to nature; he believed that mankind is just one part of an interconnected natural world, not its master, and that God is revealed through nature.

To preach his gospel of nature, he moved to Oakland in 1873 to write articles for leading magazines like Overland Monthly, Scribner’s and Harper’;s Magazine. Muir’s articles made him nationally famous. He married Louie Wanda Strentzel and turned her family’s farm in Martinez, California, into a profitable orchard business. But he grew restless to immerse himself in nature again, and, at Louie’s urging, he traveled to Alaska's Glacier Bay and Washington’s Mount Rainier. His writings brought national attention to two more places that would eventually become national parks.

Muir would also champion protection of the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He was the public voice for setting aside the high country around Yosemite Valley as a national park in 1890, as well as for General Grant and Sequoia national parks. His efforts to make a large park in the Kings Canyon region of central California would not be successful, but later park supporters would take up the cause. Muir’s three-night camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 could be considered the most significant camping trip in conservation history. He was able to persuade Roosevelt to return Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to federal protection as part of Yosemite National Park. The trip would have a lasting impact on the president.

Muir’s final crusade, to prevent the city of San Francisco from building a dam and creating a massive water reservoir in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, ended in bitter defeat with federal approval of the project in 1913. Muir died a year later, on Christmas Eve, at age 76.

Muir was a founder and the first president of the Sierra Club; Muir Woods National Monument, a grove of redwoods north of San Francisco, is named in his honor.