Muir, John (Paper I)

Father of the United States National Park system and founder of one of the country's largest environmental advocacy groups, the Sierra Club, John Muir is commonly credited for initiating the modern Conservation movement. Through his famous writings, lobbying efforts, and western treks, Muir helped many begin to understand the importance of forest and land conservation in America.

Biographical Highlights

John Muir is most often remembered as the father of the United States National Park system and founder of one of the country's largest environmental advocacy groups, the Sierra Club. Through his famous writings, lobbying efforts, and western treks, Muir helped many begin to understand the importance of forest and land conservation in America. Muir is commonly credited for initiating the modern Conservation movement.

Historic Roots

John Muir was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland, as the third child to Daniel and Ann Muir (Holmes 1999). From age three to around his eleventh birthday, John attended a primary school where he studied English, French, Latin, and religion from stern and thorough teachers. His formal education came abruptly to an end in 1849 when John's father surprised his family with a sudden decision to emigrate to America. Leaving most family and friends behind, the Muir family traveled across the Atlantic, through New York and the Great Lakes, and settled in the new frontier farming community of Fountain Lake, Wisconsin (Winkley 1959).

Throughout the next several years of his life, Muir spent much of his time working on the family farm. John's father, Daniel, a strict disciplinarian, did not allow his children to have much free time away from their day-to-day chores. During his teenage years, John often awoke early in the morning (before the rest of his family) in order to find time to read books or work on his inventions. On the rare occasion that John's father allowed his children to break from their work, John and his siblings spent their time exploring the intriguing forests of the Wisconsin frontier (Wilkins 1995).

Through his late teens and early twenties, Muir's growing desire to leave the farm and follow his own scientific interests continued to motivate him in his independent studies. He hoped that his self-disciplined study of algebra, trigonometry, and geometry, and his innovative hobbies, might eventually enable him to leave the farm and pursue his interests. In 1860, a friend, William Duncan, encouraged John to take some of his inventions to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair in an effort to market his skills to machine shop owners. John unexpectedly earned high honors for his "machines" at the fair and also drew the attention of several people from the University of Wisconsin. In 1861, John Muir was admitted to the University of Wisconsin despite his limited formal education (Wolfe 1946).

For three academic years, John became a successful student of natural science and decided to pursue a career in medicine to fulfill his desire of serving his fellow man. In light of his success and plans, it was quite surprising that Muir halted his studies sometime during his third summer away from the university. Instead of returning to school the following fall, he traveled to Canada and worked as a mechanic for a few years. Some speculate that John's decision to move to Canada was a deliberate effort to avoid the Civil War draft (Wilkins 1995).

In the spring of 1866, the Canadian factory, in which Muir worked, burned to the ground. With no work, John used some of the little money he had collected and bought a train ticket to Indianapolis. Muir soon found work with a wheel manufacturing company and was quickly promoted to a supervisor. Through some quick innovations and inventions, Muir helped Osgood, Smith & Company re-engineer their wheel-making process. By automating several manufacturing procedures, Muir introduced new efficiencies that would later prove to be quite profitable for the company, and the entire industry (Holmes 1999).

In Mach of 1867, John Muir was blinded in a shop accident with a sharp file. After a month of recovery, he regained his sight, but was forever changed by the incident. Muir resigned from his job and spent the next year traveling to Florida and Cuba; he eventually made his way to California via the Panama Canal. He landed in San Francisco and soon made his way to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which eventually would become his beloved home (Lyon 1972).

Throughout the next several years of his life, Muir spent a significant amount of time working and hiking in the Yosemite region of the Sierra mountain range. Much of his time was devoted to the study of glaciers. In 1874, his successful writing career began with a series of articles about the value of nature and the importance of conserving it. Muir's popularity grew quickly and his articles were soon published in prominent magazines across the country. Dignitaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt recognized John Muir's inspiring work and spent time with him in the Sierra Nevada mountain range on more than one occasion (Winkley 1959).

It was under the advice and encouragement of John Muir, that the U.S. Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890. Indeed, it was Muir's writings that continued to inspire others, contributing to the creation of Sequoia, Petrified Forest, Mount Rainier, and Grand Canyon National Parks. These parks were established in an effort to preserve the valuable beauty of nature. John Muir was one of the first conservationists to be successful in bringing national attention to the importance of nature preservation.

Two years after Yosemite National Park was established, Muir and others who shared his conservationist vision formed an association called the Sierra Club. At first, Sierra Club was launched to preserve and make the Sierra Nevada more accessible to visitors. In 1901, Sierra Club began one of its most noted battles against the City of San Francisco in an effort to dissuade them from building a dam in the Yosemite region. This debate continued for twelve years until 1913, when the Hetch Hetchy Valley that Muir admittedly loved became a reservoir to serve the needs of San Francisco. Shortly after this disturbing loss, John Muir died of pneumonia at the age of seventy-six in Los Angeles, California (Sierra Club 2002). Muir had served as the Sierra Club's president until his death in 1914 and is recognized as the organization's founder.

John Muir's famous writings and work in the late 1800s laid the groundwork for our nation's conservation movement. By publicly sharing his ideas and thoughts, Muir helped many begin to understand the importance of preserving and protecting nature. At a personal level, his words brought to life the spiritual connection felt by many people in nature: "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world - the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness" (Ibid.). Through his life's work, Muir was successful in bringing national attention to the significant threats on our environment. Through the establishment of both our National Park system and the Sierra Club, John Muir founded a lasting commitment to conservation in America.


Muir understood that the establishment of the United States National Park system would allow future generations to enjoy nature and to learn about conservation. He believed that it would take more than a few convincing books or articles for people to clearly understand and genuinely embrace the importance of protecting our environment. To heighten their perception of nature, people needed to experience it for themselves. National Parks have given us a concrete means through which we can encounter the natural world and cultivate our own commitment to preservation.

In addition, the Sierra Club continues Muir's legacy of conservation and environmentalism by increasing public awareness, providing an advocacy voice, and wielding political power to lobby for more environmentally-sound public policy. The Club, with chapters in local communities across the country, gives citizens concerned with conservation, preservation and environmental issues, a place to associate and work for societal understanding and change.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

John Muir has influenced the philanthropic sector in several ways. As discussed above, his numerous articles and books brought significant attention to the early conservation movement. His writings not only motivated people to visit the Sierras, but also enlightened his readers on the inherent value of nature. By setting aside and conserving the environment for future generations, Muir believed, many could and would benefit from its riches for years to come. Once nature has been destroyed, it is very difficult to re-create its intrinsic value and beauty. John Muir's philosophy and life work have given us an invaluable gift.

John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892. This organization was originally established for the purpose of preserving and making accessible the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Over 100 years later, the Sierra Club has expanded outside the borders of California and boasts a membership of over 700,000. As John Muir had originally intended, this club continues to work diligently at both preserving the environment and enabling people to explore and enjoy the outdoors. Through funding received from membership fees and donations, Sierra Club has become a significant player in the modern Conservation movement. Individuals and organizations across America clearly understand that contributions to the Sierra Club will be well used in preserving the environment (Sierra Club 2002).

Muir's establishment of the Sierra Club, and its resulting success, as well as his inspirational writings should be given its recognition for inspiring the founding of many nonprofit organizations concerned with environmental issues. His and his Club's influence can not be quantified. Yet, in the years following Sierra Club's founding, thousands of groups arose concerned with the preservation of endangered species, industry's pollution of the environment, celebration of wildlife and plant life, water quality, recycling, and many more issues related to the environment and conservation.

In 1983, the John Muir Trust philanthropic organization was founded with the purpose of protecting and conserving "wild places" throughout the country of Scotland. This organization was named in tribute to the Scottish-born Muir who helped bring international attention to the importance of environmental conservation. Since 1983, the John Muir Trust has been guided by Muir's charge to "do something for wilderness and make the mountains glad" (John Muir Trust 2002). For almost twenty years the Trust has accepted contributions in an effort to purchase and set aside wild land throughout Scotland. To date, its 10,000 members and supporters have been able to accumulate over 50,000 acres of property with the intent of preserving it in perpetuity (Ibid.).

Key Related Ideas

Whether he knew it or not, John Muir was instrumental in kick-starting the Conservation movement in the United States. Ever since Muir's work began in the late 1800s, the Conservation movement has continued thrive. Even though the movement has taken on many forms throughout the last century, its main goals have stayed consistent; pollution control, to prevent the waste of natural resources, and maintain a quality environment for future generations (Pinchot Institute for Conservation 2002). Related to the movement are issues such as land preservation, recycling, wildlife preservation, global warming, industrial pollution, air quality, and water quality.

Important People Related to the Topic

Self-taught artist George Catlin inspired the idea of creating a national park. Catlin witnessed and produced an artistic history of American Indian life through nearly 500 portraits of almost forty tribes and landscape art of the early nineteenth century American West and Southwest. In 1832, he suggested that Indian civilization, and the wildlife and wilderness of the West would be saved from the impact of frontier expansion if the government would set aside a large area for "a nation's park." Ralph Waldo Emerson shared John Muir's value of nature. In 1871, Emerson visited Muir in Yosemite to encourage him in his work and to convince him to move back east to teach others about his ideas. Muir declined.

In 1889, Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of Century magazine, encouraged John Muir to write about the growing environmental problems that were attributed to sheep herding in the High Sierra mountain range. They both agreed that if something were not done quickly, the sheep would rapidly alter this valuable sub-alpine environment (EcoTopia/USA 2002). Together Johnson and Muir worked and lobbied to eradicate sheep herding and, eventually, helped create Yosemite National Park (Winkley 1959).

After reading John Muir's book, Our National Parks, President Theodore Roosevelt visited John Muir in Yosemite in 1903. While camping together in the High Sierra, Muir and Roosevelt discussed the formation of a United States National Park system. During Roosevelt's terms five parks were established. Both Muir and Roosevelt are commonly given credit for establishing our national parks. This duo sustained their friendship until Muir died in December of 1914 (Wolfe 1946). Interestingly, two years later, it was another president, Woodrow Wilson, who approved legislation to create the National Parks Service within the Department of the Interior.

Others who have had a significant impact on the United States Conservation Movement include:

Theodore E. Burton (1851-1929): U.S. Representative and Senator from Ohio.

W.J. (William John) McGee (1853-1912): Renowned for his studies and extensive publications in geology, anthropology, and hydrology, McGee was a pioneer who documented the occurrence of waves of invasions and recessions of ice sheets in North America, thus establishing the complexity of the Great Ice Age. He worked in a number of governmental capacities, including as a director in the U.S. Geological Survey, and was a founder and president of the National Geographic Society.

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946): The leading conservation and forestry advocate of the early twentieth century, Pinchot served in a number of governmental positions, including as Chief Forester of the new U.S. Forest Service. Along with President Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot helped create a national conservation movement and made conservation a national policy issue.

Major J.W. Powell (1834-1902) was a Civil War hero and geologist who raised funds and gathered a group of explorers to take the first boating expedition through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. In a subsequent expedition, Powell produced a map of the Canyon and river.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Other nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to John Muir's principles and have had a significant impact in conservation include:

The John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute is "dedicated to placing all federal public forest lands in the United States beyond the reach of commercial exploitation, just as John Muir envisioned over a century ago" with the current goal to end "timber sales on federal public lands" (The John Muir Project 2003).

National Audubon Society's purpose is to protect birds and other forms of wildlife, as well as the habitats in which they live. The organization was founded in 1905 (Audubon 2003).

National Wildlife Federation ( is the largest conservation organization, boasting over four million members and a mission to conserve wildlife and protect the environment.

The Nature Conservancy's mission it "to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive" (The Nature Conservancy 2003). The Conservancy has protected nearly 100 million acres of land since its founding in 1951.

Pinchot Institute for Conservation specializes in forest conservation leadership through policy development, research and dissemination. The organization's Web site, at, contains information about the history of conservation in the United States.

Sierra Club, founded by John Muir in 1892, is the oldest national conservationist and environmental advocacy organization, with local chapters in cities and towns across America (

The Wilderness Society was founded in 1935 with the aim "to protect America's wilderness and to develop a nation-wide network of wild lands through public education, scientific analysis and advocacy" (The Wilderness Society 2003).

Related Web Sites

The Ecology Hall of Fame Web site offers brief biographies of "heroes of the American environmental movement," including John Muir at

The John Muir Exhibit of the Sierra Club Web site, available at, contains information on John Muir's life and work.

The John Muir Trust Web site, at, offers policy discussion; conservation-related news; information on the lands protected by the Trust and the John Muir Award; and "wild trips" members can take. Also, the Award section of the site provides a chronology of Muir's life and accomplishments, some of his famous quotations, and a bibliography of books and articles about him.

The National Park Service Web site gives a brief vignette of John Muir's life, at


Audubon. Homepage. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

EcoTopia/USA. Ecology Hall of Fame, John Muir. [updated 12 July 1997; cited 28 September 2002]. Available from

Holmes, Steven J. The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. ISBN: 0299161544.

John Muir Award. Wild Places. [updated 18 July 2002; cited 28 September 2002]. Available from

The John Muir Project. About the John Muir Project. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

John Muir Trust. Wild Places for Nature and People. [updated 21 September 2002; cited 28 September 2002]. Available from

John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum. Major John Wesley Powell. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

Lyon, Thomas J. John Muir. Boise: Boise State College, 1972.

Miller, Sally M., ed. John Muir, Life and Work. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993. Paperback: ISBN: 0826315941

National Park Service. History. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

National Park Service. National Park Service, the First 75 Years, Biographical Vignettes: John Muir. [updated 1 December 2000; cited 28 September 2002]. Available from

The Nature Conservancy. About Us. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

O'Grady, John P. Pilgrims to the Wild: Everett Rues, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Clarence King, Mary Austin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993. ISBN: 0874804124.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.