John Muir Home


John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 (April 21) and came to the US at the age of 11 with his family. They settled in Wisconsin. In the early 1860s (at the age of 22), he leaves home and enters inventions at the state fair, winning a prize. This is where he met Jeanne Carr (wife of Ezra Carr, a medical doctor, but also a professor of various sciences at the University at Wisconsin), who became a life long friend. It was at her urging that he attends college. He didn’t follow a particular curriculum, but rather chose a variety of classes from a pallet of sciences. Off and on, he attended classes for 4 years and in 1863 went to Canada for a few months, but ended up staying for a little over a year. He returned in 1864 (after the conclusion of the Civil War) began working at a carriage factory. An industrial accident left him blind for a while and upon regaining his sight, we vowed to take in a much beauty as he could find. He began this journey, which lasted the rest of his life, with a thousand mile walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico and, by a round about route through Cuba, New York, and Panama, to California and walked into Yosemite for the first time in 1868.

Muir would call California, “Home” for the rest of his life and Yosemite was home for the next five years. He had heard about Yosemite while on his voyage from the Gulf of Mexico.  Upon arriving in San Francisco (March 27, 1868), he asked for the nearest way to the wilderness. It seems strange now, but he was directed to the Oakland Ferry then down the bay to San Jose and then over the Pacheco Pass. He makes mention that the scene from there as being “…the most beautiful I have ever beheld….” He writes of it 44 years later in his work, The Yosemite:

At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously coloured and radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like a wall of some celestial city.[1]

Those of us from California finding it hard to Imagine standing at the Pacheco Pass and seeing across the entire valley, let alone up and down it. We might be lucky to see to Interstate 5 through the smoggy haze. But drilling down further into his narrative, I am struck by his exquisite prose. I suspect this characteristic of his writing is what may have attracted people to him and his writings almost more than the subject matter. Some of his public writings (and sketches) were first honed in letters to friends and family. Muir kept journal notes and sketches on what he saw throughout his life. This is how he could be so vivid about an experience from 1868 that he didn’t record until 1912.

Contemporary View from Pacheco Pass

Recently, on a trip to the bay area, I stopped at the Pacheco Pass and snapped this photo. It is not the summit, of course, but the closest I could get without trespassing. It is from the stop overlooking San Luis Reservoir. It is looking East. As suspected, I can not even find the Freeway, let alone, seeing across the valley (not to mention up and down it.

Muir and his traveling companion, a Mr. Chilwell, subsidized their trek and arrival into the valley by taking on odd jobs along the way. This included bronco busting and, eventually, sheep herding. During this tenure of his encounter with Yosemite and the Sierras, he began a disdain for the “hoofed locus” that he now called “sheep” for the total devastation of the terrain. Muir spent several months working at this and various other jobs. Then in late ’69 or early 1870, he took on a job for James Hutchings at building and running a saw mill. This allowed him to live in the valley and free time to wander the back country, taking in the scenery and making notes.

After about 18 months, Muir and Hutchings had a parting of the ways and not on amicable grounds. It is not clear exactly what the problem was that split up their relationship. Speculation has it that Hutchings, who always considered himself to be the end-all, be-all of all things Yosemite, may have been jealous of Muir’s charismatic charm which drew followers to his tours of the valley and its features and the attention Hutchings’ own wife and children afforded him. There was no hint of impropriety, but Hutchings did not like the influence Muir had on his family. Though John was merely happy to put the arrangement behind him, saying only that he did not feel that Hutchings treated him fairly, Hutchings was bitter. So bitter that he never mentioned Muir by name in his book, In the Heart of the Sierras and only alluded to him as a “sawyer” who had helped with the saw mill.

John Muir was, indeed, becoming quite well known. Not because of his writings, as of yet he was not published, but through his acquaintances. The first notable was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson visited the valley in the spring of 1871 while Muir was still working the mill. Though Muir wished to meet Emerson, he stood back from the crowd. Instead, upon hearing that Emerson was leaving the next day, wrote him a note imploring that he stay longer, in that “…El Capitan and Tissiack [Half Dome] demanded…”. Intrigued, Emerson sought him out and found him at the mill, where Muir shared with him his collection of plants and sketches. Muir was just 33 and Emerson in his late sixties, and though they corresponded frequently there after, they never met again.

Almost all who had the good fortune to have Muir as a guide in and about Yosemite found the experience unforgettable. Though annual park attendance had more than tripled in the three years since Muir first entered the valley, the total number of visitors was still less than 2200 for the year 1871.[2] But those that did visit, were typically the well to do, well traveled and influential.

Among those he met just that year included a, then, famous actor who, by avocation, was a collector of butterflies. After meeting “Harry” Edwards, Muir would send him Butterflies he found in the high country to which Edwards replied in a letter, that he had sent him “…four new species to my collection and two of which are new to science…”

Author and poet Sarah Jane Lippencott wrote a glowing account of Muir which concluded with, “That tourist is fortunate who can have John Muir as a guide in and about the Valley.” Another author, Theresa Yelverton wrote a thinly veiled “novel” about John Muir and Yosemite called Zanita where Kenmuir was John Muir, Cozy were the Hutchings girls (Florence and Gertrude), Methley was John C. Lamon and Naunton’s represented the Hutchings’ and Professor Brown was Josiah D. Whitney. In correspondence with Muir, Yelverton even addressed him as Kenmuir.[3]

With the Carrs help, Muir was introduced to Joseph LeConte, Professor of Geology at the University of California in the Summer of 1870. LeConte was the first professional Geologist to support Muir Glaciation theories indicating that Muir had pretty much formed his hypothesis as early as 1870. Also, Yelveton’s novel has the controversy on the valley origins between Muir and Whitney in her book. The controversy in real life was every bit as vociferous as that of the novelization, if not as dramatic. Whitney, and crew, was aghast at the profferings from what he called, “…an ignoramus…a mere sheep herder…” But Muir was not at all unsettled by the push back. According to Badé, author of the Life and Letters of John Muir, “…he knew they had seen a fraction of the evidence, and that hastily….” Nevertheless, he went back to his “mountain temples” to gather more evidences for his theory.

After leaving the Hutchings’, Muir was left without a steady source of income. As it happened, Muir had his first public article published in the New York Tribute called Yosemite Glaciers in December 1871. Other works of his were incorporated into presentations and publications in the scientific community. By 1872, he was publishing regularly with the Overland Monthly.

From his writings, it is hard to know what he loved the most as he seems so exaggeratedly overjoyed by everything he sees. I mentioned his writing style earlier and I should point out that there seems very little difference in its allure between his earliest publications (Yosemite Glaciers, 1871) and his later works (like the above excerpt from The Yosemite). There is a smoothness that just seems to flow from his quill. But Muir called it tortuous. It is not like he wasn’t used to writing; he had done it most of his life in his journals and letters. But writing for the public required of him a special discipline that he did not feel was necessary for self, friends and family. According to one observer:

The fact is that Muir’s personal letters, like his conversation, flowed smoothly and easily; but when he sat down to write an article, his critical faculty was called into play, and his thoughts, to employ his own simile, began to labor like a laden wagon in a bog. There was a consequent loss of that spontaneity which made him such a fascinating talker. ‘John polishes his articles until an ordinary man slips on them,’ remarked his friend and neighbor John Swett when he wished to underline his own sense of the difference between Muir’s spoken and written words.”[4]

By the end of 1873, John Muir left the valley. And though he would visit many times in the future, he would never again call it home. For now, he was entering what he has called his “Oakland epoch.” It was during this time that he sequestered himself from the public, family and friends, even almost a complete secession of letter writing. He put together a series of articles for the Overland Monthly that collectively became known as the Sierra Studies. But by October of 1874, he was once again on the move, beginning with the exploration of Mt. Shasta. By the beginning of 1875 was putting together journals on his latest fascination; trees.

He returned to Yosemite (staying and writing from Black’s Hotel) during most of 1875 as he scoured the Sierras, including the Mt. Whitney area, on multi-day, long trips; studying and cataloging flora of all kinds but mostly the trees. Among the various species he cataloged was man, whose destruction of the forests promised to be complete annihilation. A grove of big trees at the Fresno grove and on the north fork of the Kaweah River were already ravaged. Though the grove at the north fork of Kings River was still intact, a new lumber company was being set up to ruin it. The technique of felling these trees wasn’t merely to cut them down. They were so large companies resorted to using dynamite to blast them apart and the splitters left for salvage and the stumps left to commemorate the waste. His protestation, directed at the legislature and in the public eye, had to wait 20 years before President Cleveland would appoint a commission to report on the issues within the national forests. But his words did cause conservationism to begin to gel.

From 1876 to 1878 or 79, he boarded with the Swett family until sickness took them over. At that time he arranged to stay with a friend in San Francisco, Mr. Isaac Upham, a bookseller, which he found “…comfortable, but not very fruitful…reading more than writing….” This remained his primary residence until he married the following year.

In 1874, Mrs. Jeanne Carr in an attempt at match making, introduced John Muir to the Strentzel family, specifically for the daughter, Louie. She had become acquainted with the family while living in the Bay Area. Dr John Strentzel had become a horticulturalist and had a large fruit ranch in Alhambra where he lived with his wife Louisiana and daughter Louisa (Louie, for short).[5] The seed took five years to germinate as it wasn’t until 1879 that they became engaged and 1880 before they were married. Their first child, Wanda, was born in 1881.

Muir obviously had an understanding with Louie that his travels were necessary and would continue. In 1878 and ’79 he explored parts of Nevada and Utah and made his first trip to Alaska. Then in 1880, shortly after their wedding, he was off to Alaska a second time. However, for the next 10 years, Muir’s primary focus was on the ranch. He had said:

About a year before starting on the Arctic expedition I was married to Louie Strentzel, and for ten years I was engaged in fruit-raising in the Alhambra Valley, near Martinez, clearing land, planting vineyards and orchards, and selling the fruit, until I had more money than I thought I would ever need for my family or for all expenses of travel and study, however far or however long continued. But this farm work never seriously interrupted my studies. Every spring when the snow on the mountains had melted, until the approach of winter, my explorations were pushed farther and farther. Only in the early autumn, when the table grapes were gathered, and in winter and early spring, when the vineyards and orchards were pruned and cultivated, was my personal supervision given to the work. After these ten years I sold part of the farm and leased the balance, so as to devote the rest of my life, as carefree as possible, to travel and study. Thus, in 1891, I was again free from the farm and all bread winning cares.”[6]

John did return to Yosemite in 1885, but more as a tourist than a naturalist, as he introduced the valley to Louie. The work at the ranch had taken a toll on him which Louie was keen to notice:

The journey was hard for him, and he looks thin and pale and tired. He must not leave the mountains until he is well and strong again.”

Late in the 1800s, Muir changed from a pure naturalist and criticism to activism.  He, for the first time, met Robert Underwood Johnson. Johnson was an associate editor of The Century for which Muir had previously written. Johnson had come to California to get articles on the Gold Rush era and also to get Muir to write from them again. Johnson and Muir went to Yosemite and spent a few days in the Valley before moving off to the high country.

This was a pivotal meeting for Muir. Under the stars at Tuolumne Meadows both men were still reeling from the desecration of the valley that came all too clear. According to biographer Donald Worster,  the valley floor was, “…marred by a repulsive saloon [The Cosmopolitan, no doubt], the repugnant order of a pig sty, fields plowed up for crops or fenced for cattle, acres upon acres of tree stumps, overall a tacky commercialization….”[7] Muir was quick to point out that the back country was far from untouched by ravages of progressivism. The most notable of the ravages was the devastation of too many seasons of too many sheep. So during the summer of 1889, Johnson and Muir hit on the idea of Yosemite National Park to protect it from the fate of the Valley. The valley was still under control of the State of California and though including the Grant under the new Yosemite National Park had its own set of problems, they put that idea on a back burner. However, they did think that Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the first commissioners[8], could be called upon to return to the valley and help get it back under control. But California was not interested taking Olmsted, as it would suggest there was something to fix, and Olmsted was not willing to take command in any event.

Muir was extremely reluctant come too involved with a “political” movement, “…pleading his unsuitability for the roll of leader….”[9] And as mentioned earlier, Muir had a terrible time even writing for the public, but also write to persuade rather than merely share was extra troubling. However, early the next year, Muir had completed two pieces (both published in August of 1890) for The Century. The first was, The Treasures of the Yosemite and later, The Proposed Yosemite National Park. Once completed, he was off to Alaska for his forth trip.

Yosemite National Park was signed into law October 1, 1890 as the third National Park.[10] There was still more work to be done in preserving forests. One of the issues discussed at their campfire back in the summer of 1889 was starting an activist group, but Muir had a enough trouble just writing for a cause, let alone hawking for one. But now that he had a well written, well received set of articles that effectively created Yosemite National Park, Muir seemed just a bit more receptive to the idea. The Sierra Club was formed on May 28, 1892 and John Muir was elected President. He accepted with the assumption that he was primarily a figure head. Initially, that was the case. As time went on he became more involved but reluctantly. He held the position the rest of his life and, according to biographer Donald Worster, “He inspired Americans to believe that nature deserved higher consideration. Plenty of others shared that belief, but no one articulated it better.”

Muir’s fame and attention to conservation grew during the next 10 years, but his return to Yosemite in 1903 came reluctantly while he was planning a trip to Europe and Ruissia. He received a call and wrote to the organizers of the trip that “an influential man…” from Washington wants to meet him in Yosemite and could they postpone the trip as “…I might be able to do some forest good…” in talking to him. He was to meet then President Theodore Roosevelt. They postponed the date. Here is where Roosevelt was convinced that the Yosemite Grant should be reverted back to the federal government and Yosemite National Park.

1905 brought one of Muir’s highest highs and lowest low. John Muir and William E Colby, fighting for California’s recession of the Yosemite Grant, went to Sacramento to counteract false propaganda. They were successful as California passed the measure. Then, August of that year, his beloved wife, Louie passed away from a recurrence of an old illness. His daughter, Helen, suffering from her own respiratory illness, had moved to Arizona. The house on the hill in Martinez “was a shelter and a place of work from time to time, but never a home again.”[11]

Agreement from California to give the Yosemite Grant back to the Federal Government didn’t mean that government would accept it. It still required an act of congress to take it back. Though Roosevelt was behind the measure, there was some opposition in congress. But Muir and his friends prevailed due to their lobbying efforts and in the summer of 1906, the measure passed and the Yosemite Grant was incorporated into Yosemite National Park. The meek and mild Muir had blossomed into a true lobbyist and was almost as proud of that as he was with the victory. He wrote to Robert Underwood Johnson saying, “You don’t know how accomplished a lobbyist I’ve become under your guidance. The fight you planned by that famous Tuolumne camp-fire seventeen years ago is at last fairly, gloriously won, every enemy down derry down.”[12]

1906 was also the year of the great San Francisco earthquake. By today’s standards it was a devastating quake with a magnitude somewhere between 7.9 and 8.3! While lobbying for the Yosemite Grant’s recession, Muir learned of another problem brewing. Efforts were being organized to reduce the size of the park by changing boundaries, run railroads into the valley and even allow water storage reservoirs.

Unbeknownst to Muir, San Francisco had already tried and failed to get water rights of the Tuolumne River and were actually seeking other alternatives. However, because of the earthquake and the sympathy for the city it provided, Gifford Pinchot (then the nation’s chief forester), wrote to the San Francisco’s manager, Marsden Manson, urging him to re-apply for the rights with James R Garfield (Secretary of State and grandson of the former president). This proved successful in 1907 and they immediately arrange for a bill to be put forward to allow a dam to be constructed at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley.

The sentiment, politically, in view of the earthquake, was generally in favor of San Francisco even though the country (as well as San Francisco to some extent) was beginning to lean toward conservation and preservation of parks. However, there was an argument of “for the greater good”. The total number of visitors to the park for the year in 1906 was less than 5500[13] while the population of just San Francisco was close to 400,000[14] and that is just the city. Others in the Bay Area would benefit from that water. For Muir, if a greater good was even an argument, considered Parks a sanctuary against progressivism. It was, however, an upward battle partially because the earthquake that fracture the ground in San Francisco also split the Sierra Club as many of their members were from San Francisco. Nevertheless, Muir and his conservationists succeeded in having the act tabled in 1908, but lost the battle in 1913 (see other posts for additional information in The Plight of Hetch Hetchy, Hetch Hetchy – Unsung Hero of the National Park Service, Restore Hetch Hetchy Valley – Then What? and most recently The Continuing Battle Over Hetch Hetchy).

There is no doubt that this was a devastating blow to Muir personally as he considered Hetch Hetchy “…one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples….”[15] And the fact that he passed away the following year (almost to the day the measure passed) leads some to believe he died defeated of a broken heart. The fact of the matter is that he had put it behind him and was working on his next (as it happens, Final) book, Travels in Alaska. He brought the manuscripts with him to visit his youngest daughter, Helen, in Daggett, California (just a bit east of Barstow) for the Christmas Holidays. During that trip his bout with what he called his “winter malady”, resurrected itself and soon turned to pneumonia. He was rushed to Los Angeles where he passed away on Christmas Eve day, 1914, with pages of his nearly completed manuscript of Travels in Alaska spread about him on his bed.

John Muir’s love of Yosemite is undeniable, but it only constituted about 7 or 8 years of his life. The vast majority of his life (including the Yosemite years) was in study of all things natural about him and the world. Not just living things; plants and animals, but rocks as well. He was instrumental in getting the Arizona Petrified Forrest recognized. His life was like the proverbial “kid in a candy store”. He was fascinated by everything he saw and took copious notes to help him study and remember ever aspect of his journeys. He had a disdain for self aggrandizing of any kind. It was customary for anyone reaching the peak of a mountain leave their name and a token of their presence. Muir would read of those that come before him but never left is own mark. The “John Muir Trail” which begins in Yosemite, the Muir Woods, the Muir glacier, countless other tributes[16] and, of course, April 21, his birth date, is celebrated in California as John Muir Day. All of these accolades were bestowed upon him; not one did he declare himself.

He was constantly asked to write his autobiography, and though he started it, it was never a high priority for him nor was it completed. He was quite literally baffled at the interest. He insisted that he lead an ordinary, even “dull” life. Much more interesting, he would say, were the things around us. His notes and sketches were all he ever cared to write down and, maybe, a letter or two. Had he been independently wealthy, we may never have heard from him at all. His writing began and continued for a long time as merely a means of support.

I would like to have met him.


[1] The Yosemite, John Muir (1912) this copy from John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books, Diadem Books, 1992, Pgs 613-614.

[2] From various resources, attendance in 1868 was about 623, in 1871, it was 2,137

[3] The Life and Letters of John Muir William Frederic Badé, 1924, Houghton Mifflin Company, Chapter 9, Persons and Problems

[4] Ibid. Chapter 13. Nevada, Alaska and a Home 1878-1880

[5] A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 2008, 6th printing. Chapter 8: Coming in From the Cold, page 238

[6] The Life and Letters of John Muir (as above), Chapter 15: Winning a Competence 1881-1891

[7] A Passion for Nature (as above), Chapter 11, A Call to Lead, page 312

[8] Olmsted, after whom Olmsted Point is named, was not only one of the first commissioners, but also nationally known as a gifted park designer. One of which was New York’s Central Park.

[9] A Passion for Nature (as above), Chapter 11, A Call to Lead, page 313

[10] Sequoia became the 2nd National Park a few days earlier on September 25, 1890.

[11] The Life and Letters of John Muir (as above), Chapter 17, part II 1905-1914

[12] Ibid,

[13] NPS Stats These stats differ from numbers provided from other sources, but are close.

[14] “Historic Population” has 1900 at 342,782 and at 1910 416,912. A straight line interpolation puts the population at 387,260.

[15] The Yosemite (as above)

[16] I, for instance, attended John Muir Junior High in my 8th and 9th grades.