John Muir Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Combining his skills as a scientist, explorer, and writer, Muir played a significant role in the conservation movement and in the development of the United States National Park system.

Early Life

John Muir was born April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland. His mother, Ann Gilrye Muir, would give birth to three sons and five daughters, John being the eldest son and the third child. She married Daniel Muir, who as a child grew up under the harshest poverty imaginable. He eventually gained stature as a middle-class grain merchant and became a Presbyterian of severe Fundamentalist religious beliefs. He worshiped a God of wrath who found evil in almost every childish activity. Typically, John and his playmates would leave the yard, and his tyrannical father would fly into a rage and punish the innocent lad. When his father did not have the total devotion of his entire family, he would punish them with the greatest severity.

In 1849, at age eleven, John and his family immigrated to the United States in search of greater economic opportunity. The Muirs moved to Portage, Wisconsin, an area that had a fine reputation for wheat growing, where they purchased farmland. John marveled at the beauty of the countryside. He kept busy with farm chores and read at night when he was thought to be asleep. He also developed an early love of machinery and began the practice of waking at one in the morning to go to his cellar workshop to build things out of scraps of wood and iron. His father considered his inventions a waste of time, but John built a sawmill, weather instruments, waterwheels, and clocks. In 1860, at age twenty-two, he displayed his inventions at the state fair in Madison. His gadgets were well received, but his dour father only lectured him on the sin of vanity.

At this juncture in his life, John decided to leave home to make his own way. First, he moved to nearby Madison and attended the University of Wisconsin. He followed no particular course of study; he took classes that interested him. He seemed more concerned with learning than with earning a degree. Muir excelled in the sciences and also enjoyed the outdoor laboratory of nature. A tall, disheveled, bearded man with penetrating, glacial-blue eyes, Muir eventually grew tired of the regimentation of college. He liked books, but he loved experience more. Some men from the university were leaving to fight in the Civil War. Muir was twenty-five years old and in his junior year of school, but he decided to leave also.

From Madison, he journeyed into Canada to take odd jobs and to study the botany of the area. Later, he turned up in Indianapolis, Indiana, working in a carriage shop. With his inventive mind, he proved a success in the factory environment until one day he suffered an eye injury while working on a machine. The puncture wound effected both eyes, and soon he lost his eyesight. After a month of convalescence in a darkened room, his vision slowly returned. With a new lease on life and his eyesight fully restored, Muir decided to abandon the factory world and enjoy nature.

Life’s Work

In September of 1867, Muir began a walking tour that would take him from Louisville, Kentucky, to the Gulf Coast of Florida. He found the wildlife and plants of the South fascinating. His travels took him through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida, until he reached the Gulf at Cedar Key. He had no particular route planned, other than to head south. He was not disappointed in what he found on his four-month trek and decided to continue his journey. He had often read the exciting travel accounts of Alexander von Humboldt, who had explored widely in South America. That was Muir’s dream also, but it was interrupted by a three-month bout with malaria. When he was almost recovered, he set off for Cuba, but, upon reaching that tropical island and after waiting for a southbound ship for a month, he settled on a new destination.

Muir believed that California offered the best climate for his malarial disorder and also afforded an environment of substantial botanical interest. He made the long journey to the West and settled in beautiful Yosemite Valley, which was snuggled in the Sierra Nevada. At times, he worked as a sheepherder and at a lumber mill, but he spent most of the time exploring the beautiful countryside, taking notes of his findings, and looking for one more glorious site of...

(The entire section is 1822 words.)