Who Was John Muir, Really?

By Chad Hanson, Ph.D.

We have often been conditioned to think idealistically about great historical figures as icons, institutions, or superheroes, despite the historical context of their times, but that’s a mistake. They are all people, and their lives have arcs that may involve major changes and transformations. They are a product of their upbringing but it is up to them to decide who they truly are. John Muir is no exception. Muir was raised by a racist and horribly abusive father, who relentlessly beat him, forcing him into intensive labor logging forests on their farm as a pre-teen and beating and lashing him to force memorization of one verse of the Bible after another until he could recite the entire text of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.[i] Muir’s father viewed natural areas as places to be exploited—cut down, dug up, and put to rigorous utilitarian purpose—and saw Native Americans as an impediment to this goal.[ii]

The ignorance about people of color that was beaten into Muir was reflected in some of his earliest writings in the years before he became an environmental advocate, a time period during which he used derogatory, hurtful and racist language regarding Black and Indigenous people in some passages of his original journals in 1867-1869.[iii]

In these same early years, Muir worked in the logging industry at sawmills in Ontario, Canada (1865), southern Florida (1867), and in 1869-1871 at a sawmill in Yosemite Valley, where he also worked for a time in the livestock ranching industry.[iv] At this time in his life, Muir commented frequently about the beautiful landscapes that he saw. However, there was also a sense of otherness in these early writings about Nature, including a preoccupation with wild places being dirty.[v] And, while Muir could note the beauty of a forest in the 1860s, he was nevertheless employed in an industry that was chopping down those same forests—evidencing a disconnectedness exhibited by many in the logging industry. 

When Muir first arrived in Yosemite in 1868, it was nearly two decades after (circa 1850-1852) white miners and loggers, backed by militias and the U.S. government, warred upon the Native American tribes in Yosemite Valley. Many Native Americans were killed, with survivors being forced to either flee to other areas or settle onto reservations in the foothills as part of the government’s genocidal policies toward Indigenous peoples and goal of facilitating industrial resource extraction and exploitation of the ancestral homelands of Native tribes.[vi]

After more than a year working at the Yosemite area sawmill, Muir began to change. In 1870 and 1871, he increasingly struggled with the conflict between his growing love for Nature, and the nature of his employment at the lumber mill. And, Muir began to view Native Americans, their culture, and the way they lived in harmony with Nature, with growing respect and reverence. In 1871, he began to argue increasingly with his boss at the sawmill and, in the summer of that year, Muir quit his job in the logging industry[vii] and began his personal and professional transformation. John Muir the environmental advocate was born. 

Over the following decades, and until his passing in 1914, Muir worked tirelessly to fight against the ravages of commercial exploitation of the mountains, rivers, and forests, including forests that Muir himself previously exploited. He spoke and wrote about the equality of all people, “regardless of color, or race”,[viii] wrote about the immorality of slavery,[ix] and attacked what he described as the U.S. government’s “mean, brutal policy” toward Native Americans,[x]who he wrote had been unjustly “pushed ruthlessly back into narrower and narrower limits by alien races who were cutting off their means of livelihood…”[xi] He became an active defender of Native American rights as a member of the Sequoya League.[xii] While some of Muir’s colleagues promoted white supremacist myths and exclusionary views regarding national parks and forests,[xiii] Muir spoke out about the importance of making these areas accessible and encouraging all people to experience them, writing: 

“Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.”[xiv]

Muir traveled to Alaska numerous times to learn about the landscape and Indigenous peoples. He formed strong relationships with Native Americans, calling them his brothers, and lived with Alaskan tribes for extended periods of time. In turn, two different tribes bestowed on Muir the honorary chief titles of “great Ice Chief” and “adopted chief”.[xv]Muir wrote about Native American traditional ecological knowledge and craftsmanship with great respect, observing: “With the same tools not one in a thousand of our skilled mechanics could do as good work”,[xvi] and he conveyed deep admiration for Native American culture: 

“I greatly enjoyed the Indians’ campfire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were taught by their parents ere the whites came among them, their religion, ideas connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals under different circumstance, manner of getting a living, etc.”[xvii]

Thereafter, Muir wrote repeatedly about the intelligence and dignity of Native Americans, and honored how traditional Indigenous peoples lived in peaceful coexistence with Nature and wild creatures, expressing his view that Native peoples “rank above” white settlers, who he increasingly described as selfish, base, and lacking honor.[xviii] This would become a constant theme in Muir’s writings, as he attacked the dominant white culture’s destructive and greedy ways, and its anthrosupremacist mindset that placed humans above all else and recognized no intrinsic value in ecosystems or wildlife species beyond whatever profit could be gained by exploiting them: 

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.”[xix]

This is the John Muir who is worthy of honor and respect—the Muir who evolved beyond his upbringing and worked to protect Nature while simultaneously promoting admiration for Native American culture and speaking against racist government policies toward Indigenous peoples in the United States. John Muir is not the only historical figure to have such an arc regarding the development of his character. Many of our most beloved historical figures, including those who fought for civil rights and women’s equality had arcs to their lives too—troubling views or actions at one point in their lives or careers that were later transcended by moral growth. 

As we join together to create a more inclusive and just environmental movement,[xx] and to bring about needed societal transformations to increase environmental protections, racial equality and social justice, defining people by the trajectory of their lives, rather than by the worst or lowest versions of themselves across the history of their experience, is going to be important. Why? Because we are going to need people to evolve, to become better, if we are going to succeed. John Muir’s evolution as a person can serve as an example of this.


Chad Hanson co-founded the John Muir Project in 1996. He first became involved in national forest protection after hiking the 2,700-mile length of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada with his older brother in 1989. During this hike he witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by rampant commercial logging on our National Forests in California, Oregon and Washington.

Chad finished his Bachelor of Science degree from UCLA after completing the Pacific Crest Trail, earned his law degree in 1995, and started the John Muir Project shortly thereafter. In 2003 Chad returned to school, and earned his Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California at Davis in 2007. He has published an impressive list of scientific research papers on forest and fire ecology, wildlife use of burned forest and fire history and trend.

Chas and Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D. co-edited and authored several chapters in a new book entitled The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix which was published in 2015 is by academic publisher Elsevier.

Endnotes

[i] (a) Fox, S.R. (1985), “The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy,” Univ. of Wisconsin Press; (b) Marquis, A.L. (Fall 2007), “A Mountain Calling,” National Parks Magazine; (c) Muir, J. (1916), “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” Houghton Mifflin Co.

[ii] Muir, J. (1916), “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” Houghton Mifflin Co. 

[iii] Muir’s 1867-1869 journals were published in book form many years later, e.g.: (a) Muir, J. (1911), “My First Summer in the Sierra”; (b) Muir, J. (1912), “The Yosemite”; (c) Muir, J. (1916), “A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf”. 

[iv] (a) Miller, R. (2005), “John Muir: Magnificent Tramp”, New York: Forge; (b) Wilson, P. (July 2015), “John Muir’s Wild Years,” Mountain Life; (c) Muir, J., “A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf”; (d) https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/muir.htm

[v] (a) Muir, J. (1911), “My First Summer in the Sierra”; (b) Muir, J. (1916), “A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf”.

[vi] (a) Mazel, D. (2000), “American Literary Environmentalism”, Athens: University of Georgia Press; (b) Bingaman, J.W. (1966), “The Ahwahnechees: A Story of Yosemite Indians,” http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/the_ahwahneechees/chapter_1.html

[vii] https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/muir.htm

[viii] Young, S.H. (1915), “Alaska Days with John Muir”, https://www.amazon.com/Alaska-Days-John-Samuel-Young/dp/1493626477

[ix] Muir, J. (1915), “Travels in Alaska”. 

[x] Swett, M. (1880), letter to L. Strentzel, In: Barnett, R. (2019), “John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?”

[xi] Muir, J. (1913), “Lessons of the Wilderness”, The Atlantic. 

[xii] https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/people/lummis.aspx

[xiii] Mair, A. (2017), “A Deeper Shade of Green”, https://www.sierraclub.org/change/2017/03/deeper-shade-green

[xiv] Muir, J. (1896), “The National Parks and Forest Reservations”, Sierra Club Bulletin.

[xv] (a) Muir, J. (1915), “Travels in Alaska”; (b) Young, S.H. (1915), “Alaska Days with John Muir”.

[xvi] Id. 

[xvii] Id. 

[xviii] Id. 

[xix] Muir, J. (1894), “The Mountains of California”.

[xx] Mair, A. (2017), “A Deeper Shade of Green”, https://www.sierraclub.org/change/2017/03/deeper-shade-green

8 Comments on “Who Was John Muir, Really?

  1. I am not a student of John Muir so this article gave me some context beyond the basic knowledge of his cause and beliefs. As a reader of this blog, I would add that this was a great article to include in your otherwise excellent conversation about wildfire. Please keep up the good work.

  2. Best article so far on this topic. Long on accuracy and very short of all the slogans being thrown around!!

  3. Thank you for posting this. Too much judgement is in the midst of this debate. Research and logical thinking is better. Thank you to Chad Hanson for contributing that!

  4. Very helpful Chad. This will be a good source for those who will charged with formally clarifying the official Sierra Club position on Muir. I only wish you had included more specific page references to your citations — if would make it easier for future students of Muir’s writings.

  5. Pingback: Intersectionality and Re-wilding Earth: Autumn 2020 Interview with Sandra Coveny - Rewilding

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