Scottish-born naturalist, John Muir was born on April 21, 1838. His work in conservation, including founding the Sierra Club, led the California Historical Society to name him The Greatest Californian to ever live, in 1976. Research for this blog, however, revealed many other reasons why he may be referred to as the Greatest Californian.
He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at the age of 22 and there became intrigued with botany when a fellow student explained how the grand locust tree was related to the straggling pea. As a freshman he studied chemistry with Ezra Carr and became lifelong friends with him and his wife. However he never earned a degree due to his eclectic array of classes.
In 1864 he moved to Canada to avoid the draft and wandered around Lake Huron gathering plants. When his money ran out, he started working in a saw mill, where he stood our due to his inventiveness and his ability to improve machines and processes. In March 1867, Muir experienced a life-changing event. He nearly lost his sight in an accident at the mill. Upon regaining his vision, he vowed to be true to himself and follow his dream of exploring and studying plants. In 1867, he walked 1000 miles from Indiana to Florida choosing the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.” His trek is recorded in, A 1000-mile Walk to the Gulf.
He wound up in California in 1868 and fell in love with Yosemite. Muir’s biographer, Amy Marquis, describes it like this. “He was overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower.”
A gifted inventor, Muir designed a water-powered mill to cut wind-felled trees and built a small cabin along Yosemite Creek, designing it so that a section of the stream would flow through a corner of the room so that he could enjoy the sound of running water.
Unmarried, often unemployed and with no prospects for a career, John Muir was truly the Greatest Californian.
(Actually, Muir latter married in 1880 at age 42.)
This photograph was taken c. 1902 and is in the public domain.