California: John Muir National Historic Site Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Muir lived in the seventeen-room Victorian house at this site from 1890 until his death in 1914. In the upstairs “scribble den,” he wrote books and articles to educate the American public on the importance of conserving wilderness. Muir helped to found the Sierra Club and served as its president. Historians often describe Muir as the “Father of National Parks.”

Site Office

John Muir National Historic Site

4202 Alhambra Avenue

Martinez, CA 94553

ph.: (925) 228-8860

fax: (925) 228-8192

Web site: www.npa.gov/jomu

Recognition of John Muir’s influential role in American history increased as the environmental movement grew in the last half of the twentieth century. Muir had long been known as an adventurer, scientist, explorer, and naturalist. Renewed respect for his successes in persuading government to preserve Yosemite and a half dozen other sites as National Parks led to a reexamination of his writing. Adapting elements of his Scottish religious heritage to his own experiences in wild nature enabled Muir to portray vividly the sanctity and interrelatedness of all life-forms.

How Muir Came to Live in California

John Muir moved to California after an accident damaged his eyesight. His vision returned but during the recovery period he decided to leave his early vocation as an inventor, planning instead to travel and collect plant specimens.

Born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 18, 1838, Muir had come with his family to the United States in 1849. They settled in Wisconsin where Muir lived and worked on the family farm. Although he was not allowed to attend school in America (mainly due to his father’s extreme religious views), he did read and create mechanical devices by whittling. When he displayed his remarkable inventions at the state fair he won admiration and was soon invited to attend the University of Wisconsin. There he was introduced to the American philosophy of Transcendentalism and learned of the controversial scientific theory of glaciation introduced by Louis Agassiz in 1840. After two and a half years of study, Muir left school, going first to Canada and later to Indianapolis where the eye injury took place while he was working in a carriage factory.

Muir recovered his vision, but during his convalescence he decided to spend his life seeing the world instead of working in a factory. He left as soon as possible on a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico. Journals from the trip record his joy at being immersed in nature even though he ran out of money and food and contracted malaria. He hoped to go on to South America but ended his trip after several weeks in Cuba. Attracted by a brochure on Yosemite, he decided to try California next.

Muir of the Mountains

Arriving in San Francisco in March of 1868, Muir went immediately to a rural area where he worked as a laborer and spent as much time as possible in the mountains. During his first summer in the Sierra Nevada, he was employed as a sheepherder. Returning to the lowlands, he lived nearby for several years while he worked, wrote, and guided visitors on trips into the mountains. Drawn by Muir’s reputation for vision and intelligence, Ralph Waldo Emerson became one of many well-known visitors whom Muir guided. Through his scientific observations, Muir was able to prove that glaciers had formed Yosemite–a surprise to the experts who claimed that it had resulted from earthquakes.

Muir’s writing campaign in favor of preserving the natural beauty of Yosemite began in the 1870’s but was interrupted in 1880 by his marriage and the need to support his family. From 1880 to 1890 Muir, his wife Louie, and his growing family lived in the ranch house of the Strenzel Ranch, given to him along with twenty acres of the fruit ranch by his in-laws. Muir soon became responsible for the entire ranch and although his work there was highly profitable, he had little time to write, and his health suffered dramatically.

In 1889, Muir was enlisted to rejoin the wilderness preservation movement. Encouraged by Louie to renew his writing career, Muir took an apartment in San Francisco where he could focus on writing. There, Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor of the important magazine The Century, came to persuade Muir to write in Yosemite’s defense. Johnson had not forgotten Muir’s role as wilderness advocate and author in the 1870’s. The two men went camping in areas that Muir had not seen for years. Undisciplined development had spoiled many of Muir’s beloved areas: Meadows had been plowed, trees cut, and the forest floor eaten bare by sheep.

Johnson believed that if the American people learned of the tragedy of Yosemite through Muir’s words, they would support the creation of a National Park. Yosemite would be the first National Park with the stated purpose of preserving wilderness. Muir agreed to write two articles. Then, when Muir’s father-in-law, Dr. John Strenzel, died, the Muir family moved to the Victorian mansion that is the centerpiece of the John Muir Historical Site.

The two articles by Muir in The Century helped launch the Yosemite National Park campaign. The law creating the park passed in 1890, and three more National Parks were created in California soon after. In 1891, what is known as “The Enabling Act” was passed, allowing presidents to set aside lands for preservation. Heartened by success but aware of the need for continued vigilance, Muir and his conservation friends founded the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect the Sierra Nevada. Muir’s book The Mountains of California (1894) increased his audience and heightened his reputation. President Theodore Roosevelt came to Yosemite to camp out with Muir and hear his views on wild nature. Roosevelt was impressed but later supported the multiple use practices advocated by the first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. These practices included ongoing or increased logging, grazing, and other development that preservationists opposed. Muir’s worst setback came with the failure of Congress to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a part of Yosemite, from being flooded by a dam built to provide San Francisco with water. Muir had opposed the dam for years. The loss of Hetch Hetchy, however, solidified the preservationists, who redoubled their efforts to save wilderness reserves throughout the country.

Time to Revise

From 1890 until his death in 1914, Muir worked diligently at his writing. Our National Parks was published in 1901. He often drew from his journals, especially for My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) and My Boyhood and Youth (1913). Few who read him can forget his vigorous prose–his calling sheep “hoofed locusts” for the destruction they cause in forests and his saying about humans: “Any fool can destroy a tree.” Most memorable is his unqualified love for nature. As he wrote in 1875, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether it is seen as carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening–-still all is Beauty.”

The legacy of John Muir is remarkable. By the end of the twentieth century, the National Park Service administered over 350 parks, monuments, seashores, rivers, and preserves covering more than eighty million acres–sights visited by over 250 million people yearly. Further, over 650,000 people belong to the Sierra Club, a powerful environmental organization. As these examples indicate, it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of John Muir’s leadership as the “Father of National Parks.”

When to Visit and What to Do

The John Muir National Historic Site provides visitors with new insight into Muir’s indoor life, his family, home, and writing career. The site may be reached by automobile or public transportation. Detailed directions are available from the National Park Service and the Sierra Club. The site is normally open several hours a day, five days per week. There is a small admission fee for adults to be paid at the visitor center, where a thirty-minute film about John Muir can be viewed along with exhibits.

The Muir House and the Martinez Adobe (where Muir’s daughter Wanda and her husband lived) are open to visitors. In the Muir House, Victorian furnishings have been used to refurbish the house in the style of the period from 1906 to 1914 as based on descriptions given by Muir’s daughters. Reproductions of landscapes by Muir’s friend, William Keith, portray the natural scenes that especially inspired Muir, including Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Falls. Muir’s upstairs bedroom windows have no curtains, as Muir liked to be awakened by the sun. His scribble den, the room in which he wrote his impassioned arguments in defense of wilderness, displays a disheveled authenticity.

Nine acres of the original orchards have been preserved and planted with fruit the Muir family cultivated. These species include plums, pears, apricots, cherries, pomegranates, oranges, and figs. The 1849 Martinez Adobe sits behind the orchards.

In 1988, the National Park Service added 325 acres to the site that were originally part of the Muir-Strentzel Ranch. The parcel includes a hill called Mount Wanda after Muir’s oldest daughter, who accompanied him on walks in the surrounding hills. Visitors may also walk there. The area is connected to the original nine acres with a one-mile, self-guided loop trail and several additional miles of fire access roads.

There are numerous special events at the site including John Muir’s birthday celebration and an annual celebration of Muir’s Scottish heritage. In December, the traditional Mexican celebration of Christmas, Las Posadas, is centered in the Martinez Adobe. Victorian Christmas decorations are displayed in the Muir house in accordance with the Muir family traditions. Included are pine boughs, red ribbon, and a big laurel branch hung with paper ornaments.

Other special programs at the site include bird walks, wildflower walks, monthly Victorian piano programs, and a junior ranger program. The National Park Service also owns the nearby John Muir gravesite.

For Further Information
  • Cohen, Michael P. The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984. Examines Muir’s difficult decisions as he struggled to win protection for natural areas by increasing their popularity with the public at large.
  • “John Muir Exhibit.” www.sierraclub.org. An informative site presenting an annotated bibliography of books by and about John Muir, further Internet resources, and information on the “John Muir Library Series” from Sierra Club Books–paperback reprints with introductions by modern writers. All of Muir’s published books, now in the public domain, are reprinted at this site for reading online.
  • Kimes, William F., and Maymie B. Kimes. John Muir: A Reading Bibliography. 2d. ed. Davis, Calif.: Panorama West, 1986. A reference for Muir’s published work beginning with his first letter on “The Calypso Borealis” in the December, 1866, Boston Recorder and concluding with the entry for the John Muir Papers.
  • Muir, John. John Muir in His Own Words. Edited by Peter Browning. Lafayette, Calif.: Great West Books, 1988. Thirteen chapters of quotations arranged in chronological order, including “Going to the Mountains” and “Tourists and Development.” Includes detailed index.
  • Nash, Roderick. “John Muir: Publicizer.” In Wilderness and the American Mind. 3d. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A concise biography emphasizing Muir’s role in the creation of national parks.
  • Wadsworth, Ginger. John Muir: Wilderness Protector. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1992. An easy-to-read biography of Muir’s personal as well as professional life.
  • Wolfe, Linnie Marsh, ed. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir. Reprint. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979. Shows the journal base from which later works were written.
  • _______. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945. Reprint. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978. A well-researched and detailed biography of John Muir.
Categories: History Content