John Muir: The Father of National Parks

American Icons, Featured Article, History, Home & Family, Living Green, Outdoors, People, Traditions
on August 21, 2012
Courtesy of National Park Service

During the late 1800s, writer, naturalist and conservationist John Muir traveled America’s wilderness, especially in the Sierra Nevada of California. His passionate writings sparked America’s first conservation movement, earning him fans such as President Theodore Roosevelt, who accompanied him in 1903 to California’s Yosemite Valley. Muir died in 1914 at age 76, but his legacy lives on in his writings, the wilderness he helped preserve, and in the Sierra Club, the environmental organization that he founded in 1892.

Donald Worster, professor of American history at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and author of A Passion For Nature: The Life Of John Muir, spoke with American Profile about the man regarded as the Father of our National Parks.

Related: Do You Know Your National Parks?

American Profile: Why is John Muir called the Father of our National Parks?
Donald Worster:
Muir was a key figure in creating and protecting Yosemite National Park, our second national park. Yellowstone is our first, but the federal government earlier set aside Yosemite Valley as a reservation. Muir worked to get the valley incorporated into the park. He also was influential in establishing parks and monuments such as the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Glacier Bay.

AP: How did Muir change how Americans felt about wilderness?
Muir was a painter in a sense, not with a brush or oil, but with his words. He opened people’s eyes to a landscape that he knew did not exist in places like his native Scotland. It often took an immigrant coming into the country to see what Americans had that was special and needed to be cherished and preserved. He opened people’s eyes and helped them see the depth and beauty of these places.

AP: How was Muir able to be so influential?
He first became famous as a writer, and it was his writings that really touched a lot of people. Publishers came to his house wanting whatever he could give them in the way of an essay. Teddy Roosevelt read his articles, and when he became president he said, “I’m going to California, and the man I want to see is John Muir.” So he began to make political connections through his talent as a writer. Muir made friends, particularly later in life, who were rich and powerful, and he called upon those people for political support when he began to work for wilderness preservation.

AP: Did Muir’s writing unify the country?
Very possibly. His audience was national; it wasn’t just California. He was teaching Americans that the wilderness belonged to them and they had a responsibility to take care of it. That was perhaps a new idea for people. He didn’t simply unify people; he gave them a reason to care for these places, to develop a sense of responsibility for what had come into their hands.

AP: What did you learn about Muir in your research that surprised you?
I began to understand him as a family man and his role in the community. The image of John Muir is of this lone guy up in the Sierra Nevada, hiking along with a loaf of bread and jug of water. But he was married and had two daughters; he was a farmer and very much a member of the community. He formed powerful, close friendships that he kept all of his life and that made him effective. He wouldn’t have been particularly persuasive if he had just stayed up in the mountains alone.

AP: His writing is very spiritual. Did religion play a role in his ideas?
Nature was the source of his religious feelings. He found his spiritual outlet in the natural world. The creation was full of spiritual meaning for him. You can’t pin down his theology too easily, but he basically turned to the outdoors as his religious experience. And millions of people have followed him in that direction. He wanted to get to what he thought was the real source of our spiritual experience.

Related: What Is a National Park?