John Muir was an American preservationist. Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir came to love the natural world. At age eleven, Muir’s family immigrated to the United States and settled in Wisconsin working as farmers. John loved inventing mechanical contraptions, and he took them to the Wisconsin State Fair. Impressed with his ingenuity, faculty at the University of Wisconsin invited him to apply. Once accepted, he studied geology and botany for four years. Before graduating, Muir felt a drive to leave the university and explore the world. He walked a thousand miles to Florida and then boarded a ship to California. Upon arriving, he inquired where the wildest place in California was, and people referred him to Yosemite.
Yosemite derives its name from an indigenous tribe living in Yosemite Valley. Known as extremely violent tribe, their neighboring tribes called the people yohhe’meti, meaning “they are killers.” As white settlers moved in, they called the place Yosemite. One of the first settlers in the area was James Mason Hutchings. He built a hotel and a sawmill in the valley and advertised Yosemite as a tourist attraction. When Congress passed the bill declaring Yosemite as protected land, Hutchings received permission to stay. As his business grew, he hired a Scottish immigrant named John Muir to work in his sawmill.
Upon arriving in Yosemite Valley, Muir felt “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.” He decided to stay and obtained a job working in a sawmill in the valley. In his spare time, Muir explored the land and conducted botanical and geological studies. Muir felt a spiritual connection to the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains in general. He called them a “temple of nature,” a place to connect to God.
John despaired that the extractive lumber and mining industry throughout the Sierra Nevada was destroying the natural beauty and would keep future generations from finding that spiritual connection. Muir wrote articles for a number of magazines and newspapers to describe to the public the value of these beautiful lands. He explained the horrors of the deforestation and mining that were destroying irreplaceable wonders. The nation responded, and called upon Congress to protect these places for future generations.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln had signed a bill passed by Congress to set aside land in the Sierra Nevada Mountains called Yosemite. Yosemite’s creation marked the first time in American and perhaps world history, where a government passed a law to preserve land as a park for future generations. Yosemite became the first state park of California, and in 1890 became the nation’s second national park.
Yosemite remains one of the United States’ most popular National Parks to this day. Each year millions of visitors enjoy its breathtaking beauty. Among its many famous features are Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Mirror Lake. The efforts to protect Yosemite from human development led the way to a string of state and national parks that we still enjoy today.