Who Was John Muir, Really?

Recent media inaccurately represents Muir as a racist. That portrayal could create damaging divisions within the environmental movement.

The environmental community is engaged in a deeply important conversation about equity. It holds great promise for a more inclusive, diverse, and powerful movement — one that is progressing toward an equitable future while confronting some of the troubling aspects of its history. As long time environmental leaders, we have gotten together to write about Sierra Club founder John Muir, who hasn’t been immune to present-day scrutiny. Muir’s story is complicated. Like many of us, he had his blind spots and prejudices, particularly in his early writings. But also, like many of us, he increased his knowledge and understanding of people different than him as he gained more exposure and experience. In all, he kickstarted a new era of environmentalism, fueled by ideals that are still relevant as we continue to face a series of ecological crises.

John Muir, pictured at the Muir Woods National Monument in the San Francisco Bay Area, kickstarted a new era of environmentalism. Photo courtesy of Golden Gate Park Archives.

It’s important to think critically about our movement’s historical figures, John Muir included. However, some recent articles by environmentalists and environmental writers — though perhaps guided by good intentions, and well-written and researched in other respects — contain some inaccurate and unfounded information that could create damaging divisions among the conservation movement and environmental justice advocates. We aim to set the record straight.

A 2020 Sierra Club online column, for example, insinuated that Muir aligned with the abhorrent views of white supremacist Joseph LeConte and eugenicist David Starr Jordan, both of whom were on the early Sierra Club board of directors with Muir. The post generated headlines. One national news story after another reported the inaccurate claim that John Muir was a racist, despite the fact that Muir’s association with LeConte and Jordan pertained to their shared interests in geology and wildlife and Muir did not espouse either their white supremacist views nor support their writings on eugenics or LeConte’s history of enslaving people. Implying or equating Muir with eugenics proponents like LeConte or Jordan and their works is both factually and historically wrong. In an unfortunate failure of omission, the online article also failed to credit foundational previous work on history and race by people of color in the Sierra Club.

Another recent article, in Politico, claimed that “John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, sought to preserve land by urging policies that pushed Native Americans and Blacks off it,” tracking a 2011 book and a 2018 Outside magazine article which made the same factual misrepresentation.

These writings provided no historical source for this claim, nor does one exist because the statement is simply inaccurate. Muir did not promote removal of Native peoples from ancestral lands, nor did he promote exclusion of Black Americans from protected lands. Similarly, a report by the Center for American Progress falsely claimed that Muir “promoted ideas of restricting immigration by nonwhites,” citing a 2019 article by The Guardian which attributed those anti-immigrant views to a person named Madison Grant, not to John Muir. A 2016 article in Atlas Obscura inaccurately stated that Muir called Native Americans “uncouth…savages” when, in fact, he was referring to White settlers.

Most recently, Sierra magazine published an essay that blames Muir for the “erasure” of Native Americans, claiming that Muir failed to “recognize and convey” the fact that Native peoples had lived on the land, and influenced the landscape, long before the arrival of settlers. This too, however, is at odds with Muir’s writings. In My First Summer in the Sierra, Muir mused, “How many centuries Indians have roamed these woods nobody knows; probably a great many, extending far beyond the time Columbus touched our shores.” And Muir specifically noted how Native peoples interacted with the landscape while living in harmony with wild nature, writing about their influence “on the forest by their fires they made to improve their hunting grounds.”

In our opinion, these articles and others have presented a narrow and sometimes inaccurate image of Muir — one that omits the eventual evolution in his views.

As these articles note, it is true that in some of his earlier personal journal writings in the years before he became an environmental advocate, Muir, who was raised by an abusive and racist father, used derogatory and hurtful language regarding Black and Indigenous people. For example, in 1867, during his post-Civil War 1,000-mile walk through the US South, he used an abbreviation of the n-word in a journal entry, in reference to an African-American boy who he met. At no point in Muir’s personal journey did he support or empathize with the Southern cause. In fact, he avoided entreaties from Southern hosts when they prodded him.

A couple of years later, when Muir first arrived in the Sierra Nevada and worked in the livestock ranching industry, years before he became a conservation advocate, he commented about the “strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead,” referring to Native Americans. Years later, Muir would repeatedly use the term “savages” to refer to White loggers and miners.

In another example from 1869, Muir showed his lack of understanding of the genocide and displacement of Native Americans that was occurring, as he wrote about one group of Native Americans who came “shambling” toward him, asking him for whisky. He described the group as “dismal” and “degraded,” which, he wrote, “contrasted” with other Native Americans whom he was “admiring.” He indicated no comprehension at that time of the causes of the despair that he was witnessing. Muir wrote that he was glad to “get away from the gray, grim crowd,” and later reflected, in apparent guilt, “Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better.”

Like many great social change leaders of the nineteenth century, Muir grew and evolved through personal experience and knowledge. In a conversation in 1880 with an Army colonel, Muir attacked what he described as the US government’s “mean, brutal policy” toward Native Americans. In his later public writings, he expressed the sentiment that Indigenous peoples had been unjustly “pushed ruthlessly back into narrower and narrower limits by alien races who were cutting off their means of livelihood.”

And while some of Muir’s colleagues promoted White supremacist myths and exclusionary views regarding national parks and forests, 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.” He came to believe deeply in the equality of all people, writing, “We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places.”

Muir traveled to Alaska numerous times to learn about the landscape and Indigenous peoples. He formed strong relationships with Alaskan Natives, among whom he lived for extended periods of time. During his 1879 trip to Alaska, Muir spoke about the “the brotherhood of all peoples of whatever color or name.” In turn, two different tribes bestowed on Muir honorary titles. The Tlingit called him “great ice chief” while the Stikine tribe of the Tlingit called him “adopted chief” (Ancoutahan).

Muir wrote about the Chilcat nation’s 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.” And he conveyed deep admiration for Alaska Natives’ 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.”

Thereafter, Muir wrote repeatedly about the how traditional Indigenous peoples lived in peaceful coexistence with wild nature, while he described White settlers as selfish, base, and lacking honor. This would become a constant theme in Muir’s writings, as he attacked the dominant White culture’s destructive and greedy ways and its anthro-supremacist 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. For example, during the struggle to save Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley from being flooded by a dam, Muir wrote this about some of his fellow White people, “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.” Muir dedicated himself to fighting a series of federal colonization statutes that he called the “settlement laws.” In doing so, he helped to prevent hundreds of millions of acres from being privatized and transferred into the hands of white logging, mining, and grazing corporations.

Muir’s relationship with Chinese Americans is often overlooked as well. As a fruit orchard owner, Muir employed Chinese immigrants and spent long days working in the fields alongside them. This was during the time period of the Chinese Exclusion Acts — an era of severe anti-Chinese racism when Chinese immigrants, and those who employed them, were frequently harassed and sometimes attacked. On his travels to China, Southeast Asia, and Africa in the early twentieth century, he took every opportunity to talk with merchants, farmers, and people in bazaars about the landscape, culture, poetry, and philosophy, as he reveled in the “marvelous variety” of “varied and interesting” cultures and ethnicities and streets “full of people of every color.” Muir ended his life living in the care of his Chinese employees.

John Muir remains worthy of honor and respect as a person who studied, recorded, and shared the natural areas of the United States and the world, and the role of humans within the environment. He played a significant role in preserving and protecting important areas of our country. Muir dedicated his life to promoting the inherent values and rights of nature. He understood interconnectedness of all existence, observing, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” These words of universal syllogism parallel those of Martin Luther King, Jr., who similarly wrote:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

In short, Muir spoke to the harmony and connection of people and creation, not racial hierarchy or human dominance.

More than a century later, we are seeing the consequences of the failure of human societies to recognize the values Muir espoused. The impacts of humanity’s refusal to acknowledge our interconnectedness with nature and our assault on the natural world has created three existential threats to humanity and the biosphere: the climate crisis, the extinction crisis, and the zoonotic spillover crisis we are now experiencing with Covid-19.

As long time conservationists and environmental leaders, we write because we understand, now more than ever, that the fate of humanity is inextricably linked to the fate of the natural world, and we are all in this together. We care deeply about people, our environment, and the conservation and environmental justice movements. And we are keenly aware of how, in the United States, systemic racism causes communities of color to be disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and pollution. But we cannot allow sloppy or opportunistic statements to divert the environmental movement, which includes the concerns and needs of people of color and all people, from our goal of creating a sustainable and livable Earth. We believe conservation organizations, with their volunteers, staff, and members, must address our own biases, those within the environmental movement, and within our country.

If John Muir can transform from a narrow-minded Scottish immigrant farm boy to a global citizen who understood the interconnectedness of all life, so can we.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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