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John MuirJohn Muir

Hoosier Connection: Muir lived in Indianapolis for one-and-a-half years, working at the Osgood and Smith carriage factory and collecting botanical examples in and around the city.

Works Discussed: Unpublished letters and notes, kept at the Holt-Atherton Library of the University of the Pacific

John Muir, considered by many the founder of America's conservationist movement, is best known as an advocate for and protector of wilderness areas of Western states, as well as founder of the Sierra Club.

He was born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838 but moved to a Wisconsin farm with his family eleven years later. Despite a limited education and difficult childhood, Muir was already a budding inventor by his mid-teens. By his mid-twenties, though, his love of machinery was rivaled by his increasing love of the earth sciences—geology, ornithology, and, most of all, botany.

After more than two years of study at the University of Wisconsin and work experience at a sawmill and factory in Ontario, Canada, Muir arrived in Indianapolis in 1866. He intentionally selected Indianapolis as a suitable place to live and work, not simply because Osgood and Smith manufacturing would make good use of his talents in machine invention, but, more importantly, because the city's surroundings would allow him to pursue his interests in botany.

He reveled in the natural beauty that enveloped Indianapolis—the remnants of a great deciduous forest that once covered the entire area. He wandered the fields and woodlands for early morning walks, studying the plant and tree species found there (see table). Amidst "the beautiful flowers and trees of God's own garden, so pure and chaste and lovely," he wrote to his sister Sarah, he shed "tears of joy" (qtd. in Turner 122). Happy to share the beauty he observed, Muir took his Sunday school classes of women and children to the forest to learn from nature as the best of all possible teachers.

Yet, as much as he relished his hobby as a naturalist, John wrote, in a letter to Sarah, of "restless fires" within that urged him to pursue a career in "noisy commercial centers," even though such a career diverged from his "real wishes." "[N]ow that I among machines," he told her, "I begin to feel that I have some talent that way, and so I almost think, unless things change soon, I shall turn my whole mind into that channel" (qtd. in Turner 121-22).

As the next year passed, Muir found himself even more deeply enmeshed in his professional life as a sawyer and inventor at the factory. He wrote his brother Dan, "I mean now...to give my whole attention to machines because I must[.] I can not get my mind upon anything else..." (qtd. in Turner 123).

But in March of 1867, fate seemed to step in and wrench Muir back to the single-minded pursuit of nature. At the Osgood and Smith factory one day, in tightening a new belt on a machine, Muir accidentally let the pointed end of a file fly upward, which struck the cornea of his right eye. As the white vitreous humor of his eye dripped out, one of his co-workers heard him whisper, "My right eye is gone, closed forever on all God's beauty" (qtd. in Turner 125).

John Muir in his "Scribble  Den"

John Muir in his "Scribble

Within a few hours the left eye, in what's now considered a sympathetic reaction, also failed, and Muir was entirely blind. A doctor's examination assured him that his vision in the left eye would quickly return, and that he would regain most of his vision in the right eye, all of which proved to be true over the coming days and weeks. During his recovery he was offered charge of a new machine shop for Osgood and Smith, but Muir's mind was only on nature. "I wish to try some cloudy day to walk to the woods," he wrote to his friend Jeanne Carr, "where I am sure some of Spring's fresh born is waiting" (qtd. in Turner 127).

When Muir finally returned to the fields, a month after his accident, the direction of his life was decided: he chose nature over the world of machines, resigning from Osgood and Smith and completing his recovery in Wisconsin. After reveling in his returned sight in Illinois and Wisconsin, he began his famous "thousand-mile walk," from Jeffersonville, Indiana, to Cedar Keys, Florida, in just under two months. It was the first of Muir's many long walks through wilderness areas of North and South Americas and the subject of his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916).

In the years to come, Muir established his place among America's great naturalists. In addition to founding the Sierra Club, he is credited for influencing the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. His published writings, now collected in a dozen volumes, tell of his great passion for wilderness, especially in the American West.

Muir's one-and-a-half years in Indianapolis, while admittedly brief and absent from his later writings about the natural environment, actually ended up being the turning point in his life. If not for the carriage factory accident, Muir's debate between a life devoted to machines and a life devoted to nature might not have been decided so assuredly and swiftly.



Badè, William Frederic. The Life and Letters of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.

"The Life and Contributions of John Muir." John Muir Exhibit. 5 Oct. 2002. The Sierra Club. 17 Oct. 2002 <http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/index.html>.

Turner, Frederick. Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours. New York: Viking, 1985.

Wilkins, Thurman. John Muir: Apostle of Nature. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1995.

Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New York: Knopf, 1945.


Bancroft Library Collection, U of CA Berkeley. In "Photographs of John Muir." John Muir Exhibit. 5 Oct. 2002. The Sierra Club. 17 Oct. 2002 <http://www.sierraclub.org/
john_muir_exhibit/ pictures/photographs.html

Muir, John. Series No. 3/1. U of Wisconsin Archives. In "John Muir in His 'Scribble Den.'" 5 Oct. 2002. Wisconsin Electronic Reader. 27 Sept. 2001. <http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/WIReader/Images


John Muir Exhibit (the seminal website on Muir, created by the Sierra Club)

John Muir Memorial Association