Country of origin: Scotland
Year came to U.S.: 1849
Education: University of Wisconsin (incomplete)
Organization: The Sierra Club (1892)
Headquarters: San Francisco, CA
2019 revenue: $156 million
U.S. employment: 600
An industrial accident led John Muir to dedicate his life to the natural beauty of the environment.
Dozens of places are named after him including the Muir Woods National Monument, the John Muir Trail, Muir College and many schools.
“He ascended to the pantheon of the highest individuals in our country; I’m talking about the level of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson … people who have had a transformational effect on who we are.” – Filmmaker Ken Burns
John Muir was a writer and conservationist who remains an inspiration to many today. He is renowned for his adventures in California’s Sierra Nevada, among Alaska’s glaciers and around the world in search of nature’s beauty.
As a writer, Muir contributed greatly to the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks. Filmmaker Ken Burns, who produced a documentary for PBS in 2009 called The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, compared Muir to some of the “highest individuals” in U.S. history because of the “transformational effect” of his work.
Born in the small seaside village of Dunbar, Scotland, Muir immigrated to Wisconsin with his family in 1849 at age 11. There, he helped clear the wilderness to build a farm. He started college but left without a degree to tinker with machinery and inventions. While working in an Indianapolis factory to improve manufacturing tools, an accident temporarily blinded him in one eye. Worried that he would never see nature’s beauty again, he resolved to give up the inventions of man and instead focus on “the inventions of God.”
Muir’s fame grew over many years of exploring and writing about the wilderness. After he and Century magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson launched a successful campaign to establish Yosemite National Park in 1890, he remained troubled by the ongoing destruction of the meadows and forests of his beloved Sierra Nevada. So, together with a group of like-minded people, he co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892 to explore, enjoy and protect the Sierra Nevada and other mountains in the U.S.
Thanks to John Muir’s work, many wild places have been preserved as national treasures belonging to all Americans. Unfortunately, Muir himself did not see all of his fellow Americans as equal. As a young explorer, he expressed racist beliefs toward Black people and Native Americans. The Sierra Club has acknowledged and apologized for its troubling past and pledged to change into an actively anti-racist organization.
The Sierra Club has grown into the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization with more than 20,000 volunteer leaders and 2.5 million members and supporters. Its priorities now include protecting clean air, soil and water as well as wilderness. Today, the Sierra Club’s highest priority is to reverse climate change and create a clean, renewable energy future. In California, “John Muir Day” is celebrated on Muir’s birthday, April 21.
Learn more about immigrant founders practicing social entrepreneurship in the blog post Immigrant Entrepreneurs Embrace Social Responsibility.
Updated July 2022