John Muir’s Life in 4 Artifacts


An object biography of a conservation icon

by SCA Museum Intern Dana Foster

ABOVE: The one and only John Muir lounges next to his tin cup somewhere in the Sierras. This photo was likely taken by T.P. Lukens’ daughter, Helen Lukens Gaut. (Source: NPS)

Known by many as the “Father of the National Park System,” John Muir’s life story is in many ways inseparable from the early history of Yosemite, where his passion for natural resource conservation was sparked, and where, from age 30 to 36, he lived and worked variously as a ranch hand, shepherd, and sawmill worker. In the 1870’s he wrote newspaper articles about the destruction of California’s woodlands, and later, in the 1880s and ‘90s, narrowed  his focus to conserving the area around the Yosemite Grant, which was signed by President Lincoln in 1864. At the time, the grant included two separate areas, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, leaving out now iconic High Sierra landscapes such as Toulumne Meadows.

Muir’s friend Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of the Century Magazine, made sure that officials in Washington received two Muir-penned letters that described the beauty of Yosemite, how it was being destroyed, and the importance of a proposed park bill that would expand the area protected by Lincoln’s grant. Boosted by Muir’s words, the bill passed in 1890, thus protecting the “Yosemite Forest Reservation” which was later renamed Yosemite National Park.

One of the most rewarding things about being an SCA Museum Intern at Yosemite is getting to connect visitors with the many inspiring men and women who had hands in the park’s history, including of course the legendary John Muir.  Here are 4 artifacts that reveal important parts of Muir’s story, currently on display for the “Why Yosemite Collects” 90th anniversary exhibit.

1. Pine-Felling Whipsaw

As you enter the gallery, you’ll notice a broken section of whipsaw hanging safely behind the museum docent. The tip is missing, it’s covered in rust, and it lacks a handle, but it has a story to tell. In 1870, James Hutchings sought to improve his hotel accommodations with additional cottages but could not get his water-operated sawmill to work.  When 31-year-old John Muir arrived at the hotel looking for work he was hired to operate the mill. It was this saw that he most likely used  to fell yellow pines which he then transported to the mill using oxen. He did not hold this job for long, however as Hutchings’ jealousy of him grew into hatred as Muir gained popularity as a guide and naturalist. 

John Muir's whipsaw.John Muir’s whipsaw. 

2. Point-Proving Glacier Stakes

At the far end of the gallery, past the mountain lion skull and the $15,000 rock, lies a long exhibit case with two pieces of wood and several other objects. They appear insignificant at first glance, but the description reads “John Muir’s stakes to measure glacial movement”. Muir John Muir's glacial movement measuring stakes. believed that the valley was formed by glacial movement, in direct opposition to California state geologist Josiah Whitney who believed that Yosemite Valley was formed not by glaciers but when “the bottom of the valley sank down.” Whitney regarded Muir as nothing more than a “sheepherder” and “ignoramus”, but Muir’s theory proved correct. Scholars agree that these stakes are the ones used by Muir and Galen Clark in 1872 to measure Maclure Glacier since the location and shape match Muir’s accounts and they were found in the glacier’s moraine.

3. Portrait-Enhancing Tin Cup

John Muir's engraved tin cup. A large burden basket in the adjacent case overshadows a small, rusted, tin cup. Look closely at the cup you’ll see an inscription that reads, “1895 John Muir’s kit used in trip through Toulumne Canyon….” According to one of his journal entries, Muir came across T.P. Lukens on a trail in Hetch Hetchy in 1895. He left his cup (the very same cup sitting next to him in the photo above), crackers, and tea behind while noting how few supplies he had in comparison to Lukens. It is unknown if Muir made the inscription or if another individual,(we’re looking at you, Lukens) placed the inscription on the cup.A tracing of John Muir's foot made to aid a shoemaker.

4. Pre-Siberia Traced Foot

Next to the tin cup lies what looks like a child-penned outline of a human foot on a piece of yellow notebook paper. In 1904, 66 year old John Muir traced his foot for shoemaker J. Dahlstrom to construct him a pair of shoes for his glacier climbing trip in Siberia, part of his world tour. Dahlstrom describes Muir’s request in a letter to Mrs. H. J. Taylor, Yosemite Museum Librarian: “The shoes I made were ordinary lace shoes as worn today, with wide plain toes…Thick single soles were the best as one must be able to feel with the feet through the soles the security of the footholds as they are shaped out step by step in the ice.”

John Muir’s legacy of conservation lives on in these objects, and in Yosemite National Park itself. His reverence for nature and its restorative power is contagious, and it’s hard to visit the park without catching it.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” – John Muir

When John Muir outlined his foot for a shoemaker in 1904 it was for a pair of shoes he planned to where on a Siberian glacier trek. 

All photos via NPS/Yosemite National Park 

As an SCA Museum Intern at Yosemite National Park, Dana Foster is sharpening her cultural resource management (CRM) skills and making it easier for people to connect with the historical, cultural, and interpretive resources that illuminate the connections between cultural identities and the natural landscape.