The John Muir Controversy

By: Ramneet Jande

An important figure in California’s rich history, American conservationist John Muir is known for his activism to preserve the wildlife areas of the United States, especially his beloved Yosemite. With his detailed writings describing the outdoors, he has influenced many Americans to appreciate the wilderness. Muir is responsible for aiding in the conservation of many national parks such as Yosemite. He was a monumental figure in the United States’ conservation movement, a movement which at the time was not inclusive, and had many members who promoted racist ideology.

On July 22, 2020, the Sierra Club (founded by Muir in 1892) released a message in which they acknowledged their past racist history and the damage it has caused many people of color. Despite Muir being the grassroots organization’s founder, the club is determined to acknowledge some of the controversial and racial statements Muir made. This change comes after the killing of George Floyd, and as various Confederate monuments are being removed by protesters around the country. At the University of the Pacific, President Christopher Callahan also released a statement the day after the Sierra Club’s, explaining how Pacific would be reimagining how Muir is studied here, as well as how his writings are displayed to the public. The room that houses the Muir Collection will be designed to teach about Muir’s life in full including his views on race.

Professor Mike Wurtz, head archivist at Pacific’s Special Collections and Archives, was contacted to see how the restructuring of the Muir collection was going. The archives house the largest collection of Muir archival materials in the world. The documents are public, so that scholars can understand and interpret the documents themselves. Professor Wurtz writes that, “Facilitating new examinations of Muir, including his views of race and of native peoples and African Americans among other groups, is one way we can make a contribution to the national conversation about Muir that is taking place right now.” The Muir collection room will examine the racism that was prominent in the conservation movement in the time Muir lived. Professor Wurtz also included that the rest of the library was also included in these efforts to help visitors learn more about Muir’s writings. A university library committee is to be consulted on the project throughout the year.

Professor Wurtz, along with Dr. Bill Swagerty of the history department, co-teach a biannual class on John Muir and his role in the American conservation movement. Dr. Swagerty is the director of College of the Pacific’s John Muir Center and has been teaching the class on Muir for 20 years. Professor Wurtz mentions that the class will be refocusing on a “broader view of Muir and the American Conservation Movement since the 1800s to the present, and will provide students an opportunity to explore Muir’s views on race themselves through direct examination of his papers.”

Dr. Jennifer Helgren, a professor here at Pacific and chair of the history department, provided more insight on the biannual class taught here at Pacific. She mentions that the class taught on Muir is called John Muir’s World: Origins of the Conservation Movement. The class content examines the conservation movement and has always discussed the topic of race. Professor Helgren brings up that Dr. Swagerty is currently working on a project that examines Muir’s travels and the native people Muir met during that time.

The biannual class, redesigning of the John Muir room, and the research study conducted by College of the Pacific are all steps being taken by Pacific to provide more context into John Muir’s life, and how the conservation movement has affected people of color. University of the Pacific’s rapid response to this issue confirms that this institution is taking steps, like many others across the country, to highlight the history of the injustices incurred by people of color. While we cannot change the past, we can acknowledge previous grievances and pledge to do better.