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Writing About the Grandeur of Yosemite

Few places inspire more awe than the view of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point. The Scotsman, John Muir, fell in love with the rugged beauty of the landscape and through his writing and political activism convinced lawmakers to preserve Yosemite Valley and much of the surrounding country.
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” –John Muir in a letter to his wife Louie in July 1888

John Muir has inspired Yosemite’s travelers to see under the surface through his poetic imagery: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees.” Muir, who came to California seeking the solitude of nature, decided to stay—dabbling as a glaciologist, a wilderness activist, and a writer who published persuasive ecological articles with a quill made from a golden eagle feather found on Yosemite’s Mount Hoffmann.

Portrait of John Muir
John Muir arrives in Yosemite at age 30.

Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir immigrated to Wisconsin with his family when he was 11 years old. Life on the homestead did not inspire him, and Muir soon found employment in a factory. The change proved to be inspiring but in an entirely unexpected way. After he was nearly blinded by an industrial accident, Muir found himself driven to learn everything he could about a world unaltered by man or machine. He briefly studied natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin but, ultimately, chose to spend his lifetime enrolled in what he called the “University of Wilderness.”

Muir first visited Yosemite in 1868. He was so impressed with his week’s visit that he decided to return the following year, finding work as a ranch hand, as he settled in the area. The next year, he landed a shepherd job for $30 per month that suited him fine. While Muir guided a flock of 2,000 sheep to the Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, he studied the flora and fauna and sketched the mountain scenery. (His experiences and illustrations were later published in My First Summer in the Sierra.)

Yosemite Valley in fall
Once, overgrazing doomed the survival of Yosemite Valley.

After a stint as a shepherd, Muir found regular work at a newly constructed sawmill alongside the present-day Lower Yosemite Fall trail in the Valley. During the two years he worked at the mill owned by James Mason Hutchings, Muir started building his own Yosemite Creek cabin, if only so he could hear the sound of the water as he slept. Muir’s newfound prominence as a Yosemite spokesman bothered Hutchings, who fancied himself the definitive authority on the subject. Tempers flared, and Muir quit in 1871.

In September 1871, two months after leaving the sawmill, Muir wrote his first article for publication on glaciers, published in the New York Tribune. His ability to cultivate connections with literary, scientific, and artistic celebrities rapidly enhanced Muir’s reputation as a naturalist. Botanists Asa Gray and Albert Kellogg, artist William Kieth, poetess Ina Coolbrith, editors Charles Warren Stoddard and Henry George, writer Jeanne Carr, educators J.B. McChesney and John Swett, and photographer J.J. Reilly all became early confidants.

Throughout the 1870s, the popularity of Muir’s newspaper publications grew steadily. The prolific writer became particularly concerned about natural landscape preservation. Published in the Sacramento Record-Union in 1876, “In God’s First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests?” chided California legislators for standing by while the state’s woodlands were recklessly depleted. During the 1880s, he focused his attention on the destruction of natural resources in areas surrounding the state-administered Yosemite Grant, set aside in 1864. Muir was alarmed at the extensive damage livestock animals caused to the delicate High Sierra ecosystems, especially the “hoofed locusts” he had so carefully guarded a few years earlier.

In 1889, Muir took Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, to Tuolumne Meadows so he could see how sheep were damaging the land. Muir convinced Johnson that the area could only be saved if it was incorporated into a national park. Johnson’s publication of Muir’s exposés sparked a bill in the U.S. Congress that proposed creating a new federally administered park surrounding the old Yosemite Grant. Yosemite National Park became a reality in 1890.

While in the midst of his environmental efforts that turned political, Muir’s match-making friend, Jeanne Carr, insisted that the bachelor find a mate. Muir married Louisa Strentzel in 1880. Nine years his junior, “Louie” was the 32-year-old daughter of a notable Polish horticulturist and fruit ranch owner in Martinez, California. After his marriage, Muir’s visits to Yosemite became less frequent, but Muir returned with his wife to Yosemite in 1884. Louie’s fear of bears and her difficulty climbing at Muir’s pace, however, made her first trip to Yosemite her last.

The wedded Muir continued to pursue his scientific study with fervor, and just three months after his marriage, he traveled to Alaska as a correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin and again the following year with the Bulletin team to look for the lost naval exploration ship USS Jeanette. Continuing adventures out of state, Muir achieved an historic ascent of Mount Rainier in Washington in 1888 and numerous journeys to Alaska.

Muir’s Influence with Teddy Roosevelt

The last 25 years of Muir’s life were consumed with constant travel, writing, and oversight of the Sierra Club—for which he served as president from its creation in 1892. He lobbied successfully for the creation of Yosemite Park in 1890 and then asked for additional protections when he toured President Theodore Roosevelt in the park in 1903. Muir’s persuasive words to Roosevelt and state authorities led to the return of Yosemite Grant to the federal government in 1906. His published writings were also instrumental in the creation of Grand Canyon and Sequoia national parks.

Muir and Roosevelt
“Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point,” Digital Public Library of America, http://dp.la/item/1fe37ca47d3280db644e9a3cbb9021d4

At the end of his life, Muir and the Sierra Club fought a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful crusade against construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. This was reportedly the first major battle of the environmental movement. On Christmas Eve, 1914—just more than a year after Congress authorized the dam’s construction—Muir died. Even though he died in a Los Angeles hospital, the great wanderer had remained active and on the move until the last few months of his life.

Although Muir only truly lived in Yosemite for a few years, from 1868 to 1874, his short time in the Sierra changed him forever more. Muir has inspired us to protect natural areas not for their beauty alone but also for their ecological importance. In The Yosemite, published in 1912, he wrote: “But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”

Ere dawn had kissed the level valley floor / He climbed to summits through the sleeping wood / By the inerrant guide of forest lore, / And found companionship in solitude / He feared no beast and by no beast was feared / And none was startled when his shape appeared.” — Excerpted from the poem, “With Muir in Yosemite,” by Robert Underwood Johnson (as printed in the 1938 Yosemite Nature Notes, 17)

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The Russian-American Company in California

Fort Ross, California
Fort Ross, located just north of San Francisco and the “Russian River,” was the site of the Russian-American Trading Company. The wooden fort, with its onion dome chapel, still stands.

The Russian-American Company was established by Czar Paul I, July 8, 1799, with de facto political authority and a monopoly of trade in Russia’s North American possessions, principally Alaska. It was administered by a board of directors in St. Petersburg, with control of affairs in Alaska by appointed governors general. Alaska headquarters of the company was established at Sitka in 1799.

Except for the period 1802-4, when an Indian revolt drove out the Russians, Sitka remained company headquarters until Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867. Under terms of a treaty concluded March 30, 1867 (15 Stat. 541), “any Government archives, papers, and documents relative to the territory and dominion aforesaid, which may now be existing there,” were transferred to the United States.

In 1812 a company outpost was settled at Fort Ross in present-day California.

Agreements with the United States, Spain, and Great Britain (c. 1824) confirmed the company s control of North American territory north of 54° 40′ but, after commercial and political rivalries with Great Britain increased and revenues from the colonies decreased, Russia decided to sell its holdings in America and refused to renew the company s charter, which expired in 1862.

Ad for Russian Cigarettes, December 26, 1899.

The population of the colony at Fort Ross consisted of a multicultural, multiethnic community brought together by czarist Russia’s mercantile fur acquisition and trading enterprise, the Russian-American Company. At Fort Ross, the community was divided into four ethnic residential areas:

  1. Upper level Russian management lived within the stockade.
  2. Ethnic Russians and Creoles (people who were the offspring of Russian/Native unions) of lower standing lived in a village of small houses with kitchen gardens. This village was located outside the stockade to the west.
  3. A Native Alaskan village of small wood or plank houses and possibly some semi-subterranean dwellings was located on the ocean bluff in front of the stockade. Here resided single Native Alaskan men, some Native Alaskan families, and other households consisting of Native Alaskan men and Kashaya and Miwok women and their children.
  4. The Kashaya also lived in a small village northeast of the stockade and in many other villages in the coastal hills above Ross. By far the most populous group was Native Alaskan.

In 1841, Russian colonists gave up their enterprise and sold the colony to pioneer John Sutter, who transported its equipment and supplies to his own fort in Sacramento. The area served as ranch land for more than 60 years, until California designated it as a state historic park in 1906. Within a weathered stockade built from redwood timber are barracks, officers’ quarters, and a small, unadorned Russian Orthodox chapel with a simple belfry. (The only original building from the Russian era is the home of the colony’s last manager, Alexander Rotchev, a one-story family dwelling stocked with reconstructions of period furniture and housewares.)

Although Fort Ross had the appearance of a military installation, it was never involved in warfare. For three decades, Russian colonists lived and intermarried with Native Americans, traded with Spain and the United States, and made a living through agriculture, otter-hunting and shipbuilding. The area was peaceful; it was the farthest outpost for the Russians and the farthest outpost for the Spanish.”

May 9, 1868, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California

Arrived: Schooner J. A. Burr, Johnson, 9 hours from Fort Ross; lumber, to Preston & McKinnon. Passengers from Fort Ross: Thomas Long.

October 15, 1891, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Arrival of Steamers

The following steamers came in last night: Louis Olsen from Fort Ross, Lucky Lowe from Fort Bragg, Bonita from Port Harford, and Coos Bay from Amesport.

June 16, 1894, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Scenes at Fort Ross

The beach and old chapel at Fort Ross are very interesting to look at, and in part seventeen of “Picturesque California” there are fine pictures of both . . . Part eighteen of “Picturesque California” contains a fine reproduction from photographs of this quaint old Russian stronghold.

March 27, 1899, Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Fort Ross, with its multi-ethnic population, remained an active outpost until it was sold to John Sutter–the same John Sutter whose famous mill in the California foothills. Sutter’s Mill was the site of the discovery of gold, and that discovery led to the Gold Rush.

Successful Sealing

San Francisco, March 26. The British sealing schooner Geneva, which for the past six weeks has been cruising off the California coast, has put into Fort Ross for water. As the result of her short cruise, she has 1243 on board.

Although the revolution of 1917 marked the end of the imperial Russian regime, consulates loyal to that regime continued to function in certain U.S. and Canadian cities until the late 1920’s with the financial support of the U.S. and Canadian Governments.


A History of the
Russian-American Company

P.A. Tikhmenev
“The Russian-American Company was chartered by the Russian government in 1799 to conduct monopoly trading in the Aleutians and Alaska and played a major role in the affairs of the North Pacific during the next half century. This translation of Tikhmenev’s comprehensive history of the Company, acknowledged by scholars as a fundamental source on Russian-American history, will be indispensable to further study in that field. The original Russian text was written, at Company behest, a few years before the sale of Alaska to the United States and the liquidation of the Company. Undertaken to “glorify” the activities of the Company, in the mistaken hope of winning a renewal of the monopoly charter, Tikhmenev’s history is based on documents then in Company archives, but later destroyed.

Russian America: the Great Alaskan Venture 1741 – 1867
Hector Chevigny

The Wreck of the Neva As Narrated in the Description of the Unfortunate Shipwreck of the Frigate Neva of the Russian-American Company
VN Berkh and The Loss of the Russian-American Company Ship Neva on the Northwestern Shore of America, Near Cape Edgecumbe on the 9th of January, 1813
V. M. Golovnin

Alaska Historical Society
Sitka Historical Society (1979)

English-Russian, Russian-English Dictionary
Kenneth Katzner

The Story of Sitka: The Historic Outpost of the Northwest Coast. The chief factory of the Russian American Company
Clarence Leroy AndrewsFolktales of the Amur: Stories from the Russian Far East

Dmitrii Nagishkin, Darlene Geis

Thirty-one traditional tales from the far eastern part of Russia tell of life along the banks of the Amur River.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I have a first edition and while I’ve parted with many things, never this! The art is alive. It is absolutely beautiful.

Illustrations can be viewed at Cizgili Masalli’s blog