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Muir trekked through our county
Legendary naturalist spent time in the area on his way to and from Yosemite National Park
john muir by carelton watkins c18752
John Muir, a native Scotland, as he was pictured in 1875, about a decade after he tended to sheep in the area between La Grange and Snelling. On his first trek through the Central Valley in 1868, Muir crossed the San Joaquin River at Hills Ferry, just 20 miles south of Ceres which was just getting off to its start. Muir became world-renowned as the steward of Yosemite National Park and fought for its preservation.

One fall day in 1868, a lanky, bearded man approached Patrick Delaney who was engaged as a sheep rancher on a stretch of land between La Grange and the Basso Ferry.

The 31-year-old man was looking for work for "bread." Since his money supply was nearly exhausted, he pondered the thought of working in the beautiful rolling rangeland in close proximity to what would become his love, Yosemite National Park.

This was John Muir's first winter in California. Muir stayed in Stanislaus County, moving sheep back-and-forth from eastern Stanislaus County and Merced County near Snelling. But history carried him to immortality after becoming a prominent author, naturalist at renowned lecturer. Had he not borrowed the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt for several days on a 1903 Yosemite camping trip, the notion of national conservation of wild lands might not have been weaved into that the federal government's consciousness. Preservation of the nation's resources might have been exploited to greater degree had Muir remain satisfied with his La Grange experience and not moved on in life.
How did the famous naturalist come to La Grange in the first place?

Born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838, John Muir resided with two other siblings and his parents in that village until he was 11 years old. As a child, his interest with wilderness and nature grew to be an obsession. He enjoyed planting a little bit of ground in his father's garden, and liked exploring the stormy North Sea Beach.

On Feb. 19, 1849, Muir and father Daniel Muir, brother David and sister Sarah, all set sail from Glasgow. Although it was the year of the famed Gold Rush, riches were not the cause for the voyage. The Muir patriarch, a religious zealot, decided to seek more congenial religious surroundings. After six weeks on the rough Atlantic Ocean, the ship anchored in New York Harbor on April 5, 1849. The family wound up in central Wisconsin via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes.

Young John Muir was fascinated by his new environment, admiring Wisconsin oaks, songbirds and passenger pigeons which became extinct in 1914, the very year Muir died. Until late in his 20s, Muir was divided between his love of inventing and love of the outdoors. Muir worked at a wagon wheel factory in Indianapolis, Ind., in 1866 and 1867. After all, he needed to earn his keep so that he could enjoy his pursuit of studying nature. His inventive and administrative abilities could have put him on the path of a successful businessman in a few short years. But in March 1867, a sharp-pointed file pierced his eye, slicing his cornea. He bowed, after a six-week stay in a darkened hospital room, to not waste his years indoors. He wrote: "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons."

When his eye healed, Muir set out on a 1,000-mile walk to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

His pilgrimage to California started in early March 1868, when he boarded a ship from New York. He arrived in San Francisco on March 28, 1868. He stopped a carpenter on Market Street and asked for the quickest way out of town to "anywhere that's wild." With an Englishman friend he met on the Oakland Ferry, Muir trekked out to San Jose, then Gilroy and then east over Pacheco Pass near the current-day San Luis Reservoir. At the top of the pass, Muir caught his never-to-be-forgotten view of the great Central Valley of California.

In those days, most people headed to Yosemite would take a river steamer to Stockton, then board a stage to Coulterville or Mariposa and then by horseback to Yosemite. Muir, however, had a disdain for the road well-traveled "for we had plenty of time, and proposed drifting leisurely mountain ward by the Santa Clara Valley, Pacheco Pass, and the San Joaquin Valley, and thence to Yosemite by any road that we chanced to find; enjoying the flowers and light; camping out in our blankets wherever overtaken by night and paying very little compliance to roads or times."

Muir wrote of the experience: "Looking eastward from the summit of the Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that, after all my wandering, still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, 40 or 50 miles wide, 500 miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow composite. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flowerbed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city ... then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light."

Muir and his companion crossed the San Joaquin River at Hill's Ferry three miles northeast of Newman and 20 miles directly south of Ceres where Daniel Whitmore was farming wheat. The miles and miles of wildflowers they walked through never left Muir's memory. The Central Valley, he wrote, was "one smooth continuous bed of honey bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance more than 400 miles, your foot would press upon 100 flowers at each step."

He wrote: "Crossing this greatest of flower gardens and the San Joaquin River at Hill's Ferry, we followed the Merced River, which I knew drained Yosemite Valley, and ascended the foothills from Snelling by way of Coulterville. We had several accidents and adventures. At the little mining town of Coulterville we bought flour and tea and made inquiries about roads and trails, and the forests we would have to pass through. The storekeeper, an Italian, took kindly pains to tell the pair of wandering wayfarers, new arrived in California, that the winter had been very severe, that in some places the Yosemite trail was still buried in snow eight or ten feet deep, and therefore we would have to wait at least a month before we could possibly get into the great valley, for we would surely get lost should we attempt to go on. As to the forests, the trees, he said, were very large; some of the pines eight or ten feet in diameter.

"In reply I told him that it would be delightful to see snow ten feet deep and trees ten feet thick, even if lost, but I never got lost in wild woods. ‘Well,' said he, ‘go, if you must, but I have warned you; and anyhow you must have a gun, for there are bears in the mountains, but you must not shoot at them unless they come for you and are very, very close up.' So at last, at Mr. Chilwell's anxious suggestion, we bought an old army musket, with a few pounds of quail shot and large buckshot, good, as the merchant assured us, for either birds or bears."

After spending a week and a half in Yosemite, awed by nature's spectacle, the two made their way back down into the valley foothills, via Mariposa.

Both Muir and friend Chilwell found work on a Hopeton ranch owned by Thomas Egleston, harvesting wheat, breaking wild horses and shearing sheep. This ranch is on what is now Turlock Road west of Cox Ferry Road. There they were seated for a meal where Chilwell recited complaints about having to live on meals of flour and water without meat. Muir wrote that Chilwell "ate so many hot biscuits at that table, and so much beans and boiled pork, that he was sick for three or four days afterwards, a trick the despised Yosemite diet never played him."

Chilwell went his own way, while Muir stayed in Merced Falls, working on a ferry. He was then hired to shear sheep by a Pat Delaney hired him. Delaney, from what is known in Muir's journals, had been trained for the priesthood but joined a group of 49ers and mined gold for a while. He settled on the beautiful gently rolling land between modern-day Snelling Road and Lake Road. When he met Muir, Delaney had just suffered a personal tragedy that summer when his brother-in-law was found murdered a few miles from La Grange. After inspecting the partially-burned body which was discovered hidden under a pile of brush, the authorities suspected Indians had committed the crime, according to a July 3, 1868 Tuolumne City newspaper article.

Muir tended to the sheep, following them as they grazed between the Tuolumne and Merced rivers. Muir frequently wrote in his jagged journal that was a constant fixture on his belt. "In the Great Central Valley of California there are only two seasons -- spring and summer. The spring begins with the first rainstorm, which usually falls in November. In a few months, the wonderful flowery vegetation is in full bloom and by the end of May it is dead and dry and crisp, as if every plant of been roasted in an oven."

For a time, Muir had given thought to living on the land like an animal, "gleaning nourishment here and there from seeds, berries, etc., sauntering and climbing in joyful independence of money or baggage." That idea was short-lived for Delaney offered him a job that he didn't refuse.

"Mr. Delaney called on me and offered to engage me to go with his shepherd and flock to the headwaters of the Merced and Tuolumne rivers -- the very reason I had most in mind. The flock, he explained, would be moved gradually higher through the successive forest belts as the snow melted, stopping for a few weeks at the best places we came to."

Muir had little confidence in himself to take on the task, explaining to Delaney that he knew little of the high country or at the wild animals that might attack the herd. "With the bears, coyotes, rivers, canyons, and thorny, bewildering chaparral, I fear that half or more of his flock would be lost. Fortunately, these shortcomings seemed insignificant to Mr. Delaney. The main thing, he said, was to have a man about the camp whom he could trust to see the shepherd did his duty, and he assured me that the difficulties that seemed so formidable at a distance would vanish as soon as we went on..." Muir wrote.

Delaney also told Muir that he could study plants and rocks and scenery as much as he liked. The sheep owner also informed Muir that he would accompany them to the first camp and make periodic visits to higher camps to restore their provisions.

Muir agreed to go while fearing the fate of some of the sheep.

"I concluded to go, though still fearing, when I saw the silly sheep bouncing one by one through the narrow gate of the home corral to be counted, that of the 2,050 many would never return."

This sheep tender, John "Smoky Jack" Cannel upon hearing that Muir was going along, pleaded with him to take along a St. Bernard dog named Carlo. Billy, the sheep tender, told Muir that he feared the dog might die on the plains (the La Grange area) due to the fierce heat of impending summer. Muir wrote: "Carlo knew we were talking about him, watched our faces, and listened so attentively that I fancied he understood us. Calling him by name, I asked him if he was willing to go with me. He looked me in the face with eyes expressing wonderful intelligence, then turned to his master, and after permission was given by a wave of the hand toward me and a farewell padding caress, he quietly followed me as if he perfectly understood all that had been said and had known me always."

On June 3, 1869, Muir, Delaney, Billy, a Chinaman and a Digger Indian then left the La Grange ranch and headed into the brushy foothills, probably in a southeast direction. Five days later they were in a valley of the north fork of the Merced River, at the foot of Pilot Peak Ridge where the first camp was selected.

Muir, a humorist as well as botanist, wrote humorously of Billy. "Our shepherd is a queer character and hard to place in this wilderness. His bed is a hollow made of red dry-rot punky dust beside a log which forms a portion of the south wall of the corral. There he lives with his wonderful everlasting clothing on, wrapped in a red blanket, breathing not only the dust of the decayed wood but also that of the corral, as if determined to take ammoniacal snuff all night after chewing tobacco all day. Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying pan, is tied serves as a filter through which the clear fat and the gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. His trousers have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine needles, thin flakes and fibers of bark, hair, feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings ... adhere to them and are safely embedded. These precious overalls are never taken off..."

On June 14, Muir and party reached a cascading portion of the Merced, probably Diana Falls near Bower's Cave in the Greely Hills area. There he rested under the flowering Dogwood and alder trees leaning over all and sun-sifted arches."

"How soothing, restfully cool it is beneath the leafy, translucent ceiling, and how delightful the water music -- the deep bass tones of the fall ... thanks be to God for this immortal gift."

The party eventually made its way into Yosemite and back.

Muir, of course, would later see other parts of California in the world. He survived the massive Inyo Earthquake that hit Yosemite on March 26, 1872. He became one of the first man to climb the 14,161-foot volcanic peak of Mount Shasta in 1874 and April 1875 when he almost died. He also discovered the Muir Glacier in Alaska in 1879. He married Louise Wanda Strenzel of Martinez, Calif., in 1880 and they had two daughters, Helen and Wanda.

An innovative character, Muir was the first to ship grapes from California to Hawaii. He rented land in the Alhambra Valley to raise Tokay grapes and Bartlett pears. Through devising special equipment for setting out orchard trees, sharp management, developing new markets and packaging carefully, Muir cleared $10,000 a year for 10 years.

President of the conservationist Sierra Club from 1892 until his death in 1914, Muir is credited for saving the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest in Arizona. Muir, it was said, died of a broken heart when he lost the fight to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from the building of the 227-foot-tall O'Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park. Today the grand valley is filled with water which is stored and piped underground 167 miles through the Central Valley for consumption by urban dwellers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those great pipes go underground just south of the Crossroads shopping center in Riverbank and right through north Modesto on its way to Fremont.

Some 100 years after his death, Muir has been honored more than any other person in California as the name sake of natural resources, trails, and a college. The "father of the National Parks" is buried beside his wife beneath the eucalyptus tree on his Martinez ranch.