Year
1838

Naturalist John Muir is born

John Muir, a dedicated advocate for the protection of American wild lands, is born in Dunbar, Scotland.

When he was still a boy, Muir’s parents immigrated to the United States. He grew up on a farm in central Wisconsin in the 1850s, a time when the region was still a relatively wild western frontier. When he was 23, Muir left the family farm and traveled around the Midwest working in a variety of industrial jobs. A talented mechanic and inventor, he seemed to be headed for a successful career in the rapidly expanding industrial economy—but an accident changed Muir’s direction in life.

While working in an Indianapolis factory for wagon parts, Muir’s hand slipped, and a file he was using cut the cornea of his left eye. Not long after, his right eye also temporarily failed in a sympathetic reaction. Muir’s experience of being blind for several weeks led him to rethink his life plans. When he recovered his sight, he abandoned his career as a skilled mechanic and opted instead to embark on a 1,000-mile walking tour of the American West.

During his western ramblings, the beautiful Sierra Nevada range in California especially moved Muir. Drawing on the ideas of American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Muir argued that wild nature offered a “window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.” Muir developed a near-religious veneration for the Sierra Nevada territory and a passionate desire to preserve the wild state of the area. In 1892, he and several other early preservationists formed the Sierra Club. Muir served as the club president for 22 years, tirelessly advocating the importance of preserving wilderness as a place where thousands of “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people” could find spiritual and physical rejuvenation.

It is hard to overestimate Muir’s influence in fostering modern concepts of wilderness appreciation and protection. However, in practical terms, Muir and the Sierra Club lost several of their battles to protect the wilderness. From 1908 to 1913, Muir fought fervently against the proposed construction of the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park, which was being built to provide a reservoir of water for the city of San Francisco. Muir railed against his opponents, calling them “temple destroyers” and “devotees of raging commercialism,” but to no avail—the dam was built and water covers the Hetch Hetchy Valley today.

Deeply discouraged, Muir died in 1914, a year after the Hetch Hetchy defeat. The conservationist ideas he proposed in books like Our National Parks, The Yosemite, and dozens of influential magazine articles have become an accepted part of mainstream American thought.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

The Battle of San Jacinto

During the Texan War for Independence, the Texas militia under Sam Houston launches a surprise attack against the forces of Mexican General Santa Anna along the San Jacinto River. The Mexicans were thoroughly routed, and hundreds were taken prisoner, including General Santa Anna ...read more

Red Baron killed in action

In the skies over Vauz sur Somme, France, Manfred von Richthofen, the notorious German flying ace known as “The Red Baron,” is killed by Allied fire.Richthofen, the son of a Prussian nobleman, switched from the German army to the Imperial Air Service in 1915. By 1916, he was ...read more

Rome founded

According to tradition, on April 21, 753 B.C., Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, found Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf as orphaned infants. Actually, the Romulus and Remus myth originated sometime in the fourth century B.C., and the exact date of Rome’s ...read more

Red Baron killed in action

In the well-trafficked skies above the Somme River in France, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the notorious German flying ace known as the Red Baron,” is killed by Allied fire on April 21, 1918. Richthofen, the son of a Prussian nobleman, switched from the German army to the ...read more

Thieu flees Saigon as Xuan Loc falls

Xuan Loc, the last South Vietnamese outpost blocking a direct North Vietnamese assault on Saigon, falls to the communists.The North Vietnamese had launched a major offensive in March to capture the provincial capital of Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands. The South Vietnamese ...read more

Rosie Ruiz fakes Boston Marathon win

Rosie Ruiz, age 26, finishes first in the women’s division of the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:31:56 on April 21, 1980. She was rewarded with a medal, a laurel wreath and a silver bowl; however, eight days later Ruiz is stripped of her victory after race officials learned ...read more

Lincoln’s funeral train leaves D.C.

On this day in 1865, a train carrying the coffin of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln leaves Washington, D.C. on its way to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried on May 4. The train carrying Lincoln’s body traveled through 180 cities and seven states on its way to ...read more

Charlotte Bronte born

Charlotte Bronte, the only one of three novelist Bronte sisters to live past age 31, is born.Bronte, one of six siblings who grew up in a gloomy parsonage in the remote English village of Hawthorne, surrounded by the marshy moors of Yorkshire. Her mother died when she was five, ...read more

Prisoners left to burn in Ohio fire

A fire at an Ohio prison kills 320 inmates, some of whom burn to death when they are not unlocked from their cells. It is one of the worst prison disasters in American history. The Ohio State Penitentiary was built in Columbus in 1834. Throughout its history, it had a poor ...read more

Executions resume in California

Robert Alton Harris is executed in California’s gas chamber after 13 years on death row. This was California’s first execution since former Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other state supreme court justices, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, had been rejected by California voters. ...read more

Roy Cohn and David Schine return to U.S.

Roy Cohn and David Schine, two of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief aides, return to the United States after a controversial investigation of United States Information Service (USIS) posts in Europe. Upon their recommendation, thousands of books were removed from USIS libraries in ...read more

Steight’s Raid begins

Union Colonel Abel Streight begins a raid into northern Alabama and Georgia with the goal of cutting the Western and Atlantic Railroad between Chattanooga, Tennessee and Atlanta. The raid ended when Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest captured Streight’s entire command ...read more

GM celebrates 100 millionth U.S.-made car

On April 21, 1967, General Motors (GM) celebrates the manufacture of its 100 millionth American-made car. At the time, GM was the world’s largest automaker.General Motors was established in 1908 in Flint, Michigan, by horse-drawn carriage mogul William Durant. In 1904, Durant ...read more