Policy statement of the Kern Kaweah Chapter regarding the John Muir Trail renaming issue
The Kern-Kaweah Chapter has adopted a policy addressing the proposal to rename the John Muir Trail. We strongly support restoring the names of ancestral natural landscapes and homelands of indigenous people to their pre-European original Native American names. The John Muir Trail (JMT), however, does not meet that criterion. In contrast to natural features, the JMT is a human construct; its original name was part and parcel part of its creation. The John Muir Trail was created by state legislation on behalf of the Sierra Club for a specific purpose; that of recognizing the service John Muir made in “making known to the world the wonders of the mountains of California.”
In 1915, the year after Muir died, the Sierra Club won passage of California state legislation appropriating $10 grand for construction of the John Muir Trail, the first of five such appropriations. Together with the appropriation, the California legislature stated, in language originally drafted by Sierra Club Secretary William E Colby:
“Section 3. The trail to be constructed with the moneys hereby appropriated shall be known as the ‘John Muir Trail”’in honor of the late John Muir who has performed an inestimable service in making known to the world the wonders of the mountains of California.”
The memorial idea came first, and the JMT then was created to be that memorial. In other words, the John Muir Trail is not a “natural feature” but rather a human-constructed asset. In places it may have coincidentally followed both wildlife paths and Native routes of travel, but its major intent was to follow the scenic crest of the Sierra, rather than to follow any previously established or historic trails. There was much blasting of granite to produce a trail that could be wide enough for horses. Along this crest of the 221-mile-long stretch there are portions that soar over 8,000 feet in elevation. Thus, the John Muir Trail itself was established by statute as a memorial to John Muir. This is quite different than a mountain peak or a valley, things that were already known to pre-European Native people.
This is in stark contrast, for example for the name of the Alabama Hills, which was named for a Confederate man-o-war ship. We strongly contend that the Hills should have its Confederacy identity replaced with an appropriate name that recognizes its true heritage. Additionally, we support restoring the names of many Sierra Nevada geographic features, including the Owens Valley itself to their original names. Then there are the signature mountains that drew the attention of the first North Americans.
In order to better recognize the Native American heritage along the route of the John Muir Trail, the federal agencies should install appropriate signage and publish material that identifies the first people who inhabited the areas the trail passes through.
The 1915 State of California legislation and Sierra Club’s advocacy for the JMT expressly stated its purpose to be a memorial created in Muir’s honor. The result is we have an asset that makes what Muir explored more accessible to the people. The construction of the John Muir Trail itself began in 1915, and took another 23 years to complete - a period of about 46 years from a vague dream to realization in 1938. William Colby, the first secretary of the Sierra Club, called the finished trail “a most appropriate memorial to John Muir who spent many of the best years of his life exploring the region which it will make accessible.”
It is generally accepted that the original idea for the trail came from Theodore Seixas Solomons (1870 - 1947) an early member of the Sierra Club. As a 14-year old living in Fresno some years before the Sierra Club was established, Solomons conceived the idea of a trail along the backbone of the high Sierra. A few years later, members of the newly formed Sierra Club including Joseph N LeConte (1870-1950) assisted Solomons in his explorations of the canyons and passes between Yosemite and Mt. Whitney. In 1908, a complete route was developed that Solomons called the “High Sierra Trail.”
When Muir died in 1914, members of the Club discussed how the idea of a trail along the Sierra Crest seemed a fitting tribute to Muir. So, the High Sierra Trail was renamed the John Muir Trail – though Muir had neither conceived, nor plotted it. Asked his reaction to the renaming, Solomons said, “Muir is a better name to conjure with. But mine the idea; mine the pioneering.”
John Muir said that Yosemite National Park was “the poor man’s refuge.” And so the John Muir Trail should remain as a place anyone can enjoy, regardless of economic status, race, creed, or color. To embrace a particular racial identity to the JMT is wrong; it is trail designed to render accessible the beauty of the Sierra to everyone, with nobody, rich or poor, white or dark-skinned, having a preference. The JMT can continue to stand in celebration of the fact that John Muir evolved his ideas in his own lifetime, overcoming cultural prejudices that were widespread during his time and in in his culture.
And this is consistent with simultaneously celebrating Native American cultures, for after all, John Muir wrote repeatedly praising how traditional Indigenous peoples lived in peaceful coexistence with wild nature.
John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) also known as “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks,” was an influential Scottish-American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States of America. He cofounded the Sierra Cub.
Joseph LeConte) (February 26, 1823 – July 6, 1901) was a physician, geologist, professor at the University of California, Berkeley and early California conservationist. Concerned that resource exploitation (such as sheepherding) would ruin the Sierra, he co-founded the Sierra Club with Muir and others in 1892.
Joseph N LeConte (February 7, 1870 – February 1, 1950) was a noted explorer of the Sierra Nevada. He was also a cartographer, a photographer and a professor of mechanical engineering.
William Edward Colby (May 28, 1875 – November 9, 1964) was an American lawyer, conservationist, and first Secretary of the Sierra Club.
Theodore Seixas Solomons (1870–1947) was an explorer and early member of the Sierra Club. From 1892 to 1897 He was instrumental in envisioning, exploring, and establishing the route of what became the John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley along the crest of the Sierra Nevada to Mount Whitney