A Letter from John Muir
to S. Hall Young,
1910 May 31
Introduced by Bruce Merrell
The John Muir Newsletter
, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 1991)
While working as a reference librarian at the public library
in Anchorage, Alaska last year, I was approached by a young woman.
She was visiting Alaska for the first time, said that a distant
relative had lived in Alaska many years ago, and wondered if the
library had any information about him. The relative's name was
Samuel Hall Young.
Recognizing the name immediately, I showed her autographed
copies of Young's four books about Alaska and located several of
his letters to John Muir in our microfilm copy of the Muir Papers.
I went on to explain my own interest in Muir and asked if she or
anyone in her family had anything belonging to Young. "Oh, yes,"
she said. "I have his knapsack and snowshoes!" Did she know if
anyone had saved old letters or photographs? "Well, if anyone has
anything, it would be Aunt Marg."
I wrote Aunt Marg in Georgia and was delighted to receive a
speedy reply. "I'm not always this prompt on answering
correspondence," she wrote, "but I have recently been going through
some old letters in doing genealogical research of my grandmother,
Fannie Kellogg Young, and her family. Most of the letters I have
are from my grandfather to my grandmother but among them I found a
letter from John Muir to Grandpa . . . I am enclosing a copy. You
notice that the signature is missing. I expect that Grandpa cut it
out to give to a grandchild. He was that sort of person. I'm sure
it was not to sell. However, the letter is obviously from John
S. Young Hall was the author of
with John Muir,
published the year after Muir's death. Young was a Presbyterian
missionary, nine years Muir's junior, whom Muir met in 1879 while
making his first trip to Alaska. He and Young shared many
adventures that year and the next--climbing mountains, scrambling
over glaciers, travelling for weeks on end by native dugout canoe,
and discovering Glacier Bay. Young was also the owner of Stickeen,
the truculent mongrel who was the subject of Muir's best-selling
This is evidently the only surviving letter from Muir to
Young. Many others were received by Young, but according to his
autobiography, were lost when the steamboat Leah sank below Kaltag
on the Yukon River in 1906. Young's library of fifteen hundred
volumes and all his personal papers were reduced to "muddy
pulp." This letter was written when, at Young's instigation, the
two old friends had renewed their correspondence after a long
Los Angeles, Cal., May 31, 1910.
Dear friend Young:-
I wrote to you the other day, briefly telling you that I had
read your manuscript and forwarded it with your letter to the
publishers, with a note from myself to the Century Company giving
your address, and no doubt you will hear from it ere long.
I soon learned that you would be able to write some good books
if ever you had the opportunity, and since we voyaged together
through that glorious archipelago how much your knowledge of Alaska
has been increased by those long years on the shores of the Behring
Sea and far north on the head of the McKenzie, and among the mines
and miners of the interior. I am glad therefore that you
contemplate resigning your position as missionary and devoting your
rich ripe years to literature.
After you fell on that mountain you evidently lost track of
your way. In ascending the mountain you never touched the glacier
or were near it. All the way was on the main ridge of the spur.
Only after you fell and I had slid you down on your back to the
glacier did you touch a glacier, but such mistakes do not interfere
with the main truthful effect of the adventure. Did you see George
Wharton James [sic] article in
Syracuse, N.Y.? Evidently he had heard your lecture, and his
account is a wretched caricature of the whole adventure. Although
I never intended taking any notice in my writings of this
adventure, after reading James' account I made up my mind to tell
the story as it really was, and have written it but have not
published it. When published, if published at all, it will simply
be as a little story of adventure told among other adventures and
will not interfere with your account. The photographs for
illustrating I have not yet seen, since undoubtedly they are held
at Martinez, but I will give them immediate attention as soon as I
return to Martinez, and add what I can of my own which will be in
a few days.
I spent about two weeks in Prince William Sound in 1899 on the
Harriman Expedition and had a glorious time there visiting all the
fiords with their many glaciers, some twelve of the first class,
which flow into the sea. As you say, the scenery of that Sound is
I feel pretty sure that you should change the name of the book
which you say you will call the "Mushing Parson." "Mushing" is
slang, even in Alaska, and parsons should be better described no
matter how they travel. I am sure that it would be a very bad
title. Nothing of that catchy character should ever be attached to
a sound hard work of real literature.
It is delightful to know that you and Mrs. Young are feeling
true to your name, growing younger with the ripening years, and
that all your children and grandchildren are thriving and hopeful.
Yes, my wife has gone to the better land. My two children,
Wanda and Helen, are married. Wanda has two fine boys. Helen was
married a year ago, after a long fight for health on the plateaus
and deserts of California and Arizona. She is now quite well.
When I am at home I am entirely alone. Not a soul in the large
house on the hill, which perhaps you saw while you visited us at
the time we were living in the cottage a mile further up the
I have always said that I would not bother writing books until
I was too old to climb mountains, but I have been at work lately.
I suppose you have seen
The Mountains of California,
Our National Parks,
was brought out in book form by
Houghton Mifflin Company last year and seems to be a great
favorite. I suppose you have a copy. If not, let me know and I
will send you one.
About a month ago I sent another book to the publishers called
My First Summer in the Sierra. I have another nearly ready to
send; a young folk's book of animal stories. I am also at work on
an autobiography which will probably not be published for several
years, as it promises to have no end. I hope to work this summer
also on a book about Yosemite Valley and other Yosemites, a sort of
travelers' handbook, which ought to have been written long ago. I
also propose writing a book on Alaska, but that will not be before
another year or so. The fact is that I have hardly commenced to
draw upon my many note books and the results of my scientific
studies have scarcely been touched as yet.
Like yourself I still feel young, although I cannot climb
mountains quite so fast as I could years ago.
I should be delighted to see you on your way to the east or on
your return. My permanent address will be Martinez, and even if I
should be away letters will be forwarded or held at the office
until I return.
With kindest regards to Mrs. Young, and all good luck wishes
for your success in literature I am,
[signature cut out]
(P.S.:) The last 2 years of my life have been spent mostly in
defense of the Yosemite National Park.
To Rev. S. Hall Young,
commentary by Bruce Merrell continues:
S. Hall Young bristled at Muir's suggestion that he abandon
the term "mushing person." "...I have consulted my most literary
Alaska friends and some in the East," he wrote Muir in his next
letter, "and all are taken with the title...In fact, there is no
other word used up here to express the same idea." Eighty years
later, Young's family continues to bristle. His granddaughter
recently wrote that her cousin, who was born in Alaska, was
"...quite scornful of John Muir's objecting to Grandpa's use of the
S. Hall Young had the final word on the subject. When his
autobiography appeared in 1927 it carried the title
Hall Young of Alaska: The Mushing Parson.