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A Letter from John Muir to S. Hall Young, 1910 May 31

Introduced by Bruce Merrell


(Reprinted 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 Muir."

S. Young Hall was the author of Alaska Days 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 book.

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 hiatus.


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 The Craftsman, published 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 wonderfully beautiful.

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 valley.

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, and Stickeen. Stickeen 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,
Cordova, Alaska


[ 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 word "mushing."

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.



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