The Many Facets of John Burroughs

The Henry Ford

One of the most popular writers of the early American environmental movement, naturalist John Burroughs worked and lived between the worlds of wilderness and industry.

Back to Nature

As American cities became more industrialized in the late nineteenth century, members of the urban middle class began to look to nature as a revitalizing escape from crowded, unhealthy conditions.

City parks and museums provided opportunities to learn about the natural world, and increasingly popular activities such as birdwatching encouraged an appreciation of nature.

But for a truly rejuvenating experience, advocates of this back-to-nature movement believed city dwellers should get out to explore country roads or visit resorts in “unspoiled” outlying areas. Railroads offered transportation to resort lodging and natural attractions.

Famous writers like John Muir (left) and John Burroughs (right) extolled the positive effects of nature and encouraged people to seek out and observe rural environments.


Born in 1837 on his family’s farm in Roxbury, New York, John Burroughs spent much of his childhood reading, writing, and working outdoors.

Though he left home to become a teacher and later worked in banking, Burroughs retained a passion for writing and nature, especially his native Catskill Mountains.

In 1871, while working as a bank examiner, Burroughs built a home he called “Riverby” on a vineyard in West Park, New York.

Here, he could observe nature closely.

Burroughs constructed his “Bark Study” just off the main house in 1881. In this retreat, he added to his growing body of essays and other work.

By 1885, Burroughs had given up his bank position to write and enjoy his environment.

Burroughs eventually enjoyed even wilder surroundings, dividing his time between a West Park summer retreat called Slabsides and a cabin in his hometown called Woodchuck Lodge.


As a young man, Burroughs had studied to become a teacher at the Hedding Literary Institute and the Cooperstown Seminary.

Later in life, he put his training back to work, teaching young people to observe and appreciate the world around them – outside of classrooms and museums.

Letters from appreciative students following a Burroughs-led nature walk affirm his talent for connecting people to the natural environment.


John Burroughs began keeping journals at seventeen and published his first essays in his early twenties.

Inspired by poetic writers like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, Burroughs wrote with a knowledge of nature but was not overly scientific.

Burroughs’ essays ranged from studies of birds and nature to religion and literature and his work was enjoyed by scholars and laypeople alike.

Publishing widely, Burroughs became well known and received numerous awards and honorary degrees.

A Man between Worlds

Burroughs encouraged nature appreciation more gently than his outspoken contemporaries. Attracted by his non-threatening approach, many of the era’s powerful industrialists developed friendships with Burroughs.

Henry Ford sought out and befriended John Burroughs in the early 1910s. The pair shared a love of birds and nature, and embarked on a series of camping trips together with friends Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, among others.

Burroughs himself had little use for new technologies, despite Ford’s attempts to persuade him.

However, a Model T given to Burroughs by Ford did come in handy on several field trips.

Beyond the Catskills

Though he loved the Catskill Mountains, Burroughs traveled widely. In 1899, railroad magnate Edward Harriman invited Burroughs to join an expedition to explore and document the Alaskan coast. Burroughs created this album of pressed wildflowers collected during the journey.

In 1902, Burroughs and his son, Julian, visited Jamaica.

Burroughs camped in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Roosevelt visited him at Slabsides later that year.

Burroughs traveled to the Grand Canyon several times. On one visit he wrote, "The Divine Abyss is as overwhelming as ever."

Though he had traveled widely, John Burroughs always treasured home, as he inspired so many others to do. After his death in 1921, Burroughs was buried near Boyhood Rock, a favorite place to reflect on nature in his hometown of Roxbury, New York.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

For more artifacts related to John Burroughs, visit The Henry Ford's Digital Collections.


Donna Braden, “Leisure and Entertainment in America”

Edward Renehan, “John Burroughs: An American Naturalist”

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google