The Many Facets of John Burroughs

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.

By The Henry Ford

Children's Museum Nature Study Club in Bedford Park, New York, 1890-1915 (1890/1915) by Chandler, Jenny Young, 1865-1922Original Source: Digital Collections

Back to Nature

Children's Museum, Hunting for Rose Bugs, 1890-1915 (1890/1915) by Chandler, Jenny Young, 1865-1922Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Children's Museum, Group in Bird Room, 1890-1915 (1890/1915) by Chandler, Jenny Young, 1865-1922Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Railway Station at Haines Corners, Catskill Mountains, New York, circa 1902 (1900/1904) by Detroit Publishing Co.Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

John Muir and John Burroughs in Pasadena, California, 1909-1912 (1909/1912)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

John Burroughs Examining a Rabbit's Nest at Riverby, 1901 (1901) by Burroughs, Julian, 1878-1954Original Source: Digital Collections

Naturalist

John Burroughs' Birthplace, Roxbury, New York, circa 1918 (1917/1919) by Haring, InezOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs at His Birthplace, Roxbury, New York, 1918 (1918) by Fisher, G. Clyde, 1878-1949Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

John Burroughs Putting up a Bluebird House at Riverby, 1902 (1902) by Burroughs, Julian, 1878-1954Original Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs Examining a Rabbit's Nest at Riverby, 1901 (1901) by Burroughs, Julian, 1878-1954Original Source: Digital Collections

Here, he could observe nature closely.

John Burroughs at His Chestnut Bark Study at Riverby, 1919 (1917) by Walsh StudioOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

John Burroughs at the Grand Gorge of the Pepacton, 1915 (1915) by Pratt, Albert Houghton, 1878-1941Original Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs at Slabsides, circa 1910 (1908/1912) by Burroughs, Julian, 1878-1954Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

John Burroughs Showing a Sparrow's Egg to His Grandson, John, 1911 (1910) by Burroughs, Julian, 1878-1954Original Source: Digital Collections

Teacher

Teaching Certificate for John Burroughs, from Orange Township, New Jersey, February 7, 1860 (1860-02-05)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs Showing a Sparrow's Egg to His Grandson, John, 1911 (1910) by Burroughs, Julian, 1878-1954Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Letter to John Burroughs from Stanley Tracy, a Student Thanking Him for a Nature Walk, May 16, 1901, Tracy, Stanley, 1901-05-16, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Letters from appreciative students following a Burroughs-led nature walk affirm his talent for connecting people to the natural environment.

Letter to John Burroughs from Annie Palen, a Student Thanking Him for a Nature Walk, May 16, 1901, Palen, Annie, 1901-05-16, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Letter to John Burroughs from Irving LeFevre, a Student, Thanking Him for a Nature Walk, May 16, 1901, LeFevre, Irving Josiah, 1888-1968, 1901-05-16, Original Source: Digital Collections
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John Burroughs in His Hay-Barn Study near Woodchuck Lodge, 1912 (1912-09-06)Original Source: Digital Collections

Writer

1856 Essay by John Burroughs, "Work and Wait" (1856) by Burroughs, John, 1837-1921Original Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs at the Site of Thoreau's Walden Pond Cabin, 1917 (1917) by Fisher, G. Clyde, 1878-1949Original Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs' Book "Breath of Life," Open to Title Page, 1915, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1913/1917, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Burroughs’ essays ranged from studies of birds and nature to religion and literature and his work was enjoyed by scholars and laypeople alike.

Poem by John Burroughs, "An October Day," 1891-1901, Burroughs, John, 1837-1921, 1891/1901, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Country Calendar Magazine for May 1905, with Article by John Burroughs, "In May", Burroughs, John, 1837-1921, Eickemeyer, Rudolf, 1862-1932, Review of Reviews Book Company, 1905-05, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Country Calendar Magazine for October 1905, with Article by John Burroughs, "October Days", Burroughs, John, 1837-1921, Eldridge, A. G., Review of Reviews Book Company, 1905-10, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Country Life in America Magazine for May, 1906, with Article by John Burroughs, "Love and War Among the Bluebirds", Burroughs, John, 1837-1921, Johnson, Clifton, 1865-1940, Embody, C. G., Schreck, John M., Paddock, R. S., Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906-05, Original Source: Digital Collections
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John Burroughs in His Hay-Barn Study near Woodchuck Lodge, 1912 (1912-09-06)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs on Ford Experimental Tractor, Michigan, 1916 (1916)Original Source: Digital Collections

A Man between Worlds

Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone on a "Vagabonds" Camping Trip, 1918 (1918-08-21) by Ford Motor Company. Engineering Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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 and John Burroughs on a "Vagabonds" Camping Trip, 1919 (1919-08-07) by Ford Motor Company. Engineering Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

John Burroughs on Ford Experimental Tractor, Michigan, 1916 (1916)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

John Burroughs and His Ford Model T Touring Car, 1913 (1913) by Phelps, C. H. (Charles H.), b. 1878?Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Julian Burroughs and John Burroughs at Oxford Cave, Jamaica, 1902 (1902)Original Source: Digital Collections

Beyond the Catskills

John Burroughs' Album of Pressed Wildflowers Gathered during the Harriman Alaska Expedition, 1899 (1899) by Burroughs, John, 1837-1921Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Julian Burroughs and John Burroughs at Oxford Cave, Jamaica, 1902 (1902)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt with John Burroughs at Slabsides, 1903 (1903) by Burroughs, Julian, 1878-1954Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Ursula and John Burroughs with Others, at the Grand Canyon, 1911 (1911) by Moon, Carl, 1878-1948Original Source: Digital Collections

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

View from Boyhood Rock, Burial Place of John Burroughs, Roxbury, New York, 1944 (1944-05-19)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

References:

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.
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