Chance Encounters: Meeting John Muir in Florida

Letters and clippings preserved in the Rare Book Collection Copy of John Muir's "The Mountains of California"

In October of 1867, a weary and likely malarial John Muir stumbled back into the town of Cedar Key and collapsed in a heap. Just six months prior, the twenty-nine-year-old Muir had set off from Wisconsin to observe the woods and forests of the southeast, on a journey which he expected would ultimately take him to Cuba and to the Amazon. Instead, for the remainder of the year Muir remained in Cedar Key in the care of a local family, the Hodgsons, who owned and operated a sawmill and who had given Muir odd jobs when he arrived. As he would write nearly fifty years later in the Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916), the Hodgsons showed him their “open, unconstrained cordiality,” and he left promising to return.

More than twenty years later, Muir did come back to Cedar Key, this time not as an itinerant and unknown naturalist but as a prominent figure of the American conservation movement. In 1898, he re-connected with the family who had sheltered him decades prior. Thanks to a recent donation, traces of those encounters are now in the Rare Book Collection.

Inscription by John Muir to Sarah Ann Hodgson

When he returned to Florida, Muir sought out Sarah Ann Hodgson, whom he met in Archer, writing back to his family in California about the reunion. After returning to California, Muir sent Sarah an inscribed copy of his first book, The Mountains of California (1894), and other members of the Hodgson family would write to him over the next decade. This correspondence is now partially preserved and digitized at the University of the Pacific.

Hodgson’s copy of The Mountains of California was used as a family memento: it contains a letter from Muir to Hodgson from March of 1900 preserved in its binding, as well as clippings about the creation of national parks and nearly a century’s worth of environmental activities, including those in the Gainesville area. After his trip back to Florida, Muir sent the Hodgsons at least one more book, a copy of Our National Parks (1901) also inscribed to Sarah Hodgson. The Hodgsons’ library eventually came to include Muir’s published account of his rescue in the Thousand Mile Walk, whose introduction appears to have drawn on the correspondence describing the reunion in Archer that Muir had sent back to California.

A letter from John Muir to Sarah Ann Hodgson was preserved in the book.
Muir’s letter to Sarah Hodgson begins with an apology, that “long letters soon become impossible to those who write much for the press.”

The volumes were graciously donated to the collection by the great-nephew of Sarah Ann Hodgson, Dr. Robert B. Ragland, who went on to found the Jacksonville chapter of the Sierra Club in 1970. These books, notes and clippings join the stories of other famous naturalists, from William Bartram to Alexander von Humboldt. Their journeys through the American southeast and Caribbean provided inspiration for successive generations to follow in their footsteps and contemplate humanity’s relation to the natural world, as they will for years to come in the hands of our readers and researchers.  

Detail of advertisement, "Alaska via Northern Pacific."
Detail of a 19th-century advertisement, “Alaska via Northern Pacific.” The clippings preserved in the book include advertisements for books written for travelers and nature lovers, as well as reviews of Muir’s writings.

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