Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Joseph Le Conte (1823 - 1901) - Founded Sierra Club with John Muir

Joseph Le Conte and his "Yosemite Gravestone" (Photo by Michael Colbruno)

Plot 36, Lot 193

Joseph Le Conte was born and educated in Georgia where he initially studied medicine, but found that his real interest lay in scientific research. He had inherited a large plantation and four dozen slaves and lived the life of the aristocratic planter class, a life changed forever after the Federal forces under Sherman laid waste through Georgia in 1865.

Le Conte and his brother John had been teachers at South Carolina College before the war, but at the end of the conflict, his plantation was gone, most of the South’s institutions were destroyed, northern colleges were not interested in hiring “rebels”, and their best prospects in 1868 seemed to be to join the new University of California. The offer had come from Regent John W. Dwinelle who learned about the Le Contes through a mutual friend at Harvard.

Joseph Le Conte
 The Le Contes traveled over the Rockies as far as Sacramento by train, and by riverboat to San Francisco Bay. Joseph was the second professor to be hired at UC, his brother John was the first. John taught physics, Joseph geology, natural history, and botany. Joseph was widely regarded as the most popular professor on campus.

In the summer of 1870, Joseph Le Conte made his first trip to Yosemite, and it became his passion for the rest of his life. Le Conte’s introduction to the beauty of Yosemite was made by his students who had urged him to join them at the end of his first year of teaching. Off they went on horseback from Oakland across the hot and dusty Central Valley to Yosemite -- an experience he would always treasure.

That summer he met John Muir, and they became firm friends. He returned summer after summer, studying the geology of Yosemite, and writing numerous scholarly papers. Le Conte’s scholarship as a research scientist was widely admired. Among his many publications were the standard textbook, Elements of Geology, and a popular work, Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought, in which he reconciled religion and evolution.    In 1874 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1891 he became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1892 he joined John Muir in founding the Sierra Club and served on its board of directors until 1898. He died on July 6, 1901 in his beloved Yosemite Valley. His friends hoped to bury him there, but his family wanted him brought home to the family plot in Mountain View. The rugged granite rock marking his grave was brought from Yosemite’s Glacier Point. In 1903 his friends and admirers in the Sierra Club built the Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley, open to the public every summer.

[Text by Ron Bachman]

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