Was Muir ever called an “ignorant sheepherder”?
For many many years the story of the scientific controversy over the creation of Yosemite has been told as “Whitney said it was a catastrophic collapse of the valley floor, Muir said it was glaciers, Whitney called Muir an “ignorant sheepherder” but Muir, the untrained naturalist, was right.”
First, my question: can anybody actually find the source of the “ignorant sheepherder” quote? It is in Farquhar’s History of the Sierra Nevada but without attribution. It kind of sounds like something Whitney might have said, but where?
OK, on to a less fanciful version of the controversy.
In 1865, Whitney’s California Geological Survey released its second volume, Geology. In it were pages of superlatives directed at the High Sierran landscape. It also contained a description of a glacial moraine near El Capitan (which was a correct identification) and statement that there had been a glacier in the valley, but it also had Whitney’s collapse mechanism for making the valley (advanced over objections from his field team that there were no faults to accommodate this).
By 1868, Whitney had changed his mind; The Yosemite Guidebook (issued in 1869) claimed
Much less can it be supposed that the peculiar form of the Yosemite is due to the erosive action of ice. A more absurd theory was never advanced, than that by which it was sought to ascribe to glaciers the sawing out of these vertical walls and the rounding of the domes. Nothing more unlike the real work of ice, as exhibited in the Alps, could be found. Besides, there is no reason to suppose, or at least no proof, that glaciers have ever occupied the Valley or any portion of it, as will be explained in the next chapter, so that this theory, based on entire ignorance of the whole subject, may be dropped without wasting any more time upon it.
Muir had only just reached the valley when this was published, so why the invective against glaciers when, it seemed, Whitney was the only one who had mentioned glaciers? The answer is that Prof. William Blake of the Arizona School of Mines (later the University of Arizona) had presented a paper in France in 1867 arguing for a glacial origin (though he emphasized, somewhat to his later regret, subglacial stream erosion as the precise mechanism); Whitney was apparently engaging in argument with Blake, not Muir, and the several subsequent versions of this guidebook had no adjustment to the text as Muir’s views became known.
On the other side, Muir was far from an ignorant sheepherder; he had attended the University of Wisconsin and received some geologic training from a student of Agassiz’s, so he arguably had a firmer geologic training in the subject than Whitney. Muir was also focused laser-like on the Sierra, while Whitney’s energies were scattered across California and he was engaged in continuous battle with the California Legislature. Muir was an outstanding observer who worked from what he saw; Whitney, on the other hand, seemed to engage in developing theories with less regard to facts.
The last player to mention in this little drama is Joseph LeConte. Appointed as the third professor for the new University of California, LeConte met Muir in Yosemite in 1870 while accompanying a party of students touring the mountains. He and Muir discussed the geology of the area and broadly agreed to the importance of glaciation, though LeConte was more inclined to allow for a lot of stream erosion prior to glaciation. LeConte encouraged Muir to publish his thoughts on Yosemite; later LeConte would also publish his interpretation. Oddly, many years later LeConte decided to retract his support for an erosional origin to the valley, partially because he now thought there was too little time for glaciers to do their work (an idea revived by Jeff Schaffer in his often questionable arguments about the creation of Yosemite), partially because of the numerous grabens then identified (though none actually had a geometry remotely comparable to Yosemite, and no faults have been found to parallel the valley walls).
By the ways, the strongest evidence today for a strong glacial origin for Yosemite is the depth to bedrock under the valley floor, some 500-600m down (Gutenberg et al., GSA Bulletin, 1956) and a water well drilled deeply into sediments near the junction of Tenaya Creek and the Merced River; the only two mechanisms to allow for such a thickness are glaciation and faulting. Faulting has been abandoned as a reasonable means of creating the valley (no faults mapped, among other things), so glacier it is. This was anathema to Francois Matthes, who studied the geomorphology of the valley and felt most of the deepening of the valley was accomplished by stream erosion; he never accepted these results (the seismic study was conducted in 1935 and 1937 but not published for years, probably because of Matthes’s objections; he died in 1948).