April 22, 1832: J. Sterling Morton, Father of Arbor Day, is Born

By Eben Lehman on April 22, 2009

“There is no aristocracy in trees. They are not haughty. They will thrive near the humblest cabin on our fertile prairies, just as well and become just as refreshing to the eye and as fruitful as they will in the shadow of a king’s palace.” -- J. Sterling Morton

Before there was Earth Day, there was Arbor Day, the original environmental holiday that started it all. In honor of the national observance of Arbor Day this Friday, we would like to honor its founder, Julius Sterling Morton.  Morton,  a farmer, journalist, politician, territorial official, and the third Secretary of Agriculture, was born on this day in 1832 in Adams, New York.

J. Sterling Morton found his life's calling through the fateful decision in 1854 to settle with his wife in the new Nebraska Territory. There, Morton began working for the territory's first newspaper, the Nebraska City News, quickly rising to editor. Through frequent editorials throughout the 1850s,  he advocated for tree planting on the area's open prairies.

Julius Sterling Morton

Julius Sterling Morton

Morton also became involved in the territorial government, serving in Nebraska's Legislative Assembly before being appointed as Secretary of the Territory by President Buchanan in 1858. After a series of political defeats, Morton took a position on the State Board of Agriculture, where he was able to put his interest in tree planting into action.

At a meeting of the Nebraska Board of Agriculture on January 4, 1872, Morton introduced a resolution that April 10th “be set apart and consecrated for tree planting in the State of Nebraska and that the State Board of Agriculture hereby name it Arbor Day.” The resolution passed unanimously.

Three months later, on April 10, 1872, the first-ever Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska. Prizes were offered to organizations, counties, and local communities for planting the most trees. Over the next twelve months, an astounding one million new trees were planted across the state. That first Arbor Day was also instrumental in pushing Congress to pass the 1873 Timber Culture Act, which offered free land to western settlers who agreed to plant trees on their land claims.

Arbor Day was officially made a legal state holiday in Nebraska in 1885, at which time the date was changed to April 22, in order to honor Morton's birthday. Other states as well as foreign countries also began to adopt Arbor Day in order to encourage tree planting. Today, some individual states celebrate the holiday on dates coinciding with the best time of year for planting trees.

Not everyone was a fan of the holiday, however. Although former U.S. Division of Forestry Chief Bernhard E. Fernow initially approved of the Arbor Day effort, he reflected on its impact in 1916, stating, “I am not sure but this otherwise interesting and beautiful idea has had a retarding influence on practical forestry by misleading people into thinking that tree planting was the main issue instead of a conservative management of existing forests.”

As early as 1936, the decline in Arbor Day's popularity was being noted and a push began to establish a nationally recognized Arbor Day.  In 1970, President Richard Nixon declared the official national observance of Arbor Day as the last Friday in April, where the holiday continues to be most commonly observed today.

“Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.” -- J. Sterling Morton

For further information on the life and influence of J. Sterling Morton, see the following article from the Fall 2000 issue of Forest History Today, "Biographical Portrait: Julius Sterling Morton," by Byron Anderson.

Also read an address by Morton delivered April 22, 1887, in Lincoln, Nebraska: "Arbor Day: Its Origin and Growth."  Excerpted from "Arbor Day: Its History and Observance," an 1896 publication by Nathaniel H. Egleston, from the FHS USFS History Collection.

The Forest History Society has also created an education module as part of its Middle School Curriculum, "From Arbor Day to Earth Day," looking at the history of conservation efforts and including a profile of J. Sterling Morton.