Origins of Arbor Day

The Story Behind Tree Day USA

April 25, 2019

Didn’t we just celebrate Earth Day? Well, now it’s time for that other April holiday about green things that grow: Arbor Day.

Origins of Arbor Day

The appreciation of trees in America, and all their benefits both biological and eye-pleasing, long pre-dates the 20th century’s environmentalism movement. It all goes back to Julius Sterling Morton, who, after earning his agriculture degree in 1854, moved from Michigan to Nebraska City, situated in what soon become the Nebraska Territory. Nebraska is among the Great Plains…which, by its very definition, means it didn’t have a lot of trees. That was a real problem for settlers in the area, because trees are very useful, what with how they provide firewood, building materials, and shade for crops. Morton decided to do something about it. By the time Nebraska became a state in 1867, Morton’s orchard boasted more than a thousand trees. 

Morton spread the notion of aggressive tree-planting to other Nebraska residents thanks to his job as editor of the Nebraska City News, the first newspaper in the state, and publisher of many Morton-penned editorials about the many uses of trees. He really believed in trees — he also put together the Nebraska State Horticultural Society and joined the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture. It’s through his position on that board that Morton proposed a state holiday. In 1872, he wrote a resolution to make April 10th of that year be “set apart and consecrated for the planting of trees” in Nebraska. He called the holiday Arbor Day, using the Latin word for tree. The state legislature passed Morton’s bill, and Arbor Day was born. Nebraska celebrated by giving out prizes and recognition to the people, cities, and counted who planted the most trees. And there was a bit of competition: On that very first Arbor Day, Nebraskans planted a remarkable one million trees — that works out to about six for every resident.

In 1885, Arbor Day became a legal holiday in the state, but was moved to April 22…Julius Morton’s birthday. The holiday’s concept spread through the U.S., and in 1970, President Richard Nixon made National Arbor Day a country-wide observance for the last Friday in April.