Arbor Day is a holiday that celebrates the planting, upkeep, and preservation of trees. For centuries, communities spanning the globe have found various ways to honor nature and the environment. However, the appreciation of trees and forests in modern times can be largely attributed to Arbor Day. And although Arbor Day may not have the same clout as holidays like Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day (or even Earth Day), it has a history with strong roots that branched out across multiple nations.
The origins of Arbor Day date back to the early 1870s in Nebraska. A journalist by the name of Julius Sterling Morton moved to the state with his wife, Caroline, in 1854, a little more than 10 years before Nebraska gained its statehood in 1867. The couple purchased 160 acres in Nebraska City and planted a wide variety of trees and shrubs in what was primarily a flat stretch of the desolate plain.
Morton also became the editor of the state’s first newspaper, Nebraska City News, which was a perfect platform for Morton to spread his knowledge of trees… and to stress their ecological importance to Nebraska. His message about tree life resonated with his readers, many of whom recognized the lack of forestation in their community. Morton also became involved with the Nebraska Board of Agriculture.
On January 7, 1872, Morton proposed a day that would encourage all Nebraskans to plant trees in their community. The agriculture board agreed, and after some back-and-forth about the title—the event was originally going to be called “Sylvan Day” in reference to forest trees—Morton convinced everyone that the day should reflect the appreciation of all trees, and “Arbor Day” was born.
With the seeds of interest already planted in the minds of devoted Nebraska City News readers, the first-ever Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872, and was a wild success. Morton led the charge in the planting of approximately 1 million trees. Enthusiasm and engagement were aided by the prizes awarded to those who planted trees correctly.
The tradition quickly began to spread. In 1882, schools across the country started to participate, and more than a decade after its introduction, Arbor Day became an official state holiday in Nebraska in 1885. April 22 was initially chosen because of its ideal weather for planting trees and in recognition of Morton’s birthday.
Within 20 years, Arbor Day had reached a large swath of the nation and was celebrated in every state except for Delaware. The holiday spread even further with the help of fellow agriculturalist Birdsey Northrop. In 1883, Northrop introduced the concept of Arbor Day to Japan and continued to influence the creation of Arbor Days across Europe, Canada, and Australia.
On April 15, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt, a supporter of the Conservation Movement, issued an “Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States,” telling them:
“It is well that you should celebrate your Arbor Day thoughtfully, for within your lifetimes the Nation’s need for trees will become serious. We of an older generation can get along with what we have, though with growing hardship; but in your full manhood and womanhood you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed.”
It wasn’t until 1970, however, that Arbor Day became recognized nationwide thanks to the efforts of President Richard Nixon. This move was in line with other environmentally-friendly actions taken by Nixon in the 1970s, including the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act, along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.