Julius Sterling Morton was born on April 22, 1832, in Adams, Jefferson County, New York. His family migrated west; Morton was raised in Detroit and attended the University of Michigan. After receiving his diploma in 1854, he moved with his bride to Nebraska, which was not yet organized as a territory, and staked a claim in Nebraska City. There he edited a newspaper, became a successful farmer, helped survey the city, and was active in territorial politics. He served in the territorial legislature from 1855 to 1856 and from 1856 to 1858, and he was appointed secretary of the territory from 1858 to 1861.
Respected as an agriculturalist, he sought to instruct people in the modern techniques of farming and forestry. Among his most significant achievements was the founding of Arbor Day. He became well known in Nebraska for his political, agricultural, and literary activities and served with distinction as President Cleveland's secretary of agriculture. He is credited with helping change that department into a coordinated service to farmers, and he supported Cleveland in setting up national forest reservations.
In 1897 Morton planned and began to edit the multi-volume Illustrated History of Nebraska. He also published a weekly periodical, The Conservationist. He died on April 27, 1902, in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he was seeking health treatment. His home in Nebraska City is now a state park.