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The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement
J. Baird Callicott, University of North Texas
Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Rice University
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Currier & Ives, A Mountain Ramble, c. 1860
Currier & Ives
"A Mountain Ramble"
c. 1860


Library of Congress

". . . each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, . . .
a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation."


Thoreau, "Huckleberries," 1862

In an essay titled "Huckleberries" written shortly before his death in 1862, the first clear clarion call for wilderness preservation was trumpeted by Henry David Thoreau, a lifelong contrarian who regularly ridiculed the conventional attitudes and values of his New England contemporaries. After complaining about the penchant of his fellow citizens to make private property out of virgin forests, river banks, and mountain tops—and to exploit them for commerce, lumber, and pasture—he insisted "that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, either in one body or several—where a stick should never be cut for fuel—nor for the navy, nor to make wagons, but stand and decay for higher uses—a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation." Thoreau goes on to propose as local wilderness preserves "All Walden Wood, with Walden [Pond] in the midst of it, and the Easterbrooks country, an uncultivated area of some four square miles in the north of the town." By twentieth-century standards, Thoreau's notion of a wilderness preserve was small potatoes—that is, small in spatial scale, as contemporary conservation biologists would put it. But here in a nutshell he captured the essence of American wilderness preservation—publicly owned, undespoiled land set aside in perpetuity for "higher uses."

Moran, Valley of Babbling Waters, 1876
Moran, "Valley of Babbling Waters," 1876
[Utah]


Library of Congress
"going to the mountains is going home
. . . wilderness is a necessity"


Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

John Muir took up the wilderness cause later in the nineteenth century and, early in the twentieth, transformed it into a popular movement. Born in Scotland and raised in Wisconsin, Muir wound up in California. Compared with the big, rugged, wild country of the West, Thoreau's "wild" haunts appeared to be less like real wilderness and more like the fringes of suburbia. Muir extolled the value of big wilderness in a prose more accessible and less judgmental than Thoreau's: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but fountains of life."

In 1935, Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall and other activists formed the Wilderness Society. In league with other conservation organizations, such as the Sierra Club, which Muir helped to found and served as president, they campaigned for federal wilderness protection. In 1964, President Johnson signed Public Law 88-577 creating a "National Wilderness Preservation System." The "Wilderness Act of 1964," as this law is now known, was, thus, the culmination of a century of conservation philosophy, propaganda, and political struggle. According to the Act, "wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

University of Southern Maine, Portland
John Smith, New England, 1635
John Smith, "New England,"
1635 (detail)


"It was their God-ordained destiny to transform the dismal American wilderness into an earthly paradise, governed according to the Word of God."

The classic history of this movement is Wilderness and the American Mind (1967/1982). Author Roderick Nash notes that wilderness is an important biblical theme, the "antipode," on the spectrum of good, bad, and indifferent places, to the paradisical Garden of Eden. According to Nash, the Bible consistently characterizes wilderness as "cursed" land, "the environment of evil," a "kind of hell" on earth. The Puritan settlers of New England, steeped in the Old Testament biblical worldview, believed they found themselves in such a "wilderness condition" of continental proportions. It was their God-ordained destiny to transform the dismal American wilderness into an earthly paradise, governed according to the Word of God. To hear Nash tell it, "seventeenth century [Puritan] writing is permeated with the idea of wild country as the environment of evil." Certainly one finds Puritan fear and loathing of wilderness in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, and many other seventeenth-century Puritan writings, such as Michael Wigglesworth's God's Controversy with New England (1662), and Cotton Mather's Decennium Luctuosum: An History of Remarkable Occurrences in the Long War Which New-England Hath Had with the Indian Salvages (1699). While it would be an exaggeration to claim that a celebration of the American wilderness and its indigenous peoples could be found in Thomas Morton's New English Canaan (1637), one does find there a much more sympathetic portrayal than in its contemporaries.

New English Canaan
Thomas Morton (c.1579-1647) arrived in New England in 1622—two years after Bradford and the Mayflower contingent—with a group of business prospectors (rather than Puritan settlers). He soon established himself as the leader of a trading post at Mount Wollaston (later called "Merry Mount"). In addition to trading with the "Salvages" as he and his contemporaries called the Native Americans, he befriended them and joined them in boisterous festivities on a regular basis. Particularly infamous in Puritan memory, on one such occasion Morton erected a Maypole on Merry Mount, around which his motley crew danced—in transatlantic heathen union. Bradford and others suspected he even illegally traded guns and alcohol with the natives, and they eventually exiled him to England on the basis of these suspicions.

BRADFORD______Of Plimouth Plantation
on arriving in 1620

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pigsah, to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather-beaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.   
1620-1647, Ch. 9.

MORTON______New English Canaan
on arriving in 1622

In the month of June, 1622, it was my chance to arrive in the parts of New England with 30 servants, and provision of all sorts fit for a plantation: and while our houses were building, I did endeavor to take a survey of the country: The more I looked, the more I liked it. And when I had more seriously considered of the beauty of the place, with all her fair endowments, I did not think that in all the knowne world it could be paralleled . . . . in my eye t'was nature's Masterpiece; her chiefest magazine of all where lives her store: if this land be not rich, then is the whole world poor.
1637, Book II, Ch. 1.

In short, Morton and Bradford were not birds of a feather. Indeed, the way Morton writes about the native peoples and natural environment of New England clearly shows how much he distanced himself from Puritan ideology and its leaders. Morton's friendly relations with the indigenous peoples starkly contrasts with Bradford's contentiousness. The two also evinced contrasting attitudes toward the American natural environment. Because the American peoples and their natural environments were so closely connected, not only in fact, but in the European imagination, Bradford's attitudes toward both are closely connected, as are Morton's. And though sharply contrasting, Bradford's Indian-nature attitudes and Morton's flow, at a deeper level, from a common source. They both subscribe to a sort of primitivism. Bradford considered the Indians to be part of a forbidding wilderness, while Morton considered them to be noble savages of a bountiful promised land. Consider the title of Morton's work about his experiences in New England, New English Canaan. With it he satirizes the Puritans' habit of perceiving themselves and the New World in terms of the tribulations of the Israelites in the Old Testament. But also in this work describing New England, Morton "appeale[s] to any man of judgement, whether it be not a Land that for her excellent indowments of Nature may passe for a plaine parallel to Canaan of Israell, being in a more temporat Climat, this being in 40 Degrees and that in 30." Morton sees New England as a promised land that may even surpass that of the Israelites and ironically, to be sure, but also seriously dubs it "Canaan," while Bradford heroically insists that the wilderness presents the greatest challenge in human history for God's chosen people.

Reconstruction of Plimouth Plantation
Reconstruction of
Plimouth Plantation


Plymouth Colony
Archive Project


Worth noting is that seventeenth-century Puritan (and in Morton's case, anti-Puritan) writing makes a mockery of the twentieth-century idea of wilderness as a place where "man himself is a visitor who does not remain." It was, by all early-settlement accounts, teeming with people. And to the analytic eye of an ecologist, the east coast of North America was far from being "untrammeled by man." Native hunting, horticulture, town-building, and burning had created a landscape no less influenced by man than that bequeathed to their heirs by the pilgrims from Europe, as historians William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant point out (see Further Reading).


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"Wilderness and American Identity" Essays
The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement | The Challenge of the Arid West |
Rachel Carson and the Awakening of Environmental Consciousness
Essay-Related Links


Wilderness and American Identity
The Use of the LandNative Americans and the Land
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