Puritan origins of the American wilderness movement

Lead Authors: Baird Callicott (other articles) and Priscilla Ybarra (other articles)
Content Partners: National Humanities Center (other articles) and TeacherServe (other articles)
Article Topics: Environmental history
This article has been reviewed and approved by the following Topic Editor:
Brian Black (other articles)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This entry was originally published as "The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement" in the series "Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History," developed by the National Humanities Center and TeacherServe. Citations should be based on the original essay.


caption Currier & Ives "A Mountain Ramble" c. 1860. (Source: Library of Congress)

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 ancient forests, reedy river banks, and verdant mountain valleys—and to exploit them for lumber, commerce, 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."

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, environmental writing, 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."

caption John Smith, "New England," 1635. (Source: University of Southern Maine, Portland)

The classic history of this movement is Wilderness and the American Mind (1967). 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.

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 his countrymen eventually exiled him back to England on the basis of these suspicions.

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 imaginary, 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 moral as well as physical challenge in human history for God's chosen people.

caption Reconstruction of Plymouth Plantation. (Source: 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).

Only when the grip of Puritan thought on the American mind was relaxed could wilderness become the object not of fear, loathing, and conquest, but of veneration and preservation, if the history Roderick Nash constructs were the whole story. Who better than Thoreau, the man who marched to the beat of a different drummer, represents the intellectual counter current to Puritanism in American thought? In an 1851 public lecture, he would declare that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World." He opened that lecture, "Walking," with this preamble:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil . . . . I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee, and every one of you will take care of that.

We don't know the identity of the "minister" present on this occasion, but doubtless he was a Presbyterian or Congregationalist preacher of a Calvinist persuasion. Neither do we know who composed the school committee, but we can be sure that they were among the Elect—and heaven bound. The rest of Thoreau's audience consisted mostly of descendants of the Puritan pilgrims who first settled Concord, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century. Thoreau here opposes Nature to civilization, wildness to culture, and himself to his pious audience. Thoreau, a close associate of Ralph Waldo Emerson is, like Emerson, labeled a Transcendentalist. It's not entirely clear what Transcendentalism was—elements of Platonism, Hinduism, Romanticism, Deism blended together—but it seems pretty clear that it was a far cry from Puritanism. Thoreau, however, was certainly a Puritan in his habits, if not in his philosophy. He was celibate, vegetarian, a teetotaler, otherwise abstemious, frugal . . . and judgmental.

In contrast, Perry Miller, the great historian of Puritan America and author of Errand into the Wilderness (1956/1984), argues that Transcendentalism was not an exotic alternative to Calvinism but evolved from it. The transitional figure is Jonathan Edwards, who lived a century after the Puritan colonization of the New World. He found the "images or shadows of divine things" in "the beauty of the world," explaining that

spiritual beauties are infinitely the greatest, and bodies being but the shadows of being, they must be so much the more charming as they shadow forth spiritual beauties. This beauty is peculiar to natural things, it surpassing the art of man.

Here Edwards states the core Transcendentalist doctrine—that the things of this world reflect higher, transcendent truths (hence the philosophy's name). As Emerson famously enthused almost eighty years later:

Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifting into empty space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

Combine this spiritualizing of nature, begun in the second century of American Puritan theology and fully formed during the third century in crypto-Puritan Transcendentalism, with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and original sin, and you have the Puritan origins of the American wilderness movement.

By the second century of their existence in the New World, the sober, frugal, hard-working Puritans had transformed the American wilderness into fruitful farms and shining cities on hills. The "howling" wilderness encountered by the first generation of Puritans in America had been demonized. It was the vast domain of Satan, his minions the "Salvages," and diabolical flesh-eating wild animals. By Edwards's day, the numbers of dangerous animals had been reduced and the Indian populations had precipitously declined. The remnants of uncultivated, unurbanized nature became instead a benign Edenic domain. Sin was to be found in the towns, not in the woods, and the Devil in the souls of sinners. In short, nature in America went from demonized to divinized and the American population of European descent went from God's errand runners into the hideous and howling wilderness to sinful and depraved despoilers of God's beautiful creation. By the middle of the nineteenth century, undespoiled nature was becoming so scarce in the heartland of Puritan America, that Thoreau felt compelled to call for its deliberate preservation.

In A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen, Puerto Rican-American poet Martín Espada describes his first Thanksgiving with his Anglo-American in-laws. "'Daddy's family has been here in the Connecticut Valley since 1680,' Mother said. 'There were Indians here once, but they left.'" Espada perfectly captures the contemporary American tendency to "erase" the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas from the landscape and what really happened to them from mind. The Indians didn't "leave" New England; many of them died from Old World diseases against which their immune systems were entirely defenseless. The bereft survivors of the epidemics were dispossessed or murdered. The wilderness idea plays a crucial role in masking colonial American genocide and ethnic cleansing. For if, through the lens of the contemporary wilderness idea, the New World was "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," it was a welcoming void waiting to be pleasantly populated by pilgrims from northwestern Europe. But have it either way—the early Puritan hideous and howling wilderness or the neoPuritan edenic and divine wilderness—the wilderness idea is a powerful conceptual tool of colonialism.

Albeit ultimately a legacy of colonial, Puritan America, the system of designated wilderness areas in the national forests and parks is vital to contemporary conservation efforts. In the last decade of his life, Aldo Leopold's thinking about the importance of wilderness areas evolved and matured. In the tradition of Edwards, Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, Leopold at first envisioned wilderness, anthropocentrically, as a resource for recreation, aesthetic experience, solitude, and spiritual renewal. Later he came to think of it, nonanthropocentrically, as habitat for such animals—wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope—that do not well survive and flourish with the way nature is practically everywhere else trammelled by industrialized Homo sapiens. He also came to think of it as a "base datum" (or control) for the scientific study of the "health" of ecosystems that have been humanly altered or variously trammelled by tree-cutting, grazing, plowing, and paving. A carefully managed forest, for example, may remain healthy despite the selective removal of some of its trees, but we have no way of measuring its condition unless similar forests remain inviolate. Some contemporary conservationists argue that, because of its historical baggage, the wilderness idea should be replaced by the concept of "biodiversity reserves." But others think that because it represents a political bastion against the forces of greed, despite its colonial origins, the wilderness idea remains a powerful and on the whole positive myth in the contemporary American psyche, and that to abandon it now in favor of some less deeply resonant alternative, would be to abandon the most impregnable redoubt for the defense of nature.


See the authors' Environment in Focus, with supplemental reading, and related news stories and websites.

Further Reading

  • Adamson, Joni. 2001. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN: 0816517924
  • Callicott, J. Baird, and Michael P. Nelson. 1999. The Great New Wilderness Debate. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN: 0820319848
  • Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN: 0809034050
  • Merchant, Carolyn. 1989. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 0807818585
  • Miller, Perry. 1956, 1984. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN: 0674261550
  • Nash, Roderick. 1967, 1973, 1982. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN: 0300016492
  • Oelschlaeger, Max. 1991. The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN: 0300048513
  • Bradford, William (1588-1657). 1856. Of Plimouth Plantation, 1620-1647. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Mather, Cotton (1663-1728). 1699. Decennium Luctuosum: An History of Remarkable Occurrences in the Long War Which New-England Hath Had with the Indian Salvages. Boston.
  • Morton, Thomas (1575-1646). 1637. New English Canaan. Amsterdam: J. F. Stam.
  • Wigglesworth, Michael (1631-1705). 1662. "God's Controversy with New England," in The Day of Doom; or, a Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment.


Center, N., , T., Callicott, J., & Ybarra, P. (2009). Puritan origins of the American wilderness movement. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155610


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