The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Into the Not-So-Wild


What is the wilderness, exactly? For most of us, it means land untouched by humans,  allowed to exist in a state of nature. A place “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain… retaining its primeval character and influence,” in the words of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which set aside just over 9 million acres of such land in the U.S. to be protected from human development or alteration.

When we think of a primeval, untouched landscape in the United States, it’s easy to go back to that mythic moment when European settlers first arrived and glimpsed the ‘new world’ – before colonization, deforestation, industrialization, and the extinction of iconic species such as the passenger pigeon. What could be more pristine, more untouched?



1606 map of Virginia as described by John Smith showing the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River, other geographic features, and a vignette of the Native leader, Powhatan, in council. Library of Congress.

Well, certainly the landscape they actually encountered. Even the very first written accounts from European explorers show us that the untamed, uninhabited wilderness we imagine today simply didn’t exist.  Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazano wrote of walking for “many leagues” across southern New England, and finding not forests, but rather acres of farmland. This was, by the way, in 1520, nearly a century before the first English colonies in North America were established. What Verrazano was seeing were the farms and villages of native tribes.

And what forests existed were far from untouched by man. To make traveling through the forests easier, tribes in New England periodically cleared the undergrowth with fire. Adriaen van der Donck, a Dutch settler in the 1600s, described the sight of these controlled burns as something glorious — almost the 17th century equivalent of a light show:

“Such a fire is a splendid sight, when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers, at night, while the forest is ablaze on both banks. Fires and flames are seen everywhere on all sides, a delightful scene to look on from afar.”

The earliest European settlers recognized these forests for what they were — not primeval wilderness at all, but an environment so managed and manicured that English settler Thomas Morton compared them to “our [English] parks…very beautiful and commodious.”

So, how was it that this landscape of farms and park-like woods was transformed into a primeval wilderness in our modern imaginations?

It began with the deaths of the people who had managed it for so long. By 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, newly imported European diseases had killed off more than 90% of the region’s native population. As Mann put it,

“They saw farm fields, they saw skeletons of bodies all over the place. And so what they settled in was an emptied, not an empty, an emptied landscape. It was a tragedy, it was a cemetery. What happens is they move into these cleared areas. Something like the first fifty English settlements in New England were on top of abandoned native villages.”

The colonists soon established their own villages and planted their own crops. But they did so in a very different way than the tribes whose villages had been there before. Settlers focused on tending their individual farms and ignored the rest of the land, creating a landscape divided between the heavily managed fields and the untended forest. Without regular burns, the forest swiftly grew thick and impassable – within a generation, the woods had been transformed from pleasant parkland to a much darker, more difficult place that the Puritans in particular came to fear. So thick, in fact,  that when Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous The Maine Woods, the undergrowth was so heavy that (to quote the man himself):

Author Henry David Thoreau, "Mr. Wilderness."

Author Henry David Thoreau,  aka,”Mr. Wilderness.”

“The walking was worse than ever, because of the fallen timber. The fallen trees were so numerous, that for long distances, the route was through a succession of small yards, where we climbed over fences as high as our heads.”

A bit ironic, isn’t it, notes Mann.

“You had this curious thing where Thoreau– who we think of as Mr. Wilderness – he’s going into the Maine woods. He actually can’t walk in the woods. He has to go from one farmland to the next, with the woods over here.

Which shows you how much the landscapes [have changed]– you have John Smith who’s reporting…in about 1610, that the woods are so open, that he can ride through them at a gallop. He was so crazy, he may actually have done that.

And here, Thoreau can’t even walk through the woods in 1850. So you see a huge ecological transformation has taken place.”

But to Thoreau, these woods – impassable, dense, untended by humans – were what the woods must have always been like, especially at their most natural and primeval, before Europeans arrived. And, as ‘Mr. Wilderness,’ he helped popularize the concept that the woods he struggled through in the 1850s were unbroken and eternal.


photo 3

This idea we’ve created of the “natural” landscape the early settlers must have encountered has profound implications for our modern one, says Mann.

“The modern images of wilderness relate in a very uneasy way to what was actually here. Many, many, many of American ecosystems evolved for a thousands of years in the presence of native fire.


And a lot of the environmental problems we’re having in the west relate to the fact that when we start managing them a la Smokey the Bear– no fire– we end up creating a kind of ecosystem that hasn’t been seen on the continent for a really, really long time. And something unnatural, quote unquote, and new. Something distinctively modern.


And so when we think we’re recovering the past, what we’re actually doing is creating something that hasn’t been there for a very, very long time.”



Listen to our whole episode on the wilderness in America here.

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