top of page

John Smith’s and Cotton Mather’s Descriptions of American Wilderness

Originally posted on my WordPress blog.

In Chapter 1 of American Curiosity, Susan Scott Parrish writes that in the 16th and 17th centuries “the English began to mythologize the plantation of ‘vegetable gold’ as the more virtuous form of colonization once they realized that eastern North America lodged little of those precious minerals that had enriched the Spanish in Peru and Mexico” (31). Parrish also discusses colonial writers’ tendency to show provide a “portrait of painless ‘increase,’ never-withering greenness, and aboriginal peacefulness” as a way to attract new settlers to America and counteract “negative reports of starvation, disease, hurricanes, intemperate weather, and Indian massacres” (33). Although not specifically mentioned by Parrish, John Smith’s A Description of New England is an example of writing about nature that fits with the promotional tradition in the colonial period.

Smith conceives of American nature, particularly the sea and its abundance of fish, as an economic resource that surpasses gold and silver mines:

And never could the Spaniard with all his Mynes of golde and Silver, pay his debts, his friends, and army, halfe so truly, as the Hollanders still have done by this contemptible trade of fish. [….] But this is their Myne; and the Sea the source of those silvered streames of all their vertue; which hath made them now the very miracle of industrie, the pattern of perfection for these affaires: and the benefit of fishing is that Primum mobile that turnes all their Spheres to this height of plenty, strength, honour and admiration. (172)

Along with his emphasis on the great bounty of the sea, Smith also repeatedly evokes the idea of America as teeming with life, both plant and animal, that is perfectly suited to human needs and economic endeavors. The overabundance of life can be both a source of monetary wealth as well as a chance for a kind of rebirth through the pleasure of cultivating the land:

What pleasure can be more, then (being tired with any occasion a-shore) in planting Vines, Fruits, or Hearbs, in contriving their owne Grounds, to the pleasure of their owne mindes, their Fields, Gardens, Orchards, Buildings, Ships, and other works, etc. to recreate themselves before their owne doores, in their owne boates upon the Sea, where man woman and childe, with a small hooke and line, by angling, may take diverse sorts of excellent fish, at their pleasures? (176)

In contrast to Smith’s optimistic and promotional tone towards American nature, Cotton Mather, in Magnalia Christi Americana, adopts a more skeptical and bleak attitude about how America’s first settlers experienced the natural world. Juxtaposing these two writers shows how characterizations of American nature can shift so dramatically in just 86 years. For example his description of the early settlers’ reliance on the sea for food provides a bleak contrast to Smith’s effusive praise of the sea’s resources:

for when they were left all together without one morsel of bread for many months, one after another, still the good Providence of God relieved them, and supplied them, and this for the most part out of the sea. In this low condition of affairs, there was no little exercise for the prudence and patience of the governor, who cheerfully bore his part in all (636)

For Mather, the necessity of living off of the sea represents a “low condition” in which humans are brought perilously close to a savage, or animalistic, state. Mather’s writing here insists on the necessity of humans being separated from the natural world, avoiding the “temptations of that American wilderness” (636), instead of delighting in “ranging dayly those unknown parts” of wilderness (176). From Smith to Mather, American nature shifts form a source of adventure and economic profit to a place of temptation and savagery. This shift reveals an underlying change in the amount of agency and authority each writer invests in the natural world. For Smith, nature was simply an ever increasing and self-replenishing resource waiting to be used by humans, a conception of nature that does not allow for much agency. In contrast, Mather’s concern about the temptations of American wilderness suggests that nature is imbued with a certain amount of power to affect and alter human bodies (a point that Parrish takes up extensively).

Another significant difference between Smith’s and Mather’s descriptions of American wilderness is Mather’s preoccupation with language over the natural world. In discussing Mather’s Curiosa Americana, Parrish describes Mather’s “greater orientation toward language’s immaterial capacities for play rather than toward the material intricacy of nature’s workings,” arguing that Mather placed more authority with “the ancient Word, whether scholarly or biblical” than in the natural world (121). This primary concern for the Word over the world can be seen in the Magnalia Christi Americana. When describing the hardship of pilgrims, Mather’s first concern is that of language: “For them to leave their native soil, their lands and their friends, and go into a strange place, where they must hear foreign language, and live meanly and hardly, and in other employments than that of husbandry” (634). For Mather, the idea of being subject to foreign languages takes precedence over the reality of a life of hard labor. American wilderness posed a threat not just to English bodies, but to the English language as well.

bottom of page