PART II: Westward Expansion to Hetch Hetchy

This 1867 map from the General Land Office shows the extent of the township and range system including proposed surveys in dotted lines as well as deposits of minerals and Indian lands (David Rumsey Collection).


 The second era of wilderness thought and began with the great conquest to subdue the wild lands of the West and ended with the first great fight to protect the wilderness of the Hetch Hetchy. In this era a new American conception of wilderness grew out of the principles of the sublime and the beautiful imported from European aesthetes. The nearly 180o shift in the perception of wilderness as the home of Satan to the home of God was also linked to a strong reaction against mechanized life in cities and a conflict between the technological sublime that they had and the sublime found in rugged natural settings—now intentionally—devoid of people. This ideal principally sought to add value to the American land that seemed pale in its history compared to Europe, which at that same time was rediscovering and celebrating its longer history. Doing this involved much invention of a heroic history of the Noble Savage the conquest of the settler over the wild. By the end of the 19th century the National Parks service was a rapidly expanding program designed to preserve and perpetuate these ideas.

American Notions of Cultural Inferiority

In the decades that followed the Revolutionary War the success of the fragile American experiment of nationhood was threatened by both internal political chaos and external European military, cultural, and economic domination. To fend off these advances America needed to fuse its disparate states and citizens under one unique national identity. To accomplish this the leaders of the nation used wilderness as the primogenitor, muse, and canvas to paint the necessary new history of this culture that would steer its people to a future of limitless success and growth (Nash, 67-69).

The America of this time was at ease with their cultural superiority over the Native Americans; however, when comparing their limited economic, cultural, literary, and artistic achievements with those of the Europeans there was an omnipresent insecurity. By inventing their own great histories and demeaning the more advanced European industrial successes Americana combated its diffident youth through the celebration of its limitless wealth of fresh wilderness; the only feature that Europeans lacked. And, according to Thomas Jefferson, “While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff” (Jefferson, 275). Americans did not need the industrial advances that the Europeans had because, as discussed in the previous section, mechanized society was morally corrupting, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth” (Jefferson, 275). America was the last hope for a Zion on Earth.

The Sublime and the American Wilderness

God and virtue, however, was not just to be found in the wild lands worked over by the ax and the plow; He could also be found in the landscapes worked by the pen and the brush of the astute aesthete. William Cronon found that the idea of the frontier and ideas on the sublime and the beautiful imported from enlightenment thinkers were central to the creation of the idea of the Americana inspired by the American wilderness. These two ideas are well represented by two men—one American and one English—who shared the same name William Gilpin. The first William Gilpin (1724–1804) was a fascinating Anglican priest, schoolmaster, and artist who made his wayward students keep gardens and is credited in forming many of the ideas of the picturesque in his 1768 treatise “Essay on Prints” (Andrews, 1989).  In this text Gilpin formulated ideas for painting the “picturesque” as a carefully composed and often exaggerated balance between the aesthetics of the sublime and the beautiful. The second William Gilpin (1813-1894) was the first governor of my home state of Colorado and was a devoted believer of Manifest Destiny. In his 1873 book “Mission of the North American People: Geographical, Social and Political,” Gilpin wrote, that “Progress is God” and that “occupation of wild territory…proceeds with all the solemnity of a providential ordence” that would soon replace the “savage yell” with “the songs of Zion” (Gilpin, 99 and Nash, 41-42).

The bridge that connected these two philosophies—the (1) European aesthetics of the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque, and (2) the American Manifest Destiny that put Anglo-American citizens as superior to all others —to the American land was a natural one. It was located in Virginia and Thomas Jefferson bought it. He also promoted it in chapter five of his Notes on the State of Virginia writing that, “The Natural Bridge, the most sublime of Nature’s works, though not comprehended under the present head, must not be pretermitted” (Jefferson, 22-23). Recognizing that this improbable feature was the greatest work of God could not be abandoned because when standing under it, “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springly as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable” (Jefferson, 23). To understand the emotions that Jefferson felt—in fact so great that they gave him a “violent headache” (23)—and how they were shaping the changing view of nature, wildness, and the human role in it at that time, the architects of the sublime Burke and Kant must be analyzed.

God found in the wilderness monasteries etc.

The 18th century romantic philosophers Sir Edmond Burke and Immanuel Kant were the key thinkers who most prominently developed thoughts on the aesthetics of the natural sublime and its impacts on the mind. Our modern western perceptions of nature—and specifically of wilderness—are heavily rooted in their concepts of the sublime.  Burke’s treatise “A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas on the sublime and beautiful” (1759) and Kant’s Critique of Judgment  (1790) are similar works in their identification of the qualities of impressive features or events in the natural world that inspire the feelings of fear and terror needed to create the sublime.

The philosophers, however, disagree on what thoughts are provoked when the mind is confronted with an experience of the sublime. Burke writes that the sublime overwhelms the faculties of the mind and instills feelings of awe and dumbfound respect of nature. In stark contrast Kant finds that the sublime is an experience where—from a safe vantage point—the great forces of nature can be observed and understood by our rational minds. According to Kant this understanding asserts our superiority over the natural world. These conflicting points of view on the same emotion are essential to understand because they represent radically different views of the human place in nature.

Burke’s writing on the sublime described it as a feeling when the mind yields to the unfathomable immensity of nature. In his treatise Burke observes that great delight can be found when terrible sights that conjure feelings of pain or fear are observed, “at certain distances, and with certain modifications…” (Burke, 131). By observing these sights in a situation where one is separated from mortal fear Burke finds that they conjure up feelings of awe, “Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect” (132). The feeling of astonishment, or stupefied wonder, is key to Burke’s definition of the sublime. He writes that because the finite human mind is confronted by a much greater object or force in nature the mind struggles to comprehend it, “The mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it” (133). In the Burkean sublime the human mind is powerless in the face of nature because nature overwhelms it occupying and confusing all of its facilities.

To Kant the sublime is a much different experience where the mind is not overwhelmed by the might and scale of nature, but rather—through reason—elevated above nature. For Kant the observation of natural forces that instill thoughts of fear or pain from a secure distance allows the mind to separate itself from the limitations of the mortal body. The mind, because it can comprehend and quantify the natural world, is lifted to a higher understanding of its surroundings and a level of superiority. He writes that with our command of the mind, “We also found, in our power of reason, a different and nonsensible standard that has this infinity its self under it as a unit; and since in contrast everything in nature is small, we found in our mind superiority over nature itself” (Kant, 120). Kant argues that because the human mind can create a definition for infinity everything in nature is inferior to this infinity.  After making this argument Kant does carefully remind the reader that God is superior to man and supports the western view outlined in Genesis that places God over man and man over nature.

Burke and Kant do, however, agree—to some degree—on the aesthetics of the impressive features and events in nature that inspire the sublime. They hold differing points of view, however, on what the experiences of this emotion entail. The authors differing views on the sublime stem from the fact that the sublime is a feeling, which makes it a difficult concept to communicate.  Kant explains this by writing,  “sublimity is contained not in anything of nature, but only in our mind…” (123, Kant).

An 1879 cartoon—by the English cartoonist George Du Maurier titled “Nincompoopiana” published in the English satire magazine Punch—illustrated the effect that these aesthetic ideas had on the minds of those who viewed nature in reality after exposure to philosophy, writing, and paintings created using these aesthetic ideas:


“Maud and Clara. “What a lovely sunset!” Young Alkestis Trotter. I – a – confess that I’ve never seen a sunset that thoroughly satisfied me YET! At least not in NAYTCHAH, you know!”

The Victorian era women, Maud and Clara—who would have had less access to education about aesthetics (and in Burke’s gendered roles would be more pleased by soft feminine pastoral beauty)—are impressed by the sunset in the park; however, the young nincompoop, Alkestis Trotter, confesses that he has never seen natural beauty that has impressed him in “NAYTCHAH” (nature). This excellent cartoon represented that many of the aestheticians goals of enhancing the appreciation of beauty, power, and God in nature had actually backfired.

The Machine in the Garden and the American Technological Sublime

Meanwhile on the Western side of the Atlantic, the very industrial progress that Thomas Jefferson fought against was taking hold and the landscape and the American mind was also denuding the appreciation of the natural sublime. Rapid industrial growth fueled by water power, steam power, and the bountiful commodities of the wilderness frontier created cities, rail, and other epic works of human “progress” that had their own sublimity that rivaled that found in the works of nature. Now a landscape that had been defined by its wild—and to Anglo eyes, untouched—sublimity the factory and the railroad became classic symbols of the commoditization and domination of the landscape. These fruits of industrialization contained much more than simply a utilitarian significance. In his book, The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx identified that the, “…awe and reverence once reserved for the Deity and later bestowed upon the visible landscape is (now) directed toward technology or rather the technological conquest of matter ” (Marx, 192-195). Marx observed that the awe and respect for God and the natural world had shifted to an awe and respect of man’s creations and their consumption and domination of nature. Historian David Nye develops this idea further into what he calls the “technological sublime,” “The machine—whether locomotive, steamboat, or telegraph—was considered to be part of the sublime landscape[1]” (Nye, 59). A speeding train was the modern equivalent of a visit to Dubai that can stun the senses much in the same way that a cataract or a sheer cliff might entrap and stun the mind.

The mechanized technological sublime reduced the power of the natural sublime in two principle ways: (1) it created a sublime that rivaled the natural both physically and philosophically placing humans as (in the same vein as Burke’s point of view) superior to nature and, (2) though initially awe inspiring the effects of the technological sublime wear off over time and eventually dull the human mind thus dulling its perception both natural and mechanized forms of the sublime.

This first point can be seen in the symbol of the technologically sublime railroad as the antipode to natural sublime of the 19th century American landscape through its conquest of the natural sublime. In the mid 1850s Senator Edward Everett gave a speech at the Boston Railroad Jubilee where he exalted the railroad for conquering the, “…horrible wilderness…(of) pathless swamps and dismal forests (Nye, 63). Everett expressed wonder with the “art” of human technology to subdue these sublime forces, “By the magic powers of these works of art, the forest is thrown open—the rivers and lakes are bridged—the valleys rise, the mountains bow their everlasting heads” (63). Everett observed that the train has remade the American landscape and subdued many of its sublime features.

The second point though initially awe inspiring the effects of the technological sublime wear off over time and eventually dull the human mind thus dulling its perception both natural and mechanized forms of the sublime is substantiated by psychological research on the internet—the most sublime machine that humans have ever created. The introduction of the Internet into daily life is highly similar to the introduction of railroad travel in the 19th century life because it allows us to rapidly navigate the wilderness of our age: information. Author Nicholas Carr’s described several of these studies in book The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. In one of the studies[2] from the University of Michigan two groups were given cognitive tests before and after one group spent time in nature and the other spent time in the city. The effects were substantial those who had spent time in nature increased their performance while those who spent time in the city showed a stagnation or decline in cognitive functioning. The researchers even went a step further and repeated the test but this time they only showed the first group images of natural scenes and the second were shown cityscapes. The results were the same, “The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning” (Carr, 220).

The machine, though not always able to evoke its own sublime is able to denude the effect of the natural sublime by either polluting it with its presence or isolating the individual from the experience of its power. The largely barren and arid American West was not as awe inspiring if your experience of it was gliding through it in a dining car behind a sheet of glass.

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science Captain Cook’s Voyage to Darwin’s Voyage

Natures Nation and the Creation of a History

The principle way that these ideas on the sublime were communicated out of the realm of the philosophical and into the public was through painting. The gallery below shows some of the most influential paintings of this period by the artists: Thomas Cole, Fredric Church, Thomas Moran, and Frederic Remington.

Frontier Thesis


Fredrick Jackson Turner published what was perhaps one of the most influential accounts of American history in 1893 titled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The full text of the opening paragraph where he presented his thesis reads:

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.[3]

In 1836 Thomas Cole hard at work on the five panel series “The Course of Empire”—perhaps his greatest undertaking—to a break to paint his most famous painting. Tired of working on this project and in need of money, Cole wrote to Luman Reed, the man who had commissioned the series. In his letter, Cole told his patron that he was going to use the canvas intended for “The Consummation of Empire” (the middle of the series) to paint a picture to sell at the National Academy of Design exhibition later that year.  In reference to the content of this painting Cole wrote, “Fancy pictures seldom sell & they generally take more time than views so I have determined to paint one of the latter. I have already commenced a view from Mt. Holyoke. It is about the finest scene I have in my sketchbook & is well known” (Bjelajac 2006). The Painting that resulted is the View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow). The Oxbow is essentially a composite of the first two images in The Course of Empire series: The Savage State and The Arcadian or Pastoral State.

The Oxbow is a stunning example of Cole’s use of Burke’s principles of the sublime and the beautiful as well as Cole’s persistent theme of man’s conquest of the wilderness which in the context of this painting he stated as:

“I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes is quickly passing away—the ravages of the axe are daily increasing—the most noble scenes are made destitute, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation…another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement” (Cole, 1836)

In this painting the tension between the wild American wilderness and the pastoral ideal civilization. The savagery of the storm clouds over the wilderness retreats from the advancing cultivated landscape of civilization—complete with rising smoke presumed to be from fires, factories, and railroads. Cole’s painting represented the budding tension between those like Henry David Thoreau who saw “in wildness is the preservation of the earth;” and those—like the Colorado Governor William Gilpin and Senator Edward Everett—who saw the future of America in the development and subjugation of the wild. William Cronon wrote that in the oxbow, “we can make out the shape of a question mark: where is all this headed?” (Cronon, 41-42).

Public Lands National Parks and the Founding of the National Park Service

So far in this project—and if you have read everything up to this point you have come so far—three examples of conservation have been shown: (1) deer protection with the establishment of a hunting season in Vermont, (2) the public ownership of the 16th section of land for education under the Township system, and (3) private ownership and public visitation of the Natural Bridge by Thomas Jefferson. Many more examples exist but these three cover the main forms of conservation that informed the creation of the National Park system in the 19th century that is described below. What about Wilderness with a capital “W” you—the inquisitive and patient reader—might ask; to which I respond soon!, soon!

The best description of how the national park idea came about in the mid to late 19th century—and the complications that it created for native peoples—comes from the writing and paintings of the improbable British traveler and artist Lady Constance F. Gordon-Cumming. In 1878 after a three day visit to Yosemite Valley (where she ended up staying for three months) she explained to a friend why the national parks were created writing, “Happily the United States Government (warned by the results of having allowed the Falls of Niagara to become private property) determined that certain districts, discovered in various parts of the States, and noted for their exceeding beauty, should, by Act of Congress, be appropriated for everyone “for public use, resort, and recreation, and be inalienable for all time” (Lady C. F. Gordon-Cumming, 1878 as quoted in Runte, 1). Lady Constance visited Yosemite twelve years before it would officially become a National Park[4], however; it was essentially a national park at that time.

A watercolor from Constance’s visit illustrated that the parks were in fact not “inalienable” and that “the public” was an in fact exclusionary term there was nothing constant about the landscape—especially the persistence of its current inhabitants who she featured. When this painting descriptively titled “Indian Life at Mirror Lake” is compared with Ansel Adams iconic 1935 photo “Mirror Lake and Mt. Watkins” of the same exact scene visually show one of the darkest moments of the national park history that took place during the fifty-seven years between the two artists documentation of the same landscape is seen. There are no Indians in Ansel Adams’ photo because during his time there were none living there to be documented.[5]

Yosemite Valley 1883

The above map from the 1883 Wheeler survey of Yosemite shows all of the main physical features of the valley as well as Indian areas such as the “Indian Meadow” in front of El Capitan and Mirror Lake where the painting and photo above where created (David Rumsey Collection).

Zaslowsky and Watkins These American Lands


Formation Government owned national parks


  • 1832 Hot Springs became the first “National Federal Preserve”
    • Congress wanted to limit the monopolization of this place due to the health benefits of the hot springs
    • 1832 George Catlin visits Yellowstone
      • Desire to create a controlled park largely because of the failure of Niagara
      • Alexander de Tocqueville quote about Niagara
      • 1864 Yosemite is administered by the state of California as a park
        • In the midst of the civil war this largely goes unnoticed
        • 1871 Hayden and Moran visit Yellowstone with William Henry Jackson
        • 1872 Yellowstone becomes a park
        • 1875 Mackinac MI

Chaos in the Parks

  • 1886 Troop M stationed in Yellowstone




  • 1890 Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant


1899 to 1916 rapid expansion of parks

  • 1906 ability to protect national monuments via president
  • Colin Mather


Hetch Hetchy

The symbol of the technological sublime was not only central to development in the West; it was also central to the development of American environmentalism. In 1908 the federal government permitted the construction of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy valley adjacent to Yosemite (Nash, 166). John Muir was Shocked that this sublime landscape would be filled with water for the distant needs of San Francisco. Muir launched a national campaign that highlighted the unquantifiable value of the irreplaceable land that would be lost (Nash, 166). Ultimately civilization won this battle, the dam was built and the valley was flooded. Though this was a major loss for Muir and the early preservationists of the Sierra Club, Hetch Hetchy marked the first major battle that was fought by the environmental nascent movement.

This 1874 map from the Whitney California Geological Survey show a, “Portion of the Sierra Nevada adjacent to the Yosemite Valley” where the Tuolumne River flows through the Hetch Hetchy Valley (David Rumsey Collection).



Andrews, Malcolm. The search for the picturesque: landscape aesthetics and tourism in Britain, 1760–1800. Atlanta: Scholar Press. 1989.

Berman, Marc, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplin. “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature.” Psychological Science 19.20 (2008): 1207-1212. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

Carr, Nicholas G.. The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Cronon, William, Ed. Jules David Prown. “Telling Tales on Canvas: Lanscapes of Frontier Change.”  New Haven: Yale University Press :, 1992. 37-89. Print.

Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery.” American Monthly Magazine: 1836. (Accessed on line January 22, 2013 at

Burke, Edmund. A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas on the sublime and beautiful . The 7th ed. London: Printed for J. Dodsley. 1773.

Gilpin, William. “Essay on Prints.” 1768. Reprint. London: Strahan, 1802. (Accessed on line January 22, 2013 at essayprints00gilp.pdf.)

Gilpin, William. Mission of the North American People: Geographical, Social and Political. J. B Lippincott & Co: Philadelphia. 1873.  (Digitized by and Accessed online January 22, 2013).

Kant, Immanuel, and J. H. Bernard. Critique of judgment . New York: Hafner Pub. Co., 1951.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac desert: the American West and its disappearing water. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1986.

Runte, Alfred. National parks: the American experience. 3rd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American mind. 4th ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Spence, Mark David. Dispossessing the wilderness: Indian removal and the making of the national parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Zaslowsky, Dyan, and T.H. Watkins.These American lands: parks, wilderness, and the public lands. 2 ed. New York: H. Holt, 1994.


[1] Historian David Nye even speculated that, “…if no theory of the sublime existed, Americans would have been forced to invent one” because of their epic landscape (Nye 1). This observation embodies the strength of the influence of European aesthetic ideas on the American landscape because this scholar cannot see how we could exist as Americans with out the ideas of the sublime—a highly Eurocentric and naive point of view.

[2] Read the full text of this fascinating study here:

[3] Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country. In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist.

[4] From 1864 to 1890 Yosemite was administered by the state of California as a park

[5] For a much more detailed story of the dispossession of Native Americans from the National Parks and other Public Lands see Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks by Mark David Spence.

USA 1867





Yosemite Hetch Hetchy