Theses Doctoral

"Travel, Behold and Wonder": Fashionable Images of the Wilderness in Upstate New York, 1800-1850

Saunders, William Clinton

Although the wilderness preservation movement has emerged as a political force relatively recently, man's desire for retreat and renewal in untamed wilderness environments has a rich history in North America. Using contemporary guidetooks, diaries and journals, this study examines the early nineteenth century "Fashionable Tour" from New York City to Niagara Falls and combines description of the most important "natural wonders" en route with an analysis of their cultural meaning and value. There are two major themes. (1) Although pompous religiousness of language suggests conventional religiosity, pilgrims were overwhelmed with feelings of reverence, awe and wonder when face to face with natural wonders. (2) The extravagance of the New World's natural wonders influenced American and European images of the American experiment.

Romanticism and Scottish Common Sense Realism are the intellectual and aesthetic background for this study. After some preliminary observations and definitions, I review the widespread importance of these two movements in early America and their points of contact with American sensibilities. Significant iconological moments in the lives of three leading Americans -- John Bartram, Samuel Mitchill and Timothy Dwight -- who donned their tourist habits to visit the Catskill Mountains, illustrate both the diversity of these influences and the beginnings of the Fashionable Tour.

Analysis of the tour itself begins with chapter three. From their steamboat, tourists divided the Hudson River Valley into five "reaches" symbolizing grandeur (the Palisades), repose (Tappan Sea), sublimity (the Highlands), picturesqueness (the Hillsides) and beauty (the Catskills). In the first four reaches (chapter 3), the sublime Highlands dominate the landscape. But the "view from the top'' and Kaaterskill Falls at Pine Orchard in the Catskills were the most significant natural wonders in the Hudson Valley.

Chapter five introduces Part II: West to Niagara Falls. The overwhelming effect of ongoing European settlement on the wilderness -- on flora, fauna and native Americans -- differentiates the unpredictable trip west from the predictable trip north. At Albany, tourists left their luxurious steamboats and transferred to stagecoaches and/or canalboats. Cohoes Falls, Little Falls and especially Trenton Falls, N. P. Willis' "Rural Resort," highlight the journey from Albany to Utica and suggest greater wonders to come. Images of the wilderness west of Utica comprise chapter seven. "Soft" pastoral landscapes, as in the Finger Lakes Region, did not arouse the intense response that major wonders such as the "view from the top" and Trenton Falls did.

Niagara Falls was the climax and conclusion of the pilgrimage. The "greatest natural wonder" known and accessible to early nineteenth century tourists, Niagara elicited a torrent of enthusiasm and verbiage. After a detailed examination of tourist expectations and anticipations, descriptions and dreams, I focus specifically on the religious sentimentality which laced images of Niagara Falls. Pilgrims, responding with awe and protestations of "indescribableness," found evidence to support their popular religiosity. The trip from New York to Niagara was not just a relaxed holiday, but a highly focussed pilgrimage for persons seeking mystery and majesty in the sublime and the beautiful. Niagara, and to a lesser extent the other natural wonders; along the Hudson and across New York State, became religious shrines in early nineteenth century America.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Handy, Robert T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 10, 2017