New-York Historical Society

“To blossom as a rose”: the Society and the New York Wilderness

Portrait of John Pintard by Waldo & Jewett, 1832. 1928.1

Portrait of John Pintard by Waldo & Jewett, 1832. 1928.1

While the rain falls outside and spring continues to give us only tantalizing glimpses, it seems like a good time to visit a curious little story about the conflicted relationship we Americans have long maintained with nature. In fact, it actually involves the New-York Historical Society itself.

By September 1809, just shy of five years old, the Society had moved into its second home: the northwest room of the Government House’s second floor at Bowling Green. While the move presented ample opportunity for the Society to solicit and collect new material, one thing it didn’t provide was funding to promote the organization’s growth. Fortunately, its members were men of influence who sought to remedy this through a bill to be presented at the New York Assembly.

John Pintard to Stephen Van Rensselaer, March 20, 1810. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

John Pintard to Stephen Van Rensselaer, March 20, 1810. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

The bill that the Society backed was meant to provide funding to the organization through the Union College lottery, a venture authorized in 1805 to build the college’s endowment. All this seems within expectations but this is where things get interesting. The other part of the bill provided money “to be applied to the extirpation of Wolves & Panthers,” as founder John Pintard wrote to Assembly member Stephen Van Rensselaer on March 20, 1810. Yes as incongruous as it sounds, the bill meant to funnel money into the elimination of both wolves and panthers from the wilds of New York. It may sound like a pretty inane combination and to our sensibilities it is. But as with just about any historical event, a little context goes a long way toward understanding why there’s a thin, but discernible, line of reasoning that links both endeavors.

The most salient point is that, even at the close of the first decade of the nineteenth century, any sustained appreciation and/or defense of nature and wilderness within America was still a long way off. Instead, flush with Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic, the new nation was busy turning what most citizens regarded as a savage wilderness into a new Eden. Pintard’s letter captures the prevailing sentiment to perfection:

Fortunate shall we deem ourselves, and honourable will it be for the character of the State should the exterpation of Wolves and Panthers lead to the cultivation of Science as well as the fruits of the earth. This will indeed be enabling the Wilderness to blossom as a rose.

Detail from John Pintar'd letter to Stephen Van Rensselaer, March 20, 1810. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

Detail from John Pintard letter to Stephen Van Rensselaer. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

Particularly telling is the imagery of his last sentence. The subjugation of the American wilderness was hardly a novel concept and A Design to represent the beginning and completion of an American Settlement or Farm (1764) derived from sketches by Thomas Pownall (who served as governor of Massachusetts and acting governor of New Jersey) offers evidence of a legacy that stretched back even to the earliest European settlements.

Sandby

“A Design to represent the beginning and completion of an American Settlement or Farm”, 1764. PR 58, Printmaker File

Pintard’s words also reveal traces of the Enlightenment mind, embracing the supremacy of reason while striving to describe, categorize and pursue intellectual dominion over the natural world. In concert, as a learned institution the Society strove to establish an intellectual structure for the new nation with a core mission being the construction of an historical record for America. Where the Society fulfilled an intellectual mission, the hunting of wolves and panthers would ensure progress in the physical world and the establishment of control and order on a savage landscape, a venture that required the pacification of wilderness.

According to subsequent correspondence, the bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but fell short in the Federalist dominated Assembly. This misfortune elicited the displeasure of physician, scientist, legislator, and Society member Samuel L. Mitchill who on April 3rd scribbled furiously that Federalist Assemblyman Richard Van Horne “ought to be conveyed to his native town in a car drawn by wolves, panthers, and wild-cats.”

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