Civilized Wilderness: Man and Nature in Shenandoah National Park

We seek to pass on to our children a richer land a stronger nation. I, therefore, dedicate Shenandoah National Park to this and succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and for the re-creation which we shall find here.

--- Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- July 3, 1936 read entire speech

When William Bradford recounted the Pilgrims' 1620 landing in the New World, he described an American landscape far from inviting; the untamed land, he said, was "full of woods and thickets, [and] represented a wild and savage hue" (Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647, Modern Library, 1981). By the 18th century, however, colonists began to view their land as a place of cultivated abundance. "Here [one] beholds fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields, an immense country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges" (J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, Fox, Duffield, 1904). The harmony of man and nature living together has since become known as the "pastoral ideal" a mentality that pervaded the 19th century mass western movement across the continent. Staking out one's claim, fencing in property and improving the land became the embodiment of a national sense of progress the destiny that God provided Americans.

Although the 20th century witnessed the "closing" of the frontier, a new ideology arose from its ashes. As Frederick Jackson Turner described in his 1896 "frontier thesis," Americans during the country's first hundred years viewed their relationship to nature as a series of conquests. Now that the western frontier no longer existed, however, citizens began to think of nature as a scarce commodity. After close to 300 years of exploitation, a new impulse formed around preserving the country's natural resources for future generations.

The creation and popularization of Shenandoah National Park, the first great National Park in the eastern United States, in the 1920s and 30s, embodies the conservationist spirit of the age. The federal government targeted the upper Blue Ridge Mountains as a "wilderness" area, forced the evacuation of its human population, and set about allowing "nature" to take back the land. Meanwhile, hundreds of New Deal-generated Civilian Conservation Corps workers embarked on the construction of a 105-mile Skyline Drive to run the length of the park, replete with recreational facilities to service the thousands of automobile-traveling tourists who would demand high levels of convenience for their scenic holidays.

The thrust behind Shenandoah, then, was two-pronged: the removal of human influence to allow a return to a state of "natural wilderness;" and the construction of facilities for the enjoyment of tourists. Government officials hoped that everyday Americans would conveniently drive into the park, mingle with the natural beauty in solitude, and then return to work, fully rejuvinated through their interaction with the primitive. Yet this goal reveals internal contradictions that continue to plague both the park and the national conservation movement. How can one achieve solitude amid thousands of fellow nature enthusiasts? How can one truly experience nature's redeeming influence from within an automobile? How can one speak of a return to "wilderness" when man's permanent imprint already has been left in the park? This project will seek to show that while the cult of the wilderness has inspired an admirable movement to preserve natural resources, rigorous adherence to recreating the primitve is a dangerous mentality that encourages false hopes and potentially could ruin the very landscape it seeks to preserve.

The Cult of the Wilderness | Marketing Nature in Shenandoah | The Automated Tourist

Reconciling Human and Natural Resources | Further Reading

This project was created by Michael Anderson, through the American Studies program at the University of Virginia. Responses are welcome at

American Studies program