The Pristine Myth

When the European settlers arrived in America they saw a landscape that was anything like they were used to. Before their eyes, they saw an abundance of wildlife, forests, and vegetation that was foreign to them. Their discoveries were then romanticized as reports of the pristine land, a ‘New World’designed to draw in settlers from the onset.[1] For example, Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm wrote in 1748, “I found that I was now come into a new world. Whenever I looked to the ground I found everywhere such plants as I had never seen before.”[2] Furthermore, the settlers viewed the Native American populations as primitive and prime for conversion to their standards of life, therefore, for the settlers they viewed the ‘New World’ as a Wilderness for their taking.[3]

Vast Native American cities, where untold millions lived, could be found spread through North, Central and South America when the invasions began.

However, Native Americans had been on the North American continent for thousands of years, arriving via the Bering land bridge and through routes in the ice packs from Northern Europe.[4] The Natives of this land had built upon it a vastly complicated civilization that was made up of hundreds of tribes, not devoid of Civilization as advertised. For example, in the Appalachian Region of the United States, particularly in the Kentucky area, tribes such as the Cherokee and Shawnee shared hunting grounds while living separately.

The settlers designed myths around the Natives in which to popularize their beliefs in them being uncivilized. Myths told of the Native Americans being at one with nature, and that when the first white men set foot upon the lands that they saw no civilizations, however, these myths were both true and is untrue depending upon interpretation.[5] The Native Americans had changed the landscape to support their communities and the lives of their community members. They had burned forests to make way for fields to plant crops and killed animals. However, the Natives took care of how they used their resources, migrating when needed, and carefully watched the animal populations.

However, when the settlers introduced themselves to the landscape things began to change. First, newly introduced diseases by the settlers forced the surviving Native Americans to move, leaving vast amounts of land unoccupied which made it appear as if it were pristine wilderness to newcomers who settled on the land.[6] Furthermore, settlers introduced new manufactured goods into the Native communities for trade, therefore, at the hands of Natives, many animals were hunted to extinction, with no second thought of nature.[7] For example, in the shared hunting grounds of Kentucky, the last buffalo was killed in the 1790s.[8] The toll on the Native populations, from the very first settlers, was devastating, with many of the truths of what occurred continuing to be disputed or whitewashed today.

Note: This article was originally published by Misty Hamilton Smith on Nov. 2, 2017, for the course HIST 314 at Southern New Hampshire University.

Foot Notes:

[1]. William M. Denevan, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992).

[2]. Colin G. Calloway, , 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), p. 11.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. William M. Denevan, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.”

[6]. Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America,

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid, p. 18.


Calloway, Colin G. . 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Denevan, William M. “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992).


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.