Wilderness, settlement, and the forming of an American identity


Thomas Cole, The Hunter’s Return, 1845, oil on canvas, 153.7 x 101.9 cm (Amon Carter Museum of American Art). Speakers: Dr. Maggie Adler, Curator, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Dr. Beth Harris


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Key points

  • Manifest Destiny propelled westward expansion in the U.S. in the 19th century. Increased settlement and industry transformed the landscape of the American frontier.
  • Cole sought to represent the sublime grandeur of the American landscape. The painting represents his conflicted feelings over the inevitable loss of wilderness that accompanied economic development.
  • Cole was one of the first environmentalists. He shared the notion, popular in the early 19th century, that God’s divine presence was embodied in nature, and saw the American wilderness as central to the nation’s identity.
  • Cole is credited as the founder of the Hudson River School, which is often described as the first style of painting to be considered American.

“The seemingly untouched quality of the nation’s wilderness distinguished the United States from Europe. The landscape came increasingly to embody what Americans most valued in themselves: an “unstoried” past, and “Adamic” freedom, an openness to the future, a fresh lease on life. In time, Americans came to think of themselves as “nature’s nation.” And yet one of the paradoxes of American history…lay in the unresolved tension between the subduing of the wilderness and the honoring of it. The tension is still alive with us today, in the competing voices of environmentalists and advocates of development.”

— Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018), p. 24 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


An unresolved tension

For much of the nineteenth century, America’s landscape was intimately connected with the nation’s identity (unlike Europe, nature in North America was seen as untouched by the hand of man). But the United States has also always prided itself on its entrepreneurial spirit, its economic progress, and its industry. This tension between the nation’s natural beauty and the inevitable expansion of industry was clearly felt in the mid-nineteenth century as logging, mining, railroads, and factories were quickly diminishing what once seemed an endless wilderness. Thomas Cole (1801-48) beautifully expressed the tension between these two American ideals in many of his landscape paintings.

Thomas Jefferson had envisioned that American democracy would be sustained by a nation of yeoman farmers who worked small farms with their families—such as the household pictured by Cole. By the end of 19th century, however, manufacturing had became a primary driver of the American economy.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 linked midwestern farms with cities on the east coast. Tanneries (where animal hides were processed to make leather using tannin, which was derived from hemlock trees) proliferated and lumber merchants deforested the landscape. As many as 70 million eastern hemlock trees were cut down to provide tannin. Beginning in the 1830s, the railroad had begun to cut across the American landscape, allowing for easier transportation of goods and passengers.

As the east coast grew increasingly populous and developed, more people moved westward in search of economic opportunity. The Homestead Acts were a series of laws enacted in 1862 to provide 160-acre lots of land at low cost, to encourage settlers to move west, answering Manifest Destiny’s [popup] call for westward expansion (the term was coined in 1845, the year this painting was made). Importantly, the popular conception of the west as unspoiled territory ignored the many nations of American Indians who had already settled the North American continent.

Cole’s painting

Though Cole’s The Hunter’s Return features human figures, it was seen as a landscape painting, since nature is dominant. In the art academies of Europe landscapes were not accorded the same respect as history paintings (whose subjects came from history, the bible or mythology, and therefore had clear moral elements and treated noble subjects), but Cole was intent on elevating his landscapes by imbuing them with a more serious message.

At first glance, a viewer might assume that this painting is set in the Catskill Mountains in the Hudson River Valley in New York State where Cole lived and painted, but in fact this painting is a composite of many scenes, and promotes a specific point of view—one that is ambivalent about the ways that Americans were rapidly transforming the natural beauty that was so fundamental to the nation’s understanding of itself. The foreground of the painting juxtaposes the tree stumps left by man’s axe against the more pristine wilderness seen in the middle and background of the painting.

Cole’s image then is not real, but nostalgic. The artist gave voice to the longing for a pristine, pre-industrial America. Cole wrote,

“I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away. The ravages of the axe are daily increasing. The most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. This is a regret rather than a complaint. Such is the road society has to travel.”
Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” The American Monthly Magazine, vol. 7, January 1836, p. 12.


Go deeper

Learn more about this painting from the Amon Carter Museum

Who was Thomas Cole?

Read Thomas Cole’s “An Essay on American Scenery”

Learn about Cole and the other painters in the Hudson River School

Learn about the impact of tanneries on the landscape of the Catskill mountains

How did the Erie canal impact the development of the midwest?


More to think about

Compare Cole’s The Hunter’s Return with John Gast’s American Progress. Discuss how these works suggest different perspectives on westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century.


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Cite this page as: Maggie Adler and Dr. Beth Harris, "Wilderness, settlement, and the forming of an American identity," in Smarthistory, February 6, 2018, accessed July 22, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/thomas-cole-environmentalist-2/.