Much of America’s founding mythology is based on the idea of the land as an untouched wilderness, yet most scholars now agree that this pristine myth [p. 365] was a convenient story that the...
Much of America’s founding mythology is based on the idea of the land as an untouched wilderness, yet most scholars now agree that this pristine myth [p. 365] was a convenient story that the early settlers told themselves. What kinds of actions did the myth support, and how did it serve the purposes of the settlers?
America's founding mythology of settling a "pristine" wilderness provided a convenient justification for the occupation of the North American continent.
The colonists saw the American "wilderness" as their own Promised Land. Religious argumentation can be compelling and convincing: if God set aside the New World as a pristine wilderness awaiting the entry of the Europeans, it would be harder for critics to say that taking the land was the wrong thing to do. However, as Mann argues exhaustively, the American continent was not "wilderness" but an environment carefully sculpted and designed by the indigenous people.
The early settlers interacted with existing Native American groups, as we know. The interactions were devastating to the Native American groups, but rather than morally question the impact of the colonization on the indigenous peoples and their established culture, settlers like William Bradford justified their own presence as providential. Bradford wrote of God as one “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives…that he might make room for us.”
Positing the idea that God cleared a pristine wilderness for the European settlers helped clear them of responsibility for their actions and added an aura of purity to what was a conquest of a cultivated, still-populated land.
Essentially, the "pristine myth" helped to advance the colonization and control of the new world. In advocating the "pristine myth," it became easier to justify controlling the new world. The myth rested in "the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost unmarked, even Edenic land, 'untrammeled by man." Essentially, it "whitewashes" what was done to the indigenous people of the region. The pristine myth helped to accomplish the settlers' purpose of being able to take what they wished, removing all perceived obstacles in their path, and being able to hold and use the land for their own purposes.
The "pristine myth" is a reflection of the silencing of voice that happened in the colonization and control of the new world. In order to advance the narrative of control and ownership, there had to be a removal of indigenous voice. Rather than accept that the voice being silenced was of equal caliber and capacity than the European voice, the "pristine myth" helped to justify why settlers did what they did. If there was no one on the land, if it was "untrammeled by man," and the land was open, then it makes it easier to overtake it. The consolidation of power and control is demonstrated in the advocacy of the "pristine myth."
This myth that the natives did not touch the land served the Europeans immensely. The Europeans saw the Native Americans as lazy children who would disappear as "civilization" came to them. They saw the Native Americans' interplanted gardens as weed beds and therefore did not respect Native American fields. They also felt justified in taking Native American land because the Natives were not using it according to European standards. The Europeans, especially the English, kept referring to America as an unspoiled "Garden of Eden" that God set aside just for them. When recording the history of their actions for posterity, the Europeans also kept referring to the savageness of the "wilderness" and its inhabitants, never worrying about who lived there before they did and what kind of culture these people might have had. According to the Europeans, these people had no culture of value.