Bradford’s and John Smith’s Views of the American Wilderness

William Bradford described the American wilderness as “hideous and desolate,” full of “wild beasts and wild men.”  He believed the wilderness as a place of trial and testing rather than a place of ease and plenty – or of social and economic opportunity.  This paper compares and contrasts Bradford’s and John Smith’s views of the American wilderness and why the two pioneers perceive the land so differently.

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Comparing And Contrasting Bradford’s and John Smith’s Views of the American Wilderness

Both William Bradford and John Smith moved into the American wilderness in the early 17th century. Both narrated what they saw in the new lands in the form of writing. Their literature shows that the two individuals viewed the land considerably differently as they gave contrasting accounts of what they saw. One described the land as a place of trial and testing, while the other asserted that it was a place of economic opportunity as it was rich in treasure. Chiefly, the different views of the same land results from the contrasting perspectives that the two pioneers held, whereby Bradford upheld a Christian worldview while Smith maintained a secular worldview.

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Different Views

Bradford describes the American wilderness as “hideous and desolate” inhabited by “wild beasts and wild men.” He further elaborates that the wilderness is a place of trial and testing as opposed to a land of ease and plenty or one providing economic and social opportunity (Patterson, 2020). As per Patterson, Bradford perceived that America lacked godliness since the Christian virtue was not inherent to the land or its vast riches. Bradford and his fellow Pilgrims believed that they brought godliness to the American wilderness. Contrastingly, Smith described America as a wilderness of delights and riches. Smith’s description of the American wilderness combines two images. One, the image of the new world as a paradise and a voluptuous land full of easy riches. Two, a land that would reward those who were willing to work hard and uphold the virtue of enterprise (Franck, 2020). Franck elucidates that Smith emphasizes the wilderness’ plentitude and easy riches while contrasting the abundance with the old world’s poverty. Therefore, while Bradford viewed America as a wilderness of spiritual testing, Smith perceived it as a land of social and economic opportunities.

Common Ground

Despite their different perspectives regarding the American wilderness, both Bradford and Smith agreed that wild and ungodly people inhabited America. They also concurred that the American wilderness was a land that their people could migrate to start a new life (Franck, 2020). However, their recommendations for more of their country people to move into the new world was based on different reasons stemming from their contrasting view of the American wilderness.

Why Bradford and Smith Perceived the Land So Differently

Various factors influenced Bradford and Smith to view America very differently, yet they visited the place around the same time. Firstly, the two pioneers had contrasting worldviews. Bradford was a religious historian and, therefore, his perspective inclined towards the Christian worldview. According to Gatta (2017), Bradford often spoke of America as a new world Jerusalem or a new Eden where Jesus’ teachings would prevail. Thus, Bradford focus lay in religion and not the land itself. When he looked at America, he saw land that lacked godliness, so he described it as “hideous and desolate.” On the other hand, Smith was a pragmatic and secular reporter and, as such, his perspective was informed by visible, material things. In his account, Smith writes about the material world, whereby he describes plants, animals, and material wealth (Franck, 2020). He believed that America was readily available for exploitation, so he described the land as a wilderness of delights and riches. Thus, the contrasting worldviews influenced the two pioneers to see America differently.

Secondly, the two individuals had contrasting interests. Bradford’s primary interest was to spread Christianity. Dissatisfied with the reformation of the Church of England, Bradford, who was a Puritan, wanted to distance himself from the Roman Catholicism. His devotion to religious practices led him to migrate to America (Gatta, 2017). Thus, in his evaluation of America, he was assessing the land from a religious viewpoint. Since the Indians who inhabited the land were not Christians, Bradford concluded the land was ungodly and lacked spiritual riches, which is why he branded America a place of spiritual testing. Contrastingly, Smith’s primary interest was material riches (Franck, 2020). Hence, when he assessed the land, he saw a land of economic opportunity where a hardworking person can achieve material success. Thus, his account is dominated by ideas of the material riches to be gained by colonizing America.


            William Bradford and John Smith moved to America around the same time, their views regarding the land are considerably different, as exhibited by their literature. Whereas Bradford perceived the America wilderness as a “hideous and desolate” characterized by trails and testing, Smith viewed it as a land of vast treasure to be exploited and enjoyed. The contrasting descriptions of America by the two pioneers stem from the fact that they had different worldviews, whereby Smith had a secular worldview, and Bradford maintained a religious worldview. The two individuals also had contrasting interests for exploring the lands and, therefore, they used different criteria to evaluate the American wilderness. Consequently, Bradford viewed the place as ungodly (a place of spiritual testing), while Smith perceived it as rich with material riches.

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