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History of Early American Landscape Design

The Woodlands

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William Hamilton (whose estate, The Woodlands, overlooked Gray’s Garden from the opposite side of the river) urged his private secretary to search local plant dealers for specimens of Arabian Jasmine, African Heath, and double myrtles “as good as Gray’s.” In 1792 he complained of his secretary’s failure to “properly secure von Rohrs agave at Gray's,” as he “wish'd to prevent its getting into other hands.” For the same reason, Hamilton was eager to obtain the Grays’ specimens of Arbutus and Rose apple, “which however are priced so high that I do not imagine they will find a ready sale before my return.” [1] Statues often were placed on the lawn in front of the main façade of the house, as they were at The Woodlands, creating visual and physical ties between the ornamental style of the house and the garden scenery, as advised by British writer Thomas Whately (1770). One of the finest collections in the colonial and early republican eras was located at William Hamilton's seat, The Woodlands, near Philadelphia, built between 1779 and 1789. Rev. Manasseh Cutler, upon whom we rely for many descriptions of early American gardens, reported that "there was not a rare plant in Europe, Asia, Africa, from China and the islands in the South Sea, of which [Hamilton] had any account which he had not procured." [2]



  • Parke, Thomas, April 27, 1785, letter from Philadelphia to Humphry Marshall (quoted in Harshberger 1929: 278)[3]
"W. Hamilton has sent a number of curious Flowering Shrubs & Forest Trees to be transplanted at his Seat on the Schuylkill."

“Step also the Diameter of the circle or ring that encloses the Ice House Hill & tell me the space from one to the other side of the walk & of the Ha.Ha.

  • G., L., June 15, 1788, (Madsen 1988: B2) [5]
“a little further on, you come to a charming spring, some part of the ground is hollowed out where Mr Hamilton is going to form a grotto, he has already collected some shells.”

“[The walks were] planted on each side with the most beautiful & curious flowers & shrubs. They are in some parts enclosed with the Lombardy poplar except here & there openings are left to give you a view of some fine trees or beautiful prospect beyond, & in others, shaded by arbours of the wild grape, or clumps of large trees under which are placed seats where you may rest yourself & enjoy the cool air.”

Fig. 5, James Peller Malcolm, The Woodlands From the Bridge at Gray's Ferry, in Beth C. Wees and Medill H. Harvey, Early American Silver in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013), p. 259.
"In my Hurry at the time of coming off from Home I omitted to put in the ground the exotic Bulbous roots & as I gave no direction to Hilton respecting them they may suffer more especially as they were all taken out of the pots & left dry on the Back flue of the Hot House." [Fig. 5]

"In case you go to Brannan's I beg you to look particularly at his largest Gardenias & Arbutus so as to give an account of the size as well as the prices of them. I mentioned to you the Teucrium or Germander & I now recollect his having what he called a china rose. I have moreover a shrewd suspicion that Gray's single Arabian Jasmine came from Brannans although Brannan may not know it by that name. You will therefore find out what Jasmines he has & their prices & see whether he has any aloes, Geraniums, myrtles &c which I have not. Possibly he may have another plant of the African Heath which Gray got from him & other large d'ble myrtles as good as Gray's. You will also make the same enquiries of Spurry….

"Brannan had a trefoil which he called a cinquefoil. I know not whether it has yet travelled to Grays. I take it to be the moon-trefoil? a very pretty shrub."

"I was truly sorry that I did not see you when you were last at Philadelphia. I hope, the next time you come down, you will give me a call. If I can tempt you no other way, I promise to show you many plants that you have never yet seen, some of them curious."

"[September 27, 1789] . . . The first moment after Hilton has finished weeding in the Garden as I directed he should set about weeding the terrace walk as I will endeavour to have it gravelld during the winter. . .

"[October 12, 1789] . . . When the terrace is weeded, the two Borders leading from the House to the Ice House Hill should be cleaned. . .

"[June 12, 1790] . . . The newly planted trees & shrubs along the terrace respecting which you know me to be so anxious, may be alive or dead for ought I know."

“You pass the Schuylkill at Gray’s-Ferry, the road to which runs below Woodlands, the seat of Mr. William Hamilton: it stands high, and is seen upon an eminence from the opposite side of the river.” [Fig. 9]

"I am much obliged to you for the seeds you were so good as to send me, of the Pavia, and of the Podophyllum or Jeffersonia.

"When you were last here it was so late, and you were of course so much hurried, as to prevent your deriving any satisfaction in viewing my exotics. I hope when you come next to Philadelphia, that you will allot one whole day, at least, for the Woodlands. It will not only give me real pleasure to have your company, but I am persuaded it will afford some amusement to yourself.

"Your nephew [Moses Marshall] did me the favour of calling, the other day; but he, too, was in a hurry, and had little opportunity of satisfying his curiosity. I flatter myself, however, that during his short stay he saw enough to induce him to repeat his visit. The sooner this happens, the more agreeable it will be to me.

"When I was at your house, a year ago, I observed several matters in the gardening way, different from any in my possession. Being desirous to make my collection as general as possible, I beg to know if you have, by layers, or any other mode, sufficiently increased any of the following kinds so as to be able, with convenience, to spare a plant of each of them, viz.: — Ledum palustre, Carolina Rhamnus, Azalea coccinea, Mimosa Intsia, and Laurus Borbonia. Any of them would be agreeable to me; as also would be a plant, or seeds Hippophae Canadensis, Aralia hispida, Spiraea nova from the western country; Tussilago Petasites, Polymnia tetragonotheca, Hydrophyllum Canadense, H. Virginicum, Polygala Senega, P. biflora, Napoea scabra dioica, Talinum, a nondescript Sedum from the west, somewhat like the Telephium, two kinds of a genus supposed, by Dr. MARSHALL, to be between Uvularia and Convallaria [probably the Streptopus, of MICHAUX, which the MARSHALLS proposed to call Bartonia], and Rubia Tinctorum. I should also be obliged to you for a few seeds of your Calycanthus, Spigelia Marilandica, Tormentil from Italy, and two of your Oaks with ovate entire leaves."

"I have not until this time been able to comply with my promise of sending you a Tea Tree.

"I now take the opportunity of forwarding you... a very healthy one, as well as several of other kinds, which I believe are not already in your collection; together with a small parcel of seeds....

"Should anything else, in my possession, occur to you as a desirable addition to the variety in your garden, I beg you will inform me. You may be assured, whatever it is, if I have two of the kind, you will be welcome to one. Sensible as I am of your kindness and friendship to me, on all occasions, you have a right, and may freely command every service in my power.

"Doctor Parke informs me you were lately in Philadelphia. Had it been convenient to you to call at the Woodlands, I should have had great pleasure in seeing you. I have not heard of Dr. MARSHALL'S having been in this neighbourhood since I was last Bradford. From the pressing invitation I gave him, I am willing to hope that, in case of his coming to town, he will not forget to give me a call. I beg you will present him with my best respects, and request of him to give me a line of information, as to the Menziesia ferruginea, particularly of its vulgar name, if it has one, where it grows, if he knows the name of any person in its neighbourhood, who is acquainted with it, so, as to direct or show it to any one who may go to look after it.

"I intend, next month, to go to Lancaster; and if convenient to me, when there, to spare my George, I have thoughts of sending him to Redstone, for the Menziesia, and Podophyllum diphiyllum. If Dr. MARSHALL knows of any curious and uncommon plants, growing in the neighbourhood with those I have mentioned, I will be obliged to him to give me any intelligence by which he may suppose they can be found: or, if he knows any person or persons at Redstone, or Fort Pitt, who are curious in plants, of whom any questions on the subject may be asked, he cannot do me a greater service than by giving me their names and place of abode.

"I do not know how your garden may have fared during this truly long and severe winter, which has occasioned the loss of several valuable ones in mine; amongst which are the Wise Briar [probably Schrankia uncinata, Willd.; Mimosa Intsia, Walt.] and Hibiscus speciosus, which I got from you. The plants, also, of Podophyllum diphyllum, which I raised last year, from seeds I received from your kindness, have, I fear, been all destroyed. They have not shown themselves above ground this spring. A tree, too (the only one I had of Juglans Pacane, or Illinois Hickory), which I raised twenty-five years ago from seed, is entirely killed.

"In case you have seeds of the kinds named in the list hereto adjoined, I will thank you exceedingly for a few. Any of them which you have not, at present, I beg you will oblige me with them in the ensuing fall. I am very desirous to know if your Iva, or Hog's Fennel, from Carolina, produces seeds. In that case, I must entreat you for a few of them.

"You will permit me, also, to remind you of your promise to spare me a plant or two of the White Persimmon, one of Azalea coccinea, and of the sour Calycanthus. If convenient to let me have a plant or two of your Stuartia Malachodendron, and of Magnolia acuminata, you will do me a great favour.

"Anything left for me at the toll-gate, on the middle ferry wharf to the care of Mr. TRUEMAN, who constantly attends there, will reach me the same day that it arrives there....

"I am very desirous to compare a flower of your Stuartia with J. Bartram's; and will be obliged to you for a good specimen.

"I duly received the plans of Mr. Hamiltons green and hot houses. My greenhouse [exclusive of the hothouses] is now finishing— it will not differ very individually from Mr. Hamiltons. It is 62 feet long 23 deep—and 20 high in the clear.... I shall heat it by flues, they will run under the stays so they will not be seen— my walks will be spacious... hot houses are for next summer's operation. My collection of plants is yet small. I have written to my friends in Europe and in the East and West Indies for their plants. I will also collect the native productions of North and South America. What medical plants can Mr. Bartram supply— request him to send me a catalogue.... I hope William Hamilton will have duplicates of rare and valuable plants — I will supply him anything I possess."

"We then walked over the pleasure grounds in front and a little back of the house. It is formed into walks, in every direction, with borders of flowering shrubs and trees. Between are lawns of green grass, frequently mowed to make them convenient for walking, and at different distances numerous copse of native trees, interspersed with artificial groves, which are set with trees collected from all parts of the world." [Fig. 3]

"We then took a turn in the gardens and the green-houses. In the gardens, though ornamented with almost all the flowers and vegetables the earth affords, I was not able to walk long. The green-houses, which occupy a prodigious space of ground, I can not pretend to describe. Every part was crowded with trees and plants from the hot climates, and such as I had never seen, all the spices, the tea-plant in full perfection; in short, he assured us there was not a rare plant in Europe, Asia, or Africa, many from China and the islands in the South Seas, none, of which he had obtained any account, which he had not procured."

"Near the point of land a superb but ancient house built of stone is situated. In the front, which commands an extensive and most enchanting prospect, is a piazza, supported on large pillars, and furnished with chairs and sofas, like an elegant room."

Fig. 9, William Russell Birch, "Woodlands, the Seat of Mr. Wm. Hamilton, Pennsylva.," 1808, in William Russell Birch and Emily Cooperman, The Country Seats of the United States (2009), p. 69, pl. 14.
  • Drayton, Charles, 2 November 1806, describing The Woodlands (Charles Drayton, unpublished Diaries, 1784–1820, National Trust for Historic Preservation, pp. 52-62)
“The Approach, its road, woods, lawn & clumps, are laid out with much taste & ingenuity. Also the location of the Stables: with a Yard between the house, stables, lawns of approach or park, & the pleasure ground or garden. The Fences seperating [sic] the Park-lawn from the Garden on one hand, & the office yard on the other, are 4 ft. 6 high. The park lawn is not in good order for lack of being fed upon. Its fences where it is not visible from the house, is of common posts & rails.

"The Garden consists of a large verdant lawn surrounded by a belt or walk, & shrubbery for some distance. the outer side of the walk is adorned here & there, by scattered forest trees, thick & thin. It is bounded, partly as is described — partly by the Schuylkill & a creek exhibiting a Mill & where it is scarcely noticed, by a common post and rail. The walk is said to be a mile long — perhaps it is something less. one is led in to the garden from the portico, to the est and lefthand. or from the park, by a small gate] contiguouis to the house, traversing this walk, one sees many beauties of the landscape — also a fine statue.... & a Spacious Conservatory about 200 yards to the west of the Mansion.

"The Hot houses, they may extend in front I suppose 40 feet each. they have a wall heated by flues — & 3 glazed walls & a glazed roof each. in the center, a frame of wood is raised about 2 1/2 feet high, & occupying the whole area except leaving a passage along by the walls. In the flue wall or adjoining, is a cistern for tropic aquatic plants. within the frame, is composed a hot bed; into which the pots & tubs with plants are plunged. This Conservatory is said to be equal to any in Europe. It contains between 7 & 8000 plants. To this the Professor of botany is permitted to resort, with his Pupils occasionally. As the position of many plants require external exposure in the Summer Season that also is contrived with much ingenuity & beauty. there are 2 large oval grass plats in front of the Conservatory & 2 behind. holes are nicely made in these, to receive the pots & tubs with their plants, even to their rims. the tallest are placed in the centre, & decreasing to the verge. thus they represent a miniature hill clothed with choice vegetation.

"The Stable Yard, tho contiguous to the house, is perfectly concealed from it. the Lawn, & the Garden. The mode of concealment from the 2 latter, has been mentioned under article Fences separating the Park-lawn from the garden on one hand, & the office yard on the other, are 4 ft. 6 high. The former made with posts & lathes— the latter with posts, rails & boards. They are concealed with evergreens hedge—of juniper I think....

"At, or contiguous to the side of the house near to the front angle is a piece of [illegible] masonry which...covers or screens the entrance to the Cellar.... From the Cellar one enters under the bow window & into this Screen which is about 6 or 7 feet square through these, we enter a narrow area & ascend some few Steps into the garden— & thro the other opening we ascend a paved winding slope, which spreads as it ascends, into the yard. This sloping passage being a segment of a circle, 7 its two outer walls concealed by loose hedges & by this projection of the flat roofed Screen of masonry, keeps the yard, & I believe the whole passage out of sight from the house — but certainly from the garden & park lawn....

"The Stables & sheds, form the 3rd side of this three sided yard — The stables are seen from the front door of the house, over the hedge that screens the Yard. The kitchen garden & Hort. yard, Orchard, which I did not see, are, I suppose behind the Stables, & adjacent."
Fig. 18, Charles Willson Peale, Sketches of Belfield, 1810.

“In the meantime, the plants of which he [Governor Lewis] brought seeds, have been very successfully raised in the botanical garden of Mr. Hamilton of the Woodlands, and by Mr. McMahon, a gardener of Philadelphia.”

  • Birch, William, 1808, The Country Seats of the United States of North America (1808: unpaginated)[17]
"This noble demesne has long been the pride of Pennsylvania. The beauties of nature and the rarities of art, not more than the hospitality of the owner, attract to it many visitors. It is charmingly situated on the winding Schuylkill and commands one of the most superb water scenes that can be imagined. The ground is laid out in good taste. There are a Hot house and green house containing a collection in the horticultural department, unequalled perhaps in the Unites States. Paintings & c. of the first master embellish teh interior of the house and do credit to Mr. Wm. Hamilton, as a man of refined taste."

Oldschool, Oliver, ‘American Scenery-for the Portfolio, “The Woodlands”’, Port Folio, n.s. 2 (1809),

“Altho’ much has been done to beautify this delightful seat, much still remains to be done, for the perfecting it in all the capabilities which nature in her boundless profusion has bestowed.”

  • Martin, William Dickinson, 20 May 1809 (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
“If thus far the eye has been pleased from viewing these fine productions of art, how much more will it be gratified when contemplating the prospect that bursts upon the sight from the Centre of the Saloon! The verdant meadow, the spacious lawn, Schuylkill’s lucid stream, the floating bridge, the waves here checked by the projecting rock, then overshadowed by inclining trees, until, by meandering in luxuriant folds, the winding waters lead the entranced eye to Delaware’s proud river, on whose swollen bosom rich merchant ships are seen. . . . Such are in part, the beauties of this delightful scenery, & had the view terminated with highlands or some o’er-towering mountain, no prospect could have been more perfect.”

  • Oldschool, Oliver, 1809, "American Scenery— for the Portfolio. The Woodlands," (pp. 504-07)[18]
"The grounds, which occupy an extent of nearly ten acres, are laid out with uncommon taste; and in the construction of the edifice solidity and elegance are combined....
"If thus far the eye has bee pleased from viewing these fine productions of art, how much more will it be gratified when contemplating the prospect that bursts upon the sight from the centre of this saloon! The verdant mead, the spacious lawn, Schuylkill's lucid stream, the floating bridge, the waves here checked by the projecting rock, there overshadowed by the inclining trees, until be meandering in luxuriant folds, the winding waters lead the entranced eye to Delaware's proud river, on whose swelled bosum rich merchant ships are seen descending fraught with the vast surplus of our fertile soil, or others mounting heavily the stream, deep laden with the wealth of foreign climes.

"Such are, in part, the beauties of this delightful scenery, and had the view terminated with high lands, or some o'ertowering mountain, no prospect could have been more perfect.

"The attention is next excited by the grounds, in the arrangement of which the hand of Taste is every where discerned. Foreign trees from China, Italy, and Turkey, chosen for their rich foliage, or balmy odours, are diffusely scattered, or mingled with sweet shrubs and plants, bordering the walks; and as the fragrant path winds would, openings judiciously exposed, such as the situation of the lands and rivers best admits, diversify the scene. At one spot the city, with its lofty spire, appears; at another, a vast expanse of water; at a third, verdure and water, happily blending to form a complete landscape; and again another, where the champaign country is broken with inequality of ground. Now, at the descent, is seen a creek, o'erhung with rocky fragments, and shaded by the forest's gloom. Ascending thence, towards the western side of the mansion, the green-house presents itself to view, and displays to the observer a scene, than which nothing that has preceded it can excite more admiration. The front, including the hot-house on each side, measures one hundred and forty feet, and it contains nearly ten thousand plants, out of which number may be reckoned between five and six thousand of different species, procured at much trouble and expense, from many remote parts of the globe, from South America, the Cape of Good Hope, the Brazils, Botany Bay, Japan, the East and West Indies, &c., &c. This collection, for the beauty and rich variety of its exotics, surpasses any thing of the kind on this continent: and, among many other rare productions to be seen, are the breadfruit tree, cinnamon, allspice, pepper, mangoes, different sorts, sago, coffee from Bengal, Arabia, and the West-Indies, tea green and bohea, mahogany, magnolias, Japan rose, rose apples, cherimolia, one of the most esteemed fruits of Mexico, bamboo, Indian god tree, from tree of China, ginger, olea fragrans, and several varieties of the sugar cane, five species of which are from Otaheite. To this green-house, so richly stored, too much praise can hardly be given. The curious person views it with delight, and the naturalist quits it with regret.


Other Resources


  1. William Hamilton and Benjamin H. Smith, "Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary (Concluded)," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 29 (1905): 257–67 260, 264, view on Zotero.
  2. Manasseh Cutler, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, ed. William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkin Cutler, 2 vols. (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1888), vol. II, p. 145, view on Zotero.
  3. John W. Harshberger, "Additional Letters of Humphry Marshall, Botanist and Nurseryman," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 53 (1929), view on Zotero.
  4. Madsen, Karen. 1988. “William Hamilton’s Woodlands.” Paper presented for seminar in American Landscape, 1790–1900, instructed by E. McPeck. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. view on Zotero
  5. Karen Madsen, "William Hamilton’s Woodlands" (Paper presented for seminar in American Landscape, 1790-1900, instructed by E. McPeck. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 1988), view on Zotero.
  6. Karen Madsen, "To Make His Country Smile: William Hamilton’s Woodlands," Arnoldia, 49 (1989), 14–23, view on Zotero.
  7. Karen Madsen, ‘William Hamilton’s Woodlands’, 1988, view on Zotero.
  8. Hamilton and Smith, 1905, 260.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Darlington
  10. Karen Madsen, “William Hamilton’s Woodlands.” Paper presented for seminar in American Landscape, 1790–1900, instructed by E. McPeck. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. 1988.view on Zotero.
  11. Karen Madsen, "William Hamilton’s Woodlands," (Paper presented for seminar in American Landscape, 1790-1900, instructed by E. McPeck. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 1988), view on Zotero.
  12. Ms. letter in Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, Boston Public Library, quoted in Timothy Preston Long, "The Woodlands: A 'Matchless Place’" (unpublished Master of Science thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1991), view on Zotero and Robbins, 1964, 65, view on Zotero.
  13. William Parker Cutler, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL. D (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1987), view on Zotero
  14. Masnasseh Cutler, Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, L.L.D., ed. by William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkin Cutler, 2 vols. (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1888), view on Zotero
  15. Manasseh Cutler, Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, L.L.D., ed. William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkin Cutler, 2 vols. (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1888), 2:, view on Zotero.
  16. Thomas Jefferson, The Garden Book, ed. Edwin M. Betts (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1944), view on Zotero.
  17. William Birch,
  18. Oliver Oldschool, "American Scenery— for the Portfolio. The Woodlands," Port Folio, n.s. 2 (1809) view on Zotero.

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