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History of Early American Landscape Design

Timothy Dwight

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Timothy Dwight (May 14, 1752–January 11, 1817) was an American educator, Congregationalist minister, poet, travel writer, and the eighth president of Yale College (1795–1817). His most important work, the posthumously published Travels in New England and New York (4 vols., 1821–22) is one of the earliest detailed accounts of the northeastern United States during the years 1796–1815, providing an invaluable source of information and opinion on the social, agricultural, and economic conditions in his own time.


Fig. 1, William Dunlap, Timothy Dwight, c. 1813.

A sixth-generation American and direct descendant of influential Puritan divines, Dwight was also the son of a New England farmer and held a deep commitment to agriculture and the agrarian way of life. Encouraged to read the Bible at the age of four, Dwight entered Yale College at thirteen, graduated at the top of his class in 1769, and remained at the college as a graduate tutor.[1] In addition to studying theology and preparing for the bar, he immersed himself in reading modern literature—particularly English writers of the Augustan age—whose neoclassical style he adapted to his own poetic celebrations of America. Meeting regularly to discuss contemporary politics and literature with other Yale scholars and tutors (including John Trumbull, Joel Barlow, and Noah Webster), he became a key figure in a group of intellectuals who together constituted the first American school of poetry.[2] In 1771 Dwight composed 300 lines of heroic couplets entitled “America; Or, a Poem on the Settlement of the British Colonies” and began work on a biblical epic, The Conquest of Canaan, published in 1785 with a dedication to George Washington. Both works imbued the abundant American landscape with a sense of millennial destiny and led John Trumbull to predict, “Mr. Dwight is to be our American poet.”[3]

Following his father’s death in 1777, Dwight returned to Northampton, Massachusetts, to manage the family’s farms while also preaching and operating a local school. From 1783 to 1795 he served as pastor of Greenfield parish in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he founded an educational academy and tended a large fruit and flower garden. Keenly interested in botany and horticulture, he was among the first to cultivate strawberries in America and carried out experiments in improving several varieties.[4] Recounting a visit to Dwight's home, Greenfield Hill, in September 1789, Samuel Davis (1765–1829) noted: “Dr. Dwight resides there, and commands a beautiful and extensive view of Long Island. His mansion is all neat, and his gardens are well cultivated.”[5] Greenfield Hill, which Dwight described as a “pleasant and beautiful eminence,” inspired an eponymous poem (published in 1794 with a dedication to John Adams) in which he extolled the idyllic scenery and agrarian lifestyle of his village as an American utopia, contrasting the liberty and virtue of the young republic with the corruption and decadence of Europe.[6]

In 1795 Dwight returned to New Haven, having succeeded Ezra Stiles as president of Yale College. As a respite from his administrative duties, he soon developed the habit of rambling through the northeastern states during the breaks between school terms. In nearly 20 years of travel, he covered an estimated 12,000 miles—on horseback, by cart, and on foot—as far north as Maine and as far west as Lake Erie.[7] Dwight’s acutely detailed observations, recorded in notebooks and subsequently revised for publication, took the form of letters to an English gentleman and were intended as rebuttals to the inaccurate, often disparaging portraits of America penned by foreign travel writers, such as Isaac Weld, John Lambert, Samuel Peters, and the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt.[8] America was a work in progress, Dwight acknowledged, but one that was speeding toward fruition, thanks to the unparalleled civilizing industry of New Englanders: “The efforts by which they have changed its vast forests into fruitful fields and gardens, are unparalleled, perhaps in the world. It is questionable whether mankind have [sic] ever seen so large a tract changed so suddenly from a wilderness into a well-inhabited and well-cultivated country.”[9] Reflecting on the changes he had witnessed over the course of his travels, Dwight observed, “Considerable tracts I have traced through their whole progress from a desert to a garden, and have literally beheld the wilderness blossom as the rose.”[10]

Although he was among the first to adapt picturesque aesthetics to the description of American scenery, Dwight unfailingly ascribed moral and religious significance to the orderly New England landscape, discerning fulfillment of a divine providential plan in the steady conversion of raw nature into neatly enclosed farms, gardens, and village greens that he considered “the garden of God.”[11] Dwight also engaged in the emerging fields of geology, botany, ecology, and meteorology, and recorded detailed scientific observations during his travels.[12] He carried out minute investigations of this kind in the vicinity of New Haven during his many years of residence there, ultimately publishing A Statistical Account of the City of New-Haven (1811), whose wide-ranging topics included a list of every vegetable and fruit that grew in local kitchen gardens, the structure and materials most commonly used for fencing, and the types of shrubs that had failed to thrive as hedges.[13] Finding a publisher for Dwight’s voluminous Travels proved difficult, despite the efforts of his close associates Jedidiah Morse and Benjamin Silliman. It was not until after his death—and probably as a result of Dwight’s deathbed plea—that his invaluable account of post-revolutionary New England and New York was finally issued.[14]

Robyn Asleson


  • Dwight, Timothy, 1794, describing Greenfield Hill (quoted in Clarke 1993: 1:386)[15]
“On yon bright plain, with beauty gay,
“Where waters wind, and cattle play,
“Where gardens, groves, and orchards bloom,
“Unconscious of her coming doom,
“Once Fairfield smil’d. The tidy dome,
“Of pleasure, and of peace, the home,
“There rose; and there the glittering spire,
“Secure from sacrilegious fire.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing New England (1821–1822: 1:118)[16]
“A succession of New-England villages, composed of neat houses, surrounding neat school-houses and churches, adorned with gardens, meadows and orchards, and exhibiting the universally easy circumstances of the inhabitants, is, at least in my own opinion, one of the most delightful prospects, which this world can afford.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing New Haven, CT (1821–22: 1:184)[16]
“A considerable proportion of the houses have court-yards in front, and gardens in rear. The former are ornamented with trees, and shrubs; the latter are luxuriantly filled with fruit-trees, flowers, and culinary vegetables. The beauty, and healthfulness, of this arrangement need no explanation.
“The houses in this City are generally decent; and many of the modern ones handsome. The style of building is neat and tidy. Fences, and out-houses are also in the same style: and being almost universally painted white, make a delightful appearance to the eye; and appearance, not a little enhanced, by the great multitude of shade-trees: a species of ornament, in which this town is unrivalled.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing the New Haven Burying Ground, New Haven, CT (1821–22: 1:190–92)[16]
“Indubitable proofs of the enterprise of the inhabitants are seen in the Institutions already mentioned. . . . Of these, levelling and enclosing the green, accomplished by subscription, at an expense of more than two thousand dollars, and the establishment of a new public cemetery, accomplished at a much greater expense, are particularly creditable to their spirit.
“The original settlers of New-Haven, following the custom of their native country, buried their dead in a Church-yard. Their Church was erected on the green, or public square; and the yard laid out immediately behind it in the North-Western half of the square. While the Romish apprehension concerning consecrated burial-places, and concerning peculiar advantages, supposed at the resurrection to attend those, who are interred in them, remained; this location of burial-grounds seems to have been not unnatural. But, since this apprehension has been perceived by common sense to be groundless and ridiculous, the impropriety of such a location forces itself on every mind. It is always desirable, that a burial-ground should be a solemn object to man; because in this manner it easily becomes a source of useful instruction and desirable impressions. But, when placed in the centre of a town, and in the current of daily intercourse, it is rendered too familiar to the eye to have any beneficial effect on the heart. From its proper, venerable character, it is degraded into a mere common object; and speedily loses all its connection with the invisible world, in a gross and vulgar union with the ordinary business of life.
“Besides these disadvantages, this ground was filled with coffins, and monuments, and must either be extended farther over the beautiful tract, unhappily chosen for it, or must have its place supplied by a substitute. To accomplish these purposes, and to effectuate a removal of the numerous monuments of the dead, already erected, whenever the consent of their survivors could be obtained; the Honourable James Hillhouse, one of the inhabitants, to whom the town, the State, and the country, owe more than to almost any of their citizens, in the year 1796, purchased, near the North-Western corner of the original town, a field of ten acres; which, aided by several respectable Gentlemen, he levelled, and enclosed. The field was then divided into parallelograms, handsomely railed, and separated by alleys of sufficient breadth to permit carriages to pass each other. The whole field . . . was distributed into family burying places. . . . Each parallelogram is sixty-four feet in breadth, and thirty-five feet in length. Each family burying-ground is thirty-two feet in length and eighteen in breadth: and against each an opening is made to admit a funeral procession. At the divisions between the lots trees are set out in the alleys: and the name of each proprietor is marked on the railing. The monuments in this ground are almost universally of marble; in a few instances from Italy; in the rest, found in this and neighbouring States. A considerable number are obelisks; others are tables; and others, slabs, placed at the head and foot of the grave. The obelisks are placed, universally, on the middle line of the lots; and thus stand in a line, successively, through the parallelograms. The top of each post, and the railing, are painted white; the remainder of the post, black. . . .
“It is believed, that this cemetery is altogether a singularity in the world. I have accompanied many Americans, and many Foreigners, into it; not one of whom had ever seen, or heard, of any thing [sic], of a similar nature. It is incomparably more solemn and impressive than any spot, of the same kind, within my knowledge; and, if I am to credit the declarations of others, within theirs. An exquisite taste for propriety is discovered, in every thing belonging to it; exhibiting a regard for the dead, reverential, but not ostentatious, and happily fitted to influence the views, and feelings of succeeding generations.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing the Hartford Statehouse, Hartford, CT (1821–22: 1:234)[16]
“The State-House is fifty feet in width, fifty in height, and one hundred and thirty in length. . . . From each front, finished with iron gates, projects an open arcade, sixteen feet wide, and forty long.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing New England (1821–22: 1:335–38)[16]
“It is a remarkable fact, that New-England was colonized in a manner, widely different from that, which prevailed in the other British Colonies. All the ancient, and a great part of the modern, townships were settled in what may be called the village manner: the inhabitants having originally planted themselves in small towns. In many other parts of this country the planters have almost universally fixed themselves on their several farms: each placing his house where his own convenience dictated. In this manner, it is evident, the farmer can more advantageously manage his property; can oversee it more readily; and labour on it with fewer interruptions; than when it is dispersed in fields at some distance from each other.
“But scattered plantations are subject to many serious disadvantages. Neither schools, nor churches, can without difficulty be either built by the planters, or supported. . . .
"At the same time, persons, who live on scattered plantations, are in a great measure cut off from that daily intercourse, which softens and polishes man.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing Worcester County, MA (1821–22: 1:375)[16]
“The inhabitants of this County have not been inattentive to their advantages. In no part of this country is there a more industrious, or thrifty, collection of farmers. In no part of this country are the barns universally so large, and so good; or the inclosures of stone so general, and every where so well formed. These inclosures are composed of stones, merely laid together in the form of a wall, and not compacted with mortar. An eye accustomed to the beautiful hedges of England, would probably regard these inclosures with little pleasure. But emotions of this nature depend much on comparison. There are no hedges in New-England: those which formerly existed, having perished by some unknown misfortune. Few persons therefore, who see these walls, will be able to compare them with hedges. A great part of what we call beauty arises from the fitness of means to their ends. This relative beauty these enclosures certainly possess: for they are effectual, strong, and durable. Indeed where the stones have a smooth regular face, and are skilfully laid in an exact line, with a true front, the wall independently of this consideration, becomes neat, and agreeable. A farm well surrounded, and divided, by good stone-walls, presents to my mind, irresistibly, the image of tidy, skilful, profitable agriculture; and promises to me within doors, the still more agreeable prospect of plenty and prosperity.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1798, describing Boston, MA (1821–22: 1:420)[16]
“Boston enjoys a superiority to all other great towns on this continent. . . . The soil is generally fertile, the agriculture neat, and productive; the gardening superior to what is found in most other places; the orchards, groves, and forests, numerous and thrifty.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing Newburyport, MA (1821–22: 1:439)[16]
“The ground, on which the former church, belonging to the same congregation [Presbyterian], stood, was purchased for $8,000; and devoted for ever to the purpose of enlarging a small public square. . . .
“A Mall has been begun on High-street; but on so small a scale, as ill to suit the purpose in view. A handsome lot has been purchased by Moses Brown, Esq. in front of one of the churches, for $13,000; and appropriated for ever, as an open square, to the use of the public; an act of liberality, which needs no comment.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing Cambridge, MA (1821–22: 1:483)[16]
“In the year 1805, $30,833 were raised in Boston, and the other wealthy towns in this vicinity, for the establishment of a Botanic garden, and professorship. The Professor has been chosen, and inducted into office. His official title is professor of Natural History. I know not whether the garden has been begun.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, October 14, 1796, describing Pleasant Hill, MA (1821–22: 1:489–91)[16]
“MONDAY, October, 14th, we visited Cobble Hill; the handsome seat of Joseph Barrell Esq. This ground, while the British continued in Boston, was a place of much notoriety as a scene of military transactions. It is now a beautiful plantation; and, considering the short period since it was begun, highly improved. . . .
“Boston contains one hundred and thirty-five streets, twenty-one lanes, eighteen courts, and, it is said, a few squares: although, I confess, I have never seen any thing in it, to which I should give that name. . . .
“It is remarkable, that the scheme of forming public squares, so beautiful, and in great towns so conducive to health, should have been almost universally forgotten. Nothing is so cheerful, so delightful, or so susceptible of the combined elegancies of nature and art. On these open grounds the inhabitants might always find sweet air, charming walks, fountains refreshing the atmosphere, trees excluding the sun, and, together with fine flowering shrubs, presenting to the eye the most ornamental objects, found in the country. Here, also, youth and little children might enjoy those sports, those voluntary indulgences, which in fresh air, are, peculiarly to them, the sources of health and the prolongation of life. Yet many large cities are utterly destitute of these appendages; and in no city are they so numerous, as the taste for beauty, and a regard for health, compel us to wish.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing Boston, MA (1821–22: 1:493–94)[16]
“There are several pretty streets in Boston. Among them, Franklin Place. . . . The middle of the street is a grass plat, surrounded by trees, and guarded by posts and chains. The name is derived from a monument of Dr. Franklin, who was a native of this town.”

Hallowell is a very pretty town, built on an irregular, or rather steep, descent. This slope, though interrupted, is handsome, and furnishes more good building spots, than if it had been an uniform declivity, and at the same time equally steep. Then all the grounds would have descended too rapidly. Now they furnish a succession of level surfaces for gardens, house-plats, and court yards; and are thus very convenient, as well as sometimes very handsome.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1807, describing the residence of “Mr. V.” (Benjamin Vaughan) (1821–22: 2:219)[17]
“Behind the garden is a wild and solitary valley; at the bottom of which runs a small mill stream. Its bed is formed, universally, of rocks and stones. In three successive instances strata of rocks cross the stream obliquely; and present a face so nearly perpendicular, as to furnish in each instance, a charming cascade. These succeed each other at distances conveniently near; and yet so great, that one of them only can be seen at a time. The remaining course of the stream is an alternation of currents, and handsome basins. On either side, the banks, which are of considerable height, and sometimes steep, formed of rude forested grounds, and moss-grown rocks, are left absolutely in the state of nature. Along the brook Mr. V. has made a convenient foot-way, rather appearing to have been trodden out by the feet of wild animals, than to have been contrived by man, and winding over a succession of stone bridges, so rude and inartificial, as to seem the result of accident, rather than the effect of human labour.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing New England (1821–22: 2:335)[17]
“New England villages . . . are built in the following manner.
“The local situation is pitched on as a place in itself desirable; as a place, where life may be passed through more pleasantly than in most others; as a place, not where trade compels, but where happiness invites, to settle. Accordingly the position of these towns is usually beautiful. . . .
“The town-plat is originally distributed into lots, containing from two to ten acres. In a convenient spot, on each of these, a house is erected at the bottom of the court-yard; (often neatly enclosed;) and is furnished universally with a barn, and other convenient out-buildings. Near the house there is always a garden, replenished with culinary vegetables, flowers, and fruits, and very often, also, prettily enclosed. The lot, on which the house stands, universally styled the home lot, is almost of course a meadow, richly cultivated, covered during the pleasant season with verdure, and containing generally a thrifty orchard. It is hardly necessary to observe, that these appendages spread a singular cheerfulness, and beauty, over a New-England village; or that they contribute largely to render the house a delightful residence.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1796, describing Massachusetts (1821–22: 2:352)[17]
“Immediately below the bridge [over Miller’s River] is a fall, furnishing excellent mill-seats, which are occupied by several mills. These are uniformly supplied with an abundance of water, and wear the aspect of great activity, and business, particularly in the sawing of timber.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1799, describing Province Town, MA (1821–22: 3:95–96)[18]
“It is said, that there are two or three gardens at some distance from the town; and some of the inhabitants cultivate a few summer vegetables in their court-yards.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1799, describing New Lebanon, NY (1821–22: 3:149)[18]
“Their church, a plain, but neat building, had a court-yard belonging to it, which was a remarkably ‘smooth-shaven green.’ Two paths led to it from a neighbouring house, both paved with marble slabs.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1799, describing South Hadley, MA (1821–22: 3:262)[18]
“Major White, a respectable inhabitant of South-Hadley, had an orchard, which stood on the North-Western declivity of a hill, of so rapid a descent, that every tree was entirely brushed by the winds from that quarter. The spot lay about four miles directly South-Eastward from the gap between Mount Tom, and Mount Holyoke. Through this gap these winds blow, as you will suppose, with peculiar strength. Accordingly they swept the dew from this orchard so effectually, that its blossoms regularly escaped the injuries of such late frosts in the spring, as destroy those of the surrounding country. So remarkable was the exemption, that the inhabitants of South-Hadley proverbially styled such a frost Major White’s harvest; because his orchard yielded a great quantity of cider, which in such years commanded a very high price.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1799, describing Stockbridge, MA (1821–22: 3:408)[18]
“On our way to Stockbridge we went to the Indian monument, mentioned in a former part of these letters; and, to our great regret, found it broken up in the same manner, as that at New-Milford.
“I ought, in my account of that, to have added, that this mode of erecting monuments was adopted only on peculiar occasions. The common manner of Indian burial had nothing in it of this nature. The remains of the dead, who died at home, were lodged in a common cemetery, belonging to the village, in which they had lived.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1799, describing New York, NY (1821–22: 3:454)[18]
“Among its conveniences are an excellent garden, fruit trees, walks, a large ice-house, bathing-house, and stables.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1799, describing New York, NY (1821–22: 3:481–82)[18]
“The heights, and many of the lower grounds, contain a rich display of gentlemen’s country seats, connected with a great variety of handsome appendages.”

  • Dwight, Timothy, 1800, describing Guilford, CT (1821–22: 2: 513–14)[17]
“This square, like that in New Haven, is deformed by a burying ground, and to add to the deformity is unenclosed. . . .
“The design of locating places of burial in this manner was probably good. In its execution, however, it evidently defeats itself, while it is also a plain violation of propriety. Instead of producing those solemn thoughts and encouraging those moral propensities which it was intended to inspire, it renders death and the grave such familiar objects to the eye as to prevent them from awakening any serious regard . . . Nor is it unreasonable to suppose that the proximity of these sepulchral fields to human habitations is injurious to health. Some of them have, I believe, been found to be offensive and will probably be allowed to have been noxious. Even in cases where nothing of this nature is perceptible, it is far from being clear that effluvia, too subtle to become an object of sense, do not ascend in sufficient quantities to affect with disease, or at least with a predisposition to disease, those who by living in the neighborhood are continually breathing this mischievous exhalation.“


Other Resources

Library of Congress Name Authority File

American National Biography


  1. Peter K. Kafer, “The Making of Timothy Dwight: A Connecticut Morality Tale,” William and Mary Quarterly 47 (3rd series) (April 1990): 190–93, view on Zotero.
  2. Colin Wells, “Connecticut Wit and Augustan Theology: John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and the New Divinity,” Religion & Literature 34 (2002): 1–3, view on Zotero; Leon Howard, The Connecticut Wits (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943), view on Zotero.
  3. Howard 1943, 834, view on Zotero.
  4. Benjamin W. Dwight, The History of the Descendants of John Dwight, of Dedham, Mass., 2 vols. (New York: John F. Trow & Son, 1874), 1:146, view on Zotero; Timothy Dwight, Travels; in New-England and New-York, 4 vols. (New Haven: The Author, 1821–22), 1:43, view on Zotero.
  5. He added, “His rooms are ornamented with paintings from the pencil of Mr. [William] Dunlap, his brother-in-law. Some of the subjects are from his ‘Conquest of Canaan.’” Samuel Davis, “Journal of a Tour to Connecticut in the Autumn of 1789,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 11 (April 1869): 18, view on Zotero.
  6. Gamble 2007, 13–35; Larry Kutchen, “Timothy Dwight’s Anglo-American Georgic: Greenfield Hill and the Rise of United States Imperialism,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 33 (2000): 109–28, view on Zotero; Peter M. Briggs, “Timothy Dwight ‘Composes’ a Landscape for New England,” American Quarterly 40 (1988): 365–69, view on Zotero.
  7. Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, ed. Barbara Miller Solomon, 4 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969), 1: xxv–xxvii, view on Zotero; Kenneth Silverman, Timothy Dwight (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969), 114, view on Zotero.
  8. Dwight 1821–22, 4:150–94, view on Zotero; see also Silverman 1969, 116–25, view on Zotero.
  9. Dwight 1821–22, 3:530, view on Zotero.
  10. Dwight 1821–22, 2:212, view on Zotero.
  11. Dwight’s “Virtuous Rulers a National Blessing” (1791) quoted in Jane Kamensky, “‘In These Contrasted Climes, How Chang’d the Scene’: Progress, Declension, and Balance in the Landscapes of Timothy Dwight,” New England Quarterly 63 (March 1990): 80, view on Zotero. See also John S. Pipkin, “Goodness, Beauty, and the Aesthetics of Discipline in Timothy Dwight’s Landscapes,” Journal of Cultural Geography 26 (February 2009): 26–48, view on Zotero; Briggs 1988, 360–77, view on Zotero; John F. Sears, “Timothy Dwight and the American Landscape: The Composing Eye in Dwight’s ‘Travels in New England and New York,’” Early American Literature 11 (Winter 1976/1977): 312–14, view on Zotero.
  12. Kathryn Whitford and Philip Whitford, “Timothy Dwight’s Place in Eighteenth-Century American Science,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 114 (February 1970): 63–71, view on Zotero.
  13. Timothy Dwight, A Statistical Account of the City of New-Haven (New Haven: Timothy Dwight, 1811), 21–29, view on Zotero.
  14. Dwight 1969, ix, xxvii, view on Zotero.
  15. Graham Clarke, ed., The American Landscape: Literary Sources and Documents, 3 vols. (East Sussex, England: Helm Information, 1993), view on Zotero.
  16. 16.00 16.01 16.02 16.03 16.04 16.05 16.06 16.07 16.08 16.09 16.10 Dwight 1821–22, vol. 1, view on Zotero.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Dwight 1821–22, vol. 2, view on Zotero.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 Dwight 1821–22, vol. 3, view on Zotero.

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