George Perkins Marsh, a little-known Congressman from Vermont, gave birth to the environmental movement in September 1847. On that day he gave a speech to farmers at the Rutland County Agricultural Fair after judging oxen, swine and maple sugar.
In his talk, Marsh previewed his now-forgotten book, Man and Nature, or Physical geography as modified by human action. Modern environmental historians compare it with Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.
They were the two big books of the 19th century that demonstrated connections between humans and other forms of life.
“It takes a real act of historical imagination to understand just how profoundly Man and Nature reshaped American attitudes toward the environment,” wrote environmental historian William Cronon.
George Perkins Marsh
Marsh ushered in a new way of looking at the world, one that understood humans don’t really dominate nature. He inspired the reforesting of the Northeast. He did it by showing how denuded hills and dammed rivers caused erosion and flooding and depleted fisheries.
In his book, Marsh demonstrated how humans connect with nature in unexpected ways. He described how wetlands increased in North America because of a new Parisian fashion. Beavers were nearly extinct on the continent because of the popularity of beaver hats. But then a Parisian manufacturer came up with silk hats, which quickly became the rage. Demand for beaver fur fell off and the beaver population came back. More beavers meant more dams – and more wetlands.
Perhaps of all the people in the world in the mid-18th century, George Perkins Marsh was uniquely qualified to connect Parisian fashions with the American environment. He was at once a cosmopolitan world traveler and a Vermont farm boy, a scholar immersed in abstractions and a businessman (although not a very good one).
He was born March 15, 1801, to a wealthy landowner in Woodstock, Vt. His father owned much of Mount Tom. As a boy, George Perkins Marsh watched the clearing and planting of the hills around Woodstock for pasture and fuel. He noticed the erosion, the increased flooding; later in life, he wrote a report about the depleted fisheries.
As an adult, he tried his hand at businesses that interfered with the environment: a woolen mill that depended on dammed streams, a marble quarry that cut stone from the earth, a farm with sheep that cropped the grass, a lumber dealership. He made a failed investment in a railroad that stripped the land of trees.
Perkins was more successful at politics. He was elected to the first of thee terms in Congress in 1843, where he helped create the Smithsonian Institution. Later he was appointed minister to the Ottoman Empire. During his five years living in and touring the Middle East he observed how man had made barren the once-lush region. He also sent samples of fish, flora, fauna and rock to his friend Spencer Baird at the Smithsonian Institution.
Man and Nature
In 1864, he wrote Man and Nature with little expectation it would be noticed. He was wrong. It was the Silent Spring of the 19th century, a book that launched the environmental movement. Man and Nature led to passage of the 1873 Timber Culture Act, which encouraged homesteaders on the Great Plains to plant trees. It laid the groundwork for the creation of Adirondack Park and the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. It also had a profound influence on environmentalists such as John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.
Marsh revised his book several times while serving as a diplomat to the Kingdom of Italy. He spent 21 years in that post, the longest serving chief of ministers in U.S. history.
Today, you can visit his boyhood home in Woodstock at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller State Park. You can appreciate his legacy at the Smithsonian Institution – or simply by enjoying the fall colors of the trees in New England.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy The Birds Best Friend: How Ernest Baynes Saved the Animals and Winnepesaukee Water Wars: Fighting for NH Property Rights in 1859.
We are indebted to George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Book) by David Lowenthal and William Cronon for this article. This story was updated in 2021.