In an 18th century British American colonial or Early Republican garden, a wilderness refers to an ornamental mass of trees, thicket, or mass of shrubbery intentionally set in a remote area of a pleasure ground, pierced by walks sometimes forming a maze or labyrinth. Wildernesses often were integrated into the design of southern colonial grounds designed for hot weather exercise, the shade of the trees offering cooling relief from the summer sun.
The South Carolina Gazette advertised in February of 1734, that near Charleston, was a property, "To Be Let or Sold...on an island which commands an entire prospect of the Harbor...A delightful Wilderness with shady Walks and Arbours, cool in the hottest seasons. A piece of Garden-ground where all the best kinds of Fruits and Kitchen Greens are produced."
In May, 1743, Eliza Lucas Pinckney wrote describing William Middleton's plantation Crow-Field in South Carolina, "My letter will be of unreasonable length if I dont pass over the mounts, Wilderness, etc..."
Daniel Fisher described The Proprietor's Garden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in May of 1755, "a pretty pleasure garden...a small Wilderness, and other shades that shows that the contrivor was not without Judgement."
In January of 1785, President George Washington was writing in his diary of riding throughout his properties searching for trees to use in the planning of his landscape at Mount Vernon, "Road...in search of the sort of Trees I shall want for my Walks, groves, and Wildernesses." Washington continued to concentrate on the wilderness throughout the spring of 1785...
Thursday 17th. 1785
Laid out a walk for the Wilderness intended on the South of the Serpentine road on the left.
Friday 18th. 1785
I went to my Dogue run Plantation to make choice of the size, & to direct the taking up of Pine trees, for my two wildernesses. Brought 3 waggon load of them home, and planted every other hole round the Walks in them.
Monday 21st. 1785
Staked up the largest of my Trees in the avenues and Wilderness and Shrubberies to day, which from the softness of the ground & impression made on them by the Wind were leaning.
Tuesday 22d. 1785
Mrs. Grayson sent me 8 Yew & 4 Aspan trees & Colo. Mason some Cherry Grafts. Planted the intermediate holes round the Walk in the Wilderness on the right and filled the spaces between with young Pines.
Wednesday 23d. 1785
Finished Planting the Pine trees in the wilderness on the left and planted 4 of the live Oak Trees (which I had received from Norfolk) in the Shrubberies on the right and left on the grass plat in front of the House. Staked most of the Pines that had been planted.
Thursday 24th. 1785
Finding the Trees round the Walks in my wildernesses rather too thin I doubled them by putting (other Pine) trees between each.
Friday 25th. 1785
Planted some of the largest Pine trees on the Circular bank which is intended to inclose the Court yard, Shrubberies &ca. and Staked most of those wch. had been planted in the two Wildernesses.
Another American President, Thomas Jefferson, was also planning his wilderness in September of 1804, writing, "The Brooms wilderness on the South side to be improved for winter walking or riding."
At least one commercial public pleasure garden in the Early Republic added a wilderness as one of its components. A description of Grays Gardens in Philadelphia which appeared in the European Magazine and London Review, Volume 39, recounting a letter sent from Philadelphia in June of 1790 noting, "If we proceed straight forward, we pass through an elegant arched gate, which stems to be guarded by the figure of a satyr, extremely well painted. But this, as well as all the smaller avenues, alike produces os in the wilderness, into which we enter, passing over a neat Chinese bridge, preparing with much pleasure to penetrate a recess so charming. It is, indeed, a wilderness of sweets, and the views instantly become romantically enchanting, the scene is every moment Changing. Now side long bends the path; then pursues its winding way: now in a stratght line; then in a pleasing labyrinth is lost, until, in every possible direction, it breaketh upon us, amid thick groves of pines, walnuts, chesnuts, mulberries, & we seem to ramble, while, at the same time, we are surprised by borders of the richest and most highly cultivated flowers, in the greatest variety, which even from a royal parterre we might be led to expect."
The first American garden writer to describe the use of the wilderness in the garden was Bernard M'Mahon. He described the wilderness in his 1806 American Gardener's Calendar published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, "...to diversify the scenery...a wilderness... being generally planted in close assemblages, with serpentine walks between; some leading in private meanders toward the interior parts, or braking out...some places being closely bordered with tall trees, to effect a gloominess and perfect shade: the different walks leading now and then into circular openings, each being surrounded with plantations as aforesaid; making the principal walks terminate in a grand opening in the centre of the wilderness, in which may be some edifice, or fine piece of water."
Bernard M'Mahon's 1806 American Gardener's Calendar. B. Graves, no. 40, North Fourth-Street, Philadelphia