The Grand Strand: Returning to the Early American Coast – Daniel Walden

Managing the effects of climate change on the world’s coastlines is one of the primary environmental challenges of the next one hundred years. Warming global temperatures and the subsequent melting polar ice will have significant physical, economic, and social impacts in some of the globe’s most densely populated areas. In the United States, more than 39 percent of the total population lives in coastal areas that comprise less than 10 percent of the nation’s landmass. According to the 2010 census, there were 446 persons per square mile living along our nation’s coasts, compared to only 105 persons per square mile in the United States as a whole. Although results from the 2020 census have not been finalized, historical growth figures predict that the population density of the nation’s coastal regions will probably increase to 483 persons per square mile.1
Figure 1. In the mid-20th century, Myrtle Beach, SC was given the nickname “The Grand Strand” and is an embodiment of the overdeveloped coastline. Curtis and Eric. “Myrtle Beach, SC Spring Break 2007 27.” Photograph. Flickr. April 21, 2022. Creative Commons — CC BY_NC 2.0
Despite this increasing concentration of people on the coasts, popular and critical attention about the American environment is more often focused on the land. This is particularly true for early American studies, where scholars have often looked away from the coast toward the American interior, focusing on the “wilderness” into which early settlers ran their “errand.”2 However, because early English colonial endeavors depended on maritime connections to England and the wider Atlantic world of trade, these settlements were inherently tied to the coast. A deeper recognition of how early Americans thought about and interacted with coastal environments during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can provide important insights about our contemporary relationship to our dynamic coastlines.
Figure 2. Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister and one of the most renowned thinkers of the age. Peter Pelham, Cottonus Matherus, 1728. Mezzotint. The Met, New York. The Met Museum Open Access.
In 1702, Cotton Mather, one of early America’s most prolific and influential intellectual leaders, published a sweeping ecclesiastical history of New England’s first one hundred years titled Magnalia Christi Americana. In the very first line, Mather asserts his intention to “write the Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Depravations of Europe to the American Strand.” While it is not uncommon to use “shore” as a synecdoche for an entire landmass, Mather’s choice of the word “strand” offers a nuanced perspective for how we might approach an understanding of the early American colonial project. In addition to being a loose and archaic synonym for shore, strand specifically denotes “that part of the shore which lies between the tide-marks.” In other words, the strand is a space that is sometimes land and sometimes water; it is the most indistinct part of an already liminal, or transitional, environment.3 Reframing the thinking about early American settlements as taking place on the “American Strand” helps us recognize their inherent instability. The earliest English settlements and towns were all located in areas that NOAA today considers to be “Coastal Shoreline Communities.” Like their twenty-first-century counterparts, these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century coastal communities were under threat of destruction from ocean-driven weather like hurricanes and nor’easters, but they also faced the constant threat of attack by land from Indigenous groups and by sea from hostile European powers. In fact, by choosing the word “strand” to mark the endpoint of Puritan emigration, Mather calls into question the very existence of the land intended to receive them. The opening line of Magnalia Christi Americana expresses uncertainty about the effectiveness of, or even the ability to, flee “the Depravations of Europe” to the utopia of America. There was no guarantee that the English settlements in the New World would become the New Jerusalem that the Puritans so fervently desired. Rather than being solid ground, the unstable coastal environment serves as a useful metaphor for understanding the Puritan connection to the American landscape in ways that are more nuanced than those accessed through the prevalent image of the terrestrial wilderness.4 Significantly, some Puritan settlers may not have even considered the “strand” to be land at all. In Mourt’s Relation, written between 1620-1621 to record the events of the first year after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the author describes some voyagers’ decision to walk on the beach: “After this, some thought it best, for nearness of the river, to go down and travel on the sea sands, by which means some of our men were tired, and lagged behind. So we stayed and gathered them up, and struck into the land again.” In this account the beach is explicitly distinguished from “the land.”5
Figure 3. This 19th-century engraving demonstrates a reimagining of the Pilgrims’ first steps on America as taking place on firm, rocky ground rather than the shifting sands of the tidal zone. Joseph Andrews, The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, 1620, 1869. Etching and engraving on steel. The Met, New York. The Met Museum Open Access.
The distinction between beach and land is especially noteworthy when considering the lasting symbolism of Plymouth Rock. There is no contemporary account of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth that mentions any such rock. While we cannot know for sure, it is most likely that those first steps on the American shore landed on the sands of the strand. However, reframing those steps as having fallen on rock shifts the foundational American moment from the unstable littoral—relating to the shore—sands to stable granite. As John Seelye writes in Memory’s Nation, when annual celebrations of the Pilgrims’ landing began in 1798, Plymouth Rock became a frequent and powerful symbol “connecting national expansion to the original impulse that had originated in the arrival of the Forefathers.” In other words, the view from Plymouth Rock was westward facing, away from the coast and toward the expansive interior landscape.6 It is important for us now to turn back to the beach and recognize the role coastlines have played and continue to play in American life. The growing population in coastal areas indicates, in a sense, a return to the beginning. And in this return, we have to better understand that these tidal zones are as fragile as they are foundational. While the liminality of coastlines means that they are continually in flux, they are becoming increasingly unstable due in large part to the environmental effects of climate change. While recognizing the significance of coastal spaces in early America will not help slow these effects, improving our understanding of how these important spaces have shaped American culture may make us more willing to finally see the coast and improve how we live on and with it.  
Dan Walden is an Associate Professor of English at Baylor University. His current book project Littoral Literacy: The Coast in Early American Literature is an examination of the representation and influence of coastal environmental spaces in early American literature. Read Dan Walden’s article, ‘The Fishes Life’: Social and Physical Liminality in Mather’s The Fisher-mans Calling in the Spring 2022 issue of Early American Studies.
  1. NOAA, “National Coastal Population Report: Population Trends from 1970 to 2020” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 2013),
  2. See, for example, Samuel Danforth, A Brief Recognition of New-Englands Errand into the Wilderness; Made in the Audience of the General Assembly of the Massachusets Colony, at Boston in N.E. on the 11th of the Third Moneth, 1670. Being the Day of Election There. By Samuel Danforth, Pastor of the Church of Christ in Roxbury in N.E.  (Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1671), 160; Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1956).
  3. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Books I and II, ed. Kenneth Ballard Murdock and Elizabeth W. Miller (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977); “Strand, n. 1” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, U.K: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  4. “NOAA’s State of the Coast”; Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana; Michael P. Winship, “What Puritan Guarantee?,” Early American Literature 47, no. 2 (2012): 412.
  5. Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, ed. Dwight B. Heath (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1986).
  6. John Seelye, Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 61.