In 1654, lay historian Edward Johnson wrote of the colonial project in New England in flushed, sanguine terms: "Thus hath the Lord been pleased to turn one of the most hideous, boundless, and unknown wildernesses in the world in an instant, as 'twere, .[..] to a well-ordered commonwealth." Colonists who came from England in the seventeenth century, arriving on New England's soil, cultivated an array of evolving aspirations from economic opportunity and political consensus to religious reform and even toleration. Their claims to any higher purpose, however, rested first and foremost on establishing a firm hold on the ground below. For colonists, imposing order on this "most hideous, boundless" land usually meant clearing trees, planting crops and constructing buildings, but it also required them to impose their thinking onto the earth, reworking and rewording the land from "wilderness" into a Western idea of "property." Ordinary New Englanders compelled this legal and symbolic transformation, not simply by writing it into statutes or deeds, pleading it before magistrates at court or even in idle musings over rum or a neighbor's fence. They enacted the change, scoring it deeply into trees and stumps, heaving it onto mounds of native stones and, of course, by stamping out its lines with the soles of their feet.

During the period of the Protestant Reformation, Europeans' view of the world underwent a profound transformation. They began to consider the earth, not purely as God's mysterious, eternal creation, but also as a knowable, practical landscape that men could measure, change and control. English Puritans, in particular, embraced this altered world view, adopting a shifting perception of time as a quantifiable, linear continuum, as contrasted with the mystical, place-based circular time embodied in the traditional ritual calendar of the English village. Francis Bacon's articulation of a scientific method in the seventeenth century also appealed to reform-minded Puritans. Just as Puritans sought an unmediated relationship with scripture, Bacon's method advocated acquiring knowledge about the world through the direct observation of nature." These perceptual transformations coincided and collided with significant technological advances in literacy, numeracy, mathematics, geography, law, navigation, surveying and other areas, so that when English colonists touched shore in the American Northeast, the earth underfoot was already a world made new. " This New England was one they could remake according to their own perceptions. But it was also one they would never partition completely from an ancient sense of universal, unknowable mystery - the world of wonder that still colonized their imaginations.