Stories From Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library
BY ANKE VOSS
Although Concord’s Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), naturalist and transcendentalist, is now a widely read American author, he did not support himself through his writing. In the 1840s, Thoreau became proficient as a land and property surveyor, an occupation that had no licensing requirements at the time and allowed him to spend much time “sauntering” outdoors. Recognized as a surveyor of considerable skill during his lifetime, even according to modern standards his level of accuracy is considered exceptional. He worked for private property owners and the Town of Concord, assisting in laying roads and walking the bounds in his capacity as a “civil engineer.” While Thoreau did most of his surveying work in Concord and nearby towns, his surveying work also took him farther, including New Jersey and geographic explorations on Cape Cod and Nantucket. He surveyed the sixty-one acres of Walden Pond in the winter of 1846, including creating over a hundred sounding holes in ice that measured sixteen inches thick. Thoreau included a reduced version of his survey map in Walden, or Life in the Woods, published in 1854.
In 1866, four years after Thoreau’s death, his sister Sophia sold his surveying compass and tripod through Concord auctioneer Sam Staples. Sampson Douglass Mason purchased them and presented them to the Concord Free Public Library. Thoreau left his working papers as a surveyor, including field notes and draft surveys, in the care of Sophia, who bequeathed them to the Library in the 1870s.
Special Collections holds two hundred of Thoreau’s land and property surveys (1846- 1860) and field notes (1840-1861). Surveys primarily concern land and property in Concord, including three of Walden Pond. The collection also includes surveys of land in Acton, Bedford, Boxborough, Carlisle, Framingham, Haverhill, Lincoln, Littleton, and Stow; one well-known survey of the Concord River “from East Sudbury to Billerica Mills;” and one of Eagleswood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Surveys include properties belongingto A. Bronson Alcott, Edward Carver Damon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Francis R. Gourgas, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edward S. Hoar, Samuel Hoar, Edmund Hosmer, John Hosmer, David Loring, the Concord Mill Dam Company, Abel Moore, John Brooks Moore, William Munroe, Daniel Shattuck, Samuel Staples, Cyrus Stow, the Town of Concord, and others. Most of the surveys are pencil or ink drafts. Thoreau’s survey-related notes include measurements and calculations, expenses, fees charged, and other notes generated by him in the preparation of his surveys.
The Concord Free Public Library holds the largest and most important collection of Thoreau’s manuscripts and other material in New England as well as extensive collections documenting Concord as Thoreau knew it. In addition to Thoreau’s surveys and surveying notes, Special Collections includes the manuscript of Thoreau’s lecture, “Walking,” as well as important examples of images of Thoreau, such as the 1854 crayon portrait by Samuel Worcester Rowse. In addition, the Henry David Thoreau Collection includes more than forty books, many presented by Thoreau’s sister Sophia, once belonging to Thoreau or his family members. The Library’s Concord Authors Collection also contains first and later editions of Thoreau’s writings, collected editions, and items to which Thoreau contributed pieces, and biographical, bibliographical, and critical works about him.
Anke Voss is Curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at Concord Free Public Library.