Henry David Thoreau: A Life

Henry David Thoreau: A Life

by Laura Dassow Walls

ISBN: 9780226344690

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Nonfiction/Philosophy, Religion & Spirituality

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter


Concord Sons and Daughters

Minott, Lee, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint Possessed the land which rendered to their toil Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool, and wood. Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm, Saying, "'Tis mine, my children's, and my name's: How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees!" Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Hamatreya"

Coming to Concord

Emerson found poetry in Concord's ancient names. Among them — "Minott, Lee, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint"— one will not find Thoreau, though of all Concord's authors he alone was born there. His family were newcomers among neighbors with houses weathered by a hundred New England winters. The very name Thoreau was novel — foreign, French, part of a Revolutionary wave of restlessness that carried European immigrants into New England's market towns and industrial centers. Henry's upright Aunt Maria insisted that her father, Jean Thoreau, was a merchant who emigrated from Jersey to Boston, but Franklin Sanborn, who knew the family well, said Jean was a sailor, shipwrecked from a Jersey privateer off the coast of New England, who was rescued and brought to Boston, with no intention of staying. The year, both agree, was 1773. Jean was only nineteen. Whatever his intentions, he plunged into life on the Boston docks, and soon was fighting with the Patriots.

Perhaps returning to Jersey was not an option for an adventurous younger son. The Thoreaus — or "Tiereaus," or perhaps Toraux or Thaureaux — were Huguenots forced to flee Catholic France in 1685. When French dragoons began to terrorize their home in Poitou, Henry's great-great-grandfather swept up his young son Pierre and escaped to the nearby island of Jersey, a protectorate of England and a haven for Huguenot refugees. Here the Thoreaus maintained their Protestant faith and their French language and traditions, part of a global network of Huguenot enclaves preserving their identity until they could at last return home. Some of Pierre's many children carried the Thoreau name to London, New Zealand, and eventually even to Denver; but Philippe, his fourth son, remained on Jersey, a prosperous wine merchant in the port of St. Helier. It was his second son, Jean, who took to sea and landed, by chance or design, in Boston.

Jean must have written home, but it was wartime. Only three letters remain, sent by his younger brother Pierre Thoreau from Jersey starting in 1801. Aunt Maria treasured these letters and passed them on to Henry, who copied them into his Journal — precious relics from his French great-uncle, slender threads to his own past. Thoreau was proud to be "of French extract"; it set him apart from his Yankee neighbors. Later in life he spent years investigating the French foundation of the New World, until he could prove that "the Englishman's history of New England commences, only when it ceases to be, New France." His friends remarked that he pronounced "the letter r with a decided French accent" such that "his speech always had an emphasis, a burr in it."

Henry's grandfather Jean Thoreau was short but stout, strong enough to set a hogshead of molasses upright single-handedly. He worked first on a sail loft, then apprenticed with a Boston cooper. When the British blocked Boston harbor, he could give his men no more work, so Jean went to war, helping fortify Boston harbor. As an experienced sailor at the epicenter of the Revolution, however, he soon became a privateer. For a time Jean was based at Castle Island (soon renamed Fort Independence) under the command of fellow Huguenot Paul Revere ("Rivoire"); when Revere captured the Minerva, Jean shared in the bounty. Without privateers — pirate ships licensed to prey on enemy vessels — the Revolutionary War would have gone quite differently. By April 1776 privateers had captured enough British ships off Boston to break the British occupation. Two years later, the alliance with France opened French ports to America, and Jean worked this dangerous cross-Atlantic passage, too. In November 1779, when John Adams sailed to France on the frigate La Sensible to negotiate peace with Britain, the ship hailed an American privateer off the Grand Banks. When the privateer couldn't make out their name, a lone sailor ran out onto the frigate's bowsprit before the situation escalated, shouting, "La Sensible!" Henry noted proudly in his Journal, "That sailors name was Thoreau."

Most wartime fortunes were squandered in luxury goods or lost to runaway inflation, but Jean saved enough to set up a store on Boston's Long Wharf, the heart of America's busiest port. His grandson was pleased to encounter a Captain Snow, who "remembered hearing fishermen say that they 'fitted out at Thoreau's' — remembered him." As Jean's fortune grew, so did his family. In 1781 he married Jane "Jennie" Burns, whose Boston Quaker mother, Sarah Orrok, had refused to accept the hand in marriage of Jennie's father-to-be, a Scottish immigrant, until he divested himself of the ruffles that covered it. Jennie bore ten children in their house on Prince Street. Eight survived to adulthood. In 1787, following Huguenot custom, they named their first son John, after his father. John followed the custom in turn, and gave his second son a name with a French cognate, "Henri." Four of John's sisters grew up to fill Henry's life with maiden aunts: Elizabeth (Betsy) and Sarah Thoreau ran a boardinghouse on Concord's town square; Jane and Maria Thoreau lived in Boston, paying long, frequent visits to Concord. A fifth sister, Nancy, married Caleb Billings and settled with him in Bangor, giving the Concord Thoreaus a virtual second home in Maine.

Family stories preserve only glimpses of these early years. Boston was still so rural that, as John remembered, the family "had milk of a neighbor, who used to drive his cows to and from the Common every day." Boiled green corn was sold piping hot out of "large baskets on the bare heads of negro women, and gentlemen would stop, buy an ear, and eat it in the street." Jean Thoreau would rise before dawn and share his breakfast with John before opening the store, the father eating the undercrusts of biscuits and his son the upper. There were also memories of a darker cast. One of the Thoreaus' future neighbors, recalling her Boston childhood, said her mother always respected Jean Thoreau because he was a religious man; he used to ride to their house "when they made cheeses, to drink the whey, being in consumption." Once, he asked where blue vervain grew, "which he wanted, to make a syrup for his cough," and she ran and gathered some. That cough was an ominous sign. Like so many New England men and women, Jean Thoreau was cursed with tuberculosis, the insidious disease named "consumption" for the way it consumed its victims from within. The first of several tragedies came when Jennie's father died while in Scotland trying to claim an inheritance; Jennie herself died only six weeks after giving birth to her tenth child, David, in 1796. Jean found himself alone with eight children to care for and his Long Wharf store to run.

A year later, Jean Thoreau married Rebecca Hurd Kettell of Concord, thus solving both their problems: his orphaned children had a new mother, and she escaped a widow's poverty. They met perhaps through church — she was religious, too — or perhaps through commerce, for Rebecca's sister was married to Deacon John White, who owned Concord's most prosperous store at the town square's busy crossroads. In 1799, Jean bought the house next door — today, it forms the north end of the Colonial Inn — and in 1800 the Thoreaus moved in. Soon young John was studying at the Lexington Academy, and his parents, having joined the First Parish Church, were hosting the Reverend Ezra Ripley for tea. The Thoreaus arrived as one of Concord's best families. Everything promised happiness and prosperity.

It was over in months. According to family tradition, Jean Thoreau was out patrolling the Boston streets in a severe rainstorm and caught a cold that inflamed his tuberculosis; he died weeks later, on March 7, 1801, just forty-seven years old. His eight orphaned children found themselves in the care of their stepmother Rebecca, widowed once again. It should have worked out better than it did: Jean left a huge estate, $25,000 all told, including houses in Concord and Boston and cash and securities worth $12,000. But by the time the pious Rebecca died in 1814, the houses were mortgaged and the money was gone. Her brother Joseph Hurd, a Charlestown merchant who administered the estate, had used it up paying himself legal fees and expenses, leaving Jean Thoreau's children to grow up in deepening penury. Fourteen-year-old John, who upon his father's death became the man of the family, had to leave school to juggle relentless creditors while hoping to duplicate his father's success as a merchant.

For a while John clerked in Deacon White's store, but in 1807 he went to Salem, one of the world's leading ports for Chinese ceramics, silks and cottons, furniture, and spices, to learn the dry-goods trade. This was shooting for the top: imported goods required a large investment. In 1808, he came of age at twenty-one; he borrowed $1,000 on his anticipated inheritance to open his own store, partnering with Isaac Hurd Jr., who'd been to Canton and knew the China trade. His family must have had high hopes when John opened the "yellow store" on the square, but somehow the partnership soured. When John sought to dissolve it, Hurd took him to court, and though Hurd lost the case, in the legal mess John lost his store. In the meantime, John's sister Nancy had married Caleb Billings and gone north to Bangor, where Billings opened his own store. John, his hopes ruined, followed them for a spell, "selling to the Indians (among others)." Meanwhile, his neighbor Moses Prichard bought John's old inventory for their own "green store" across the square, and when the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, the value of that inventory skyrocketed. Then Prichard's store was named the local post office too. For twenty years, the "green store" was the hub of Concord, with two hundred customers on the books and so much trade they didn't bother to advertise. It must have hurt.

Caleb and Nancy Billings hung on and made a go of it; their daughter Rebecca would later marry George Thatcher, whose invitations to explore the Maine Woods changed Henry Thoreau's life. But John Thoreau didn't stay in Bangor. There were still four unmarried sisters to look out for, and he'd bought a bit of farmland out on Virginia Road, too, next door to Captain Jonas Minott's farm. When exactly did he meet Minott's stepdaughter Cynthia? Perhaps while chatting over the back fence, or at church. For something drew him back to Concord — likely the tall, accomplished, "handsome, high-spirited woman ... with a voice of remarkable power and sweetness in singing," who helped run Captain Minott's Virginia Road farm and raised her voice every Sunday in Ezra Ripley's First Parish Church.

* * *

Cynthia Dunbar came to Concord about the same time as John, but by a very different road. While John's Patriot father was sailing the high seas, Cynthia's mother, Mary Jones Dunbar, was caught in a civil war between her Tory father, the immensely wealthy Colonel Elisha Jones, and her Patriot husband, the witty and genial Reverend Asa Dunbar. Mary's father, a fierce Royalist, had set himself against the insurgents; as the violence escalated, he even raised a private army to defend his Weston estate until, defeated, he fled to occupied Boston. Trapped in Boston, Elisha Jones watched as the Americans destroyed everything he'd built. He collapsed and died in March 1776, just as George Washington was about to drive the British out of Boston. Colonel Jones thus "escaped banishment by death," but most of his fourteen sons escaped death by banishment, either joining the British army or fleeing to Canada. The Jones family lost everything. Their immense fortune — including farms, estates, and acreages scattered across Massachusetts — was confiscated.

And Mary? After her splendid wedding in 1772, she and the Reverend Asa Dunbar had settled in Salem, where her husband became pastor of the First Congregational Church. When all hell broke loose, they rushed back to her family estate in Weston so Mary could care for her bereft mother and help her Tory brothers. On that fateful day of April 19, 1775, it was her brother Stephen who showed British soldiers the short way to Lexington so they could reinforce the retreating British troops. Later, her brother Josiah was captured and jailed for bringing food to the British in Boston. Seventy-seven years later, Henry Thoreau recalled what happened after his grandmother carried ripe cherries to her jailed brother: "They secreted knives furnished them with their food sawed the grates off & escaped to Weston. Hid in the cider mill. Mary heard they were in the mill put on her riding hood — was frightend." She captured "Old Baldwin's the sheriff's horse," harnessed him up to the family chaise, and drove to her brother, who with his two fellow escapees whipped up the horse all the way to Portland and "pawned him for 2 bushels of potatoes — wrote back to Baldwin where he'd find his horse by paying charges." No word on whether Baldwin ever got his horse back.

Thoreau's grandfather stayed loyal to his treasonous wife even though his own sympathies were with the Patriots. Asa Dunbar must have had a golden tongue, for when suspicion turned on him, he protested his innocence and was believed. When deteriorating health forced him to resign the Salem ministry, he reinvented himself as a lawyer. In 1782 he resettled his family in the frontier town of Keene, New Hampshire, where his nephew was the Episcopal minister. For a few years the family throve: Asa became a charter member (and the first Master) of a Masonic Lodge and was elected first town clerk and then selectman. It was a bustling, full household when Mary gave birth to her sixth child, Cynthia, on May 28, 1787. But not a month later, Asa took ill, and in two days he was dead. The town, shocked, buried him with full Masonic honors.

Mary Jones Dunbar was now a widow with a houseful of children, little money, and no family. Resourceful as ever, she turned her house into a licensed tavern; her children served the customers. Keene, the county seat, was a favorite stop on the road to Boston, and Mary's tavern stood on the highway in the heart of town. Captain Jonas Minott regularly traveled that highway. A Concord farmer with property in New Hampshire, Captain Minott had earned his title before the American Revolution — indeed, it was he who warned the British that American militia were expected "to meet at one minutes warning equipt with arms and ammunition." When the alarm came and his own militia arrived late, Minott was suspected of lingering Tory sympathies — a failure that led, ironically, to the town's signature: the Concord Minutemen. Minott, a widower since 1792, married the plucky Mary Jones Dunbar in 1798. Mary moved her family into his farmhouse on Virginia Road, where Cynthia Dunbar, then eleven years old, finished growing up.

Cynthia long remembered the quiet on the eastern edge of Concord's Great Field. All she heard on summer nights was "the lowing of cows, or cackling of geese," or perhaps Joe Merriam whistling to his team; "she used to get up at midnight and go and sit on the door-step when all in the house were asleep, and she could hear nothing in the world but the ticking of the clock in the house behind her." Virginia Road was named, according to tradition, for "Old Virginia," a freed slave who built his cabin on the outskirts of Concord and wore the footpath walking to town. Today its curves have been smoothed to speed cars on their way to corporate parks and shopping malls, but in those days it was "an old-fashioned, winding, at-length-deserted pathway" with mossy banks and tumbling stone walls. In 1798, the farm was already 150 years old, and the fine high-style farmhouse, built decades before, had already seen one generation grow up and leave. Now the old house was filled again, with a new generation carrying on what was, and remains today, one of America's oldest farms.

Cynthia also remembered Cold Friday: January 19, 1810, when "the people in the kitchen ... drew up close to the fire, but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them, close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires." Jack Garrison, one of the laborers keeping warm that night in Cynthia's kitchen, was new in town, an escaped slave from New Jersey. Soon he would marry and establish his own farm nearby; he and Henry Thoreau would often work together. John Thoreau was not by Cynthia's fire that night, for his store was still disintegrating and he still had ahead of him his adventure selling to the Indians in Bangor. But by 1811, John was back in Concord, and the romance quickened through the harvest and into the winter months. By February 1812, Cynthia was pregnant with Helen. Three months later, on May 11, Rev. Ezra Ripley married Cynthia Dunbar and John Thoreau at the First Parish Church. By the time Helen Louisa Thoreau was born on October 22, her parents were living in the Virginia Road farmhouse and carrying on the farm, while John clerked at Josiah Davis's store in town. The years ahead were crowded with uncertainties, but from then on, John and Cynthia Thoreau faced them together.

Excerpted from "Henry David Thoreau: A Life" by Laura Dassow Walls. Copyright © 2013 by Laura Dassow Walls. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews