Searching for the Lost Maps of Henry David Thoreau
New York Times/Mattson Lecture
Osher Map Library
University of Southern Maine
An article based on this lecture and intervening research will be pubished in the March 2011 issue of the Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies.
The human organism has rarely been subjected to a severer test than the study of scientific problems, nor is there a truer hero than an investigator who never loses heart in a life-long grapple with the powers of the universe. It requires courage of the highest order to stand for years face to face with one of the enigmas of nature; to interrogate patiently, and hear no answers....
Synopsis of the text of my lecture at the re-opening of the Osher Map Library and the "New Directions in the Study of Early American Cartographies" Conference...
In April of 1858, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a letter to his friend H.S. Randall, wrote that, “Thoreau’s study seems at present to be equally shared between natural and civil history,” and that “he reads both with a keen and original eye.”
The civil history that Emerson refers to here is the history of the early exploration and discovery of the North American continent, especially the northeastern coast of New England and Canada. During the last 12 years of his life, from about 1850 thru 1862, Henry David Thoreau dedicated himself to historical and scientific studies that have either been ignored by or have puzzled generations of his commentators. What was the author of Walden and other works of transcendental literature doing out “in all weathers” as Emerson would say, counting tree rings, measuring the differences in the magnetic variation of compass needles, mapping the depths of streams or listing the blooming of plant species. Why was he borrowing the earliest exploration narratives of the New World from the Harvard Library, taking detailed notes on the names of places and the plants and animals mentioned, and making scaled copies of some of the earliest maps of North America?
During these last, but extremely productive, years of Thoreau’s life his interests turned sharply toward these types of more empirical and less transcendental studies—Thoreau being less influenced in his work at this time by Emerson than by the geographically oriented science of Humboldt and Darwin. Thoreau believed that the secrets of nature, and of humanities place within it, were ultimately revealed by identifying what was significant in the everyday world and that this in turn depended on meticulous attention to and an accounting of, the commonplace.
In this spirit Thoreau’s writings such as the Maine Woods, Cape Cod, Walden, A Yankee in Canada, his natural history essays, and of course his journals have occasionally been probed by humanist geographers and linked with the beginnings of modern environmental thought…this linkage stems mostly from Thoreau’s intense concern with the concept of place and his ability to see deep connections between historical process and environmental change.
Tonight I am going to talk to you about this linkage in a slightly different way than those geographers and historians who have probed Thoreau’s writings…for tonight rather than concentrate on his published works…I am going to speak with you about his cartography and how Thoreau’s cartographic explorations provided a link in his mind between natural and civil history… a link that led him to a very modern sense of man’s place in nature. To do this I am going to discuss, in more detail than perhaps has been done before, several important aspects of Thoreau’s mostly unknown and certainly understudied cartographic works
The first aspect, and perhaps the most important for his technical understanding of cartography and the process of mapmaking, was his work as a land surveyor. This work gave Thoreau the ability to look at maps critically and to understand not only their mathematical limits but also their broader cultural meaning. It also allowed him to wander the fields and woodlots of Concord and to observe nature closely in all seasons…in a way that his fellow transcendentalists certainly never would have.
The field notebook appears on the surface uninteresting as it is filled for the most part with measurements and locations…places around Concord, MA that Thoreau surveyed. But it provides a detailed record not only of how Thoreau worked but also how he approached the more technical aspects of cartography and we shall return to this notebook many times this evening. Thoreau surveyed many places around Concord and the list of his clients reads like a library of early American authors. Places like Bronson Alcott’s farm shown here.
Thoreau took much more from Galbraith than mere mathematical instruction. In a journal entry dated June 9th of 1850 Thoreau lists nine books recommended by Galbraith’s text regarding the esoteric subject of the magnetic variation of compass needles. I am going to spend some time with this subject because I believe it shows how Thoreau thought through and imagined the complexities of mapmaking and his engagement with the subject can be used as a model for us to think through his transition from an Emersonian transcendentalist…to the more empirical view of the world that informed his readings and use of early American cartography
Thoreau’s interest in magnetic variation is first indicated on his advertising broadside where he explains the variation of the compass is noted so that the survey can be repeated.
Throughout the early 1850’s one finds references throughout his journals and field notebooks made to the books and articles Thoreau read on the subject and to the observations of compass needle variations that he made in and around Concord.
Magnetic declination for those of you who do not know is the variation that we see between magnetic north, or the north that a compass needle points to, and true north, the direction of the pole. The variation in the compass needle is caused by the earth’s magnetic field and was the subject of a great deal of scientific research in the mid-19th century. The exact direction that a compass needle points to is not constant even for a specific location, and although few people would notice these small changes, Thoreau, noted them quite explicitly…for example…in November of 1850, he made an entry in his journal that marks the beginning of what would be almost an obsession with the subject…
“When I am considering the way which I walk, my needle is slow to settle, my compass varies by a few degrees and does not always point due southwest; and there is good authority for these variations in the heavens…”
Thoreau’s interest is more than just passing and he delves into the science of magnetic declination in a way that would become representative of his work not only in natural history but also in the way he approached cartography as well. In his field notebook he explains how he established the True meridian so he could continually check his surveys against the variation of his compass needle
True meridian slide
• Found the direction of the pole star at its western elongation (1,58-1/2) at 9h 26m PM (Feb 7th 1851).
• N coincides with a line drawn from the SE course of the stone post on the E side of our western small front gate, to the S side of the first door on the W side of the depot.
Thoreau has measured a reference line for the direction of true north… from the west gate of his home in Concord to the depot across the street.
By establishing a sight line for the True Meridian from his family’s house to the depot, Thoreau could easily check the declination of his compass before or after surveying. Thoreau would begin to include this information on his surveys even though it makes little difference to the purpose of the survey itself. For example we can see on his survey of Hosmer’s farm that Thoreau has added compass headings to each of the boundaries.
He would also go as far as to contact and correspond with William Cranch Bond, the director of the Harvard Observatory. Bond was conducting experiments in magnetic variation in Cambridge, and took thousands of measurements on magnetic declination in order to try to predict the changes that he and Thoreau saw in compass needles, a phenomenon that we now know to be chaotic. One can see just how chaotic by looking at one of the many graphs of Bond’s published measurements that Thoreau certainly read.
One of the most amazing and important things about all this material is how it shows a change in Thoreau’s thought process and his turn away from the transcendentalist mode of thought that drove his early works. Among transcendentalists' core beliefs, at least as it was realized by Emerson, was an ideal spiritualstate that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition. In other words a real mind over matter philosophy. Emerson found little of higher worth in the empirical and downgraded most of science as “mere facts”. Thoreau would begin by the early 1850’s to leave these idealist tendencies behind and turn toward more realist studies of nature and history…to the point that by late 1852 he could write in his journal seemingly against Emerson, that “Mere facts & names & dates communicate to us much more than we suspect…”
This empirical turn toward a more scientific world view… would influence all of Thoreau’s thought from around 1852 onwards. Although we can never really call Thoreau a thinker who fully embraced the pure empiricism of late 19th century science, there is a change in his thought that effects all of his reading and observations even his interpretation of the early exploration narratives and the history of cartography… it is to his cartographic explorations that we will now turn…
This second part of the notebook contains notes from Thoreau’s reading of early exploration narratives and maps by such figures as Champlain, Lescarbot, John Smith, Ortelius and Wytfliet. Thoreau takes note of specific subjects like the changing of place names, the plants and animals that the explorers encountered, the size and flow of rivers, temperatures, snowfall, and the changing shape of the lakes and rivers shown on their maps. In other words facts, empirical data that describes the landscape and the conditions of place. This type of description is paralleled in his journal entries at the time where he is noting things like stream depths, tree ring counts, snowfall, and the blooming times of plants that he observed during his surveying of woodlots and farms around the Concord countryside.
Even as Thoreau was taking detailed notes on the maps and information found in these early exploration narratives he expressed his frustration with the study of human versus natural history. In his journal, on October 19, 1860, he writes,
“It is easier far to recover the history of the trees which stood here a century or more ago than it is to recover the history of the men who walked beneath them, How much do we know---how little more can we know—of these centuries of Concord life?”
It was to answer this question that Thoreau turned to early cartography and the texts that accompanied them. In the back of the Canadian notebook written in Thoreau’s hand, but in pencil, and in the wrong direction if one is reading from the front, Thoreau composes the following list of maps that he has copied…
“I have copied maps made ac. to…”
1.Verarzani’s plot in Hacklyts divers voyage 1582
2. Map made in forme sent from Seville in 1527 by Thorne
3. Map of Nova Francia etc. in Ramurio 3rd volume (1556) ac to discourse of a great sea captiane
4. Of America in Ortelius (1570 &e) who used Cabot and others
5. Of Norumbega and Virginia 1597 Wytfliet Lovanni
6. Nouvelle France Champlain 1612, 1632
The second map found in the Concord Library is that of Cornelius Wytfleit. Wytfliet was a Flemish geographer who published an atlas called Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum in 1597. This sketch, which is cruder than the Ortelius, was made in 1855 again from a book borrowed many times from Harvard Library.
Of all of the notes in the Canadian notebook about cartography, by far the most extensive are associated with the narrative of Champlain’s voyages…time and time again Thoreau will borrow the 1613 and 1632 editions of this book from the Harvard Library…
Champlain made several voyages to the New World and explored the St. Lawerence River, along with most of the New England coast, at least as far south as Cape Cod. The narrative of his voyages is filled with maps and his reflections on the explorations.
But what about the two Champlain maps on Thoreau’s list of the maps he copied???…they appear in no inventory of any library, they are talked about in no scholarly articles and appeared to me to be lost.
Then one day, when I first came to the Library of Congress, almost ten years ago I happened to be doing some research on Thoreau and the depth of Walden Pond when Ron Grim…now of the Boston Public Library, mentioned to me that there were several maps in the Geography and Map Division thought to be by Thoreau but with no real attributions. Curious about this but not expecting much…for how could maps by Thoreau be sitting in the Library of Congress without firm attributions…I opened the folder and saw a manuscript…
While the finding of the two Champlain maps completes the list of the known cartographic copies that Thoreau made… it has opened up the question of how to understand Thoreau’s geographic explorations in relation to some of his larger projects and published works. For Thoreau’s relationship to cartography is a complicated one and has suffered from a lack of scholarly attention. In general Thoreau seems to have remained skeptical of maps even as he made constant use of them…in his journals he wrote,
How little there is on an ordinary map! ...between those lines indicating roads is a plain blank space in the form of a square or triangle or polygon or segment of a circle, and there is naught to distinguish this from another area…for on it are no moral lessons…
And in the Maine Woods he tells us that maps are “labyrinths of error.”
Thoreau’s true attitude toward cartography is not difficult to assess, if one takes the time to read through his extensive notes on the subject closely. The notes express an immediacy of experience that occurs when one is reading and observing directly…Thoreau did not think of historic maps from the past as obsolete, but rather as graphic and ideological documents that could help him understand what had been in a particular place before…In many ways we can consider Thoreau the first "modern" historian of cartography.
To conclude, I want to return to one of Thoreau’s surveys.
It is a simple drawing of a woodlot but I think it sums up Thoreau’s relationship to cartography and its influence on his work. The surveying of woodlots was very much part of Thoreau’s daily routine and it took him into areas of Concord seldom seen by his fellow citizens…surveying a woodlot generally meant the lumber it contained was up for sale and it was going to be cut down. Thoreau would return to the lots after they had been cut and in his journals noted in detail the succession of plants and trees that would follow…these notes would result in Thoreau’s most important work of natural history, “The Dispersion of Seeds”, which he composed shortly after reading Darwin in 1860…
Unfortunately, Thoreau did not live long enough to complete the great work on geography and the indigenous peoples of North America that his extensive notes in the Canadian and Indian notebooks would lead us to believe he was working on…all we have are the notes…more than 4000 pages of them unpublished
I have said that in what Thoreau wrote in these notebooks, as dry and factual as they are, we get a sense of a transition, an empirical turn, that not only occurs in his thought, but that would begin to lay the foundations of modern geography and environmental history…
Besides this however, we may also sense something more important…something deeper that you can all take pride in tonight… Thoreau used many books, articles and maps in these notes, most of which were read in libraries just like the one we celebrate this weekend. In his life and work we can see how something as humble and as common, as book or a map in a library…can spark the imagination and inspire great thoughts…without a library there would be no Henry David Thoreau, there would be no notes and drawings for us to wonder and marvel at this evening… like Thoreau’s notes, libraries, through their collections of books, manuscripts and maps teach us that…
“Mere facts & names & dates communicate to us more than we suspect…”
Thank you all for listening….