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Mapping Thoreau Country




Thoreau’s Itinerary

Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

Despite his reputation as the "hermit of Concord," Thoreau traveled widely, if not in comparison to contemporaries who were, at least in his lifetime, more famous, such as his early mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, then at least in contrast to most people in nineteenth-century New England.  He visited cities, towns, and scenic spots throughout Massachusetts, spent considerable time in New York, New Hampshire, and Maine, and passed through several other states on various excursions including a nine-week trip to Minnesota in 1861.

Walking was famously his favorite mode of transport. However, he also traveled by horse cart, rail, steamboat, stagecoach, and his own small boat, the Musketaquid, for excursions such as the trip he took in 1839 with his brother, John Thoreau, to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Mapping Thoreau Country puts these excursions into context and illuminates Thoreau's place-based writings by integrating visual evidence directly into the presentation of historical research. While this approach obliges readers to cross disciplinary boundaries into what may be unfamiliar territory, it also demonstrates how impossible it is to assign Thoreau to any specific literary, political, philosophical, or otherwise circumscribed role in American history.  In his travels across Massachusetts, he appeared, sometimes by turn, sometimes nearly all at once, as a natural philosopher, ethnographer, abolitionist, travel writer, gardener, geographer, surveyor, mystic, farmer, poet, botanist, day laborer, pundit, teacher, historian, and Transcendentalist to boot.

In an effort to provide a coherent overview of his life and times without confining him to any of these roles, Mapping Thoreau Country (MTC) follows in Thoreau's footsteps by adapting his practice of using his trips to various destinations as opportunities for observation and reflection. Thus, his Massachusetts Itinerary includes separate pages of information and commentary on his visits to cities and towns such as Boston and Pittsfield, as well as his excursions to more remote destinations like Mt. Greylock and Nantucket.  It also features a subset of pages on places within his hometown of Concord, starting with his birthplace on Virginia Road and ending with his gravesite in Sleepy Hollow.

We have configured Thoreau's Maps as a separate section, but each of the map pages that we have posted thus far features, along with commentary by leading Thoreau scholars and links to local, regional, and national map collections, links to relevant Itinerary pages so that readers can see how central mapmaking and other aspects of cartography were to all of his work.

As time and funding permit, MTC Massachusetts will be followed by similar digital maps that will track Thoreau's travels in Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Minnesota, along with individual pages that will highlight shorter visits to other states such as Wisconsin.  In the meantime, clicking on the links below will take you to over 30 locations that Thoreau wrote into American history in the course of his adventures in his home state.

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Massachusetts:

"At length we saw the sun rise up out of the sea, and shine on Massachusetts...On every side, the eye ranged over successive circles of towns, rising one above another, like the terraces of a vineyard, till they were lost in the horizon. Wachusett is, in fact, the observatory of the State. There lay Massachusetts, spread out before us in its length and breadth, like a map." --H.D. Thoreau, "A Walk to Wachusetts," 1843. Read more...

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Concord, Massachusetts:

"I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways." --H.D. Thoreau, Walden Read more...