History Spotlight: Who Was Henry David Thoreau?

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One of Concord, Massachusetts’ most famous residents, Henry David Thoreau was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. Born on July 12, 1817, he’s most famous for his book Walden and his essay “Civil Disobedience.” However, he also wrote many journals, poems, and unfinished manuscripts that were published after his death on May 6, 1862.

Walden, first published in 1854, is considered to be one of the great pieces of American literature. A reflection of Thoreau’s experiment in “simple living” while residing in a cabin he built on Walden Pond, it details his experience over the course of two years, two months, and two days. The book is equal parts memoir, social experiment, satire, and quest for spiritual discovery. Some even see Walden as a manual for self-reliance, especially as Thoreau makes precise scientific observations of the natural world.

His other famous work, the essay “Civil Disobedience,” first published in 1849, argues for disobedience against an unjust state. Motivated by his repulsion of slavery and the Mexican-American War, he argues that people should not allow their government to overrule or atrophy their consciences. That through inaction people allow their governments to turn them into agents of injustice.

Thoreau’s works are acknowledged to have shaped the beliefs of several influential figures. John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi were all inspired by his writings.

His mentor was fellow Concord naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he lived with and whose children he tutored. The cabin he stayed in that inspired Walden was in fact built on land owned by Emerson. They were good friends, with Emerson even writing the eulogy given at Thoreau’s funeral.

Henry David Thoreau graphic with quote

Thoreau Farm: Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau

341 Virginia Road Concord, MA

Come to where it all began and visit Thoreau Farm, the Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau. On Saturdays and Sundays from May through October, you can get a guided tour of the restored 1730s house known locally as “Thoreau Farm.” This tour includes the lovingly restored second-floor room where Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817.

Though visits to the house are by guided tour only, you can still visit the grounds or contact the farm to arrange a non-weekend date for a tour. Come learn about the birthplace of Henry David Thoreau and learn lessons about living deliberately and in harmony with nature.

Concord Museum

53 Cambridge Turnpike, Concord, MA

The Concord Museum possesses the largest collection of objects related to Thoreau’s life and family. The collection consists of 250 artifacts, consisting of furniture, ceramics, books, manuscripts, and photographs. More than half of the items were given to the museum by his sister, Sophia Thoreau, to help preserve her brother’s legacy.

See the desk where Thoreau wrote Walden and other manuscripts. The collection also includes an incomplete collection of his drafting tools that he used for surveyor work, which was one of the many jobs he took on to pay debts and support his writing passion. There’s even a lock that might have belonged to the cell he was held in that inspired “Civil Disobedience.”

The museum is open year-round and walk-in visitors are welcome.

Walden Pond State Reservation

915 Walden Street Route 126, Concord

Now a National Historic Landmark, you can visit Walden Pond itself and become one with nature. Explore the famous woods that Ralph Waldo Emmerson once owned and that Thoreau once walked through. 

Take a self-guided walk around the pond with Thoreau, beginning at a replica of his cabin and continuing past the original site of his modest dwelling. Enjoy a relatively easy hike down a dirt path and around the pond, taking in the peace and beauty of nature as he once did.

Walden Pond is also great for activities like non-motorized boating, cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking, biking, picnicking, and swimming. There is a daily parking fee of $5 but the reservation is open from 5am to a half-hour before sunset year-round.

Walking around Walden Pond

Brister’s Hill

Walden Woods, Concord

A few hundred feet from Walden Pond lies Brister’s Hill, a nineteen acre open space area saved from development, preserved and owned by the Walden Woods Project.

Among its 0.8 miles of public trails is Thoreau’s Path on Brister’s Hill, where Thoreau’s words are carved in granite and cast in bronze throughout the landscape. These words illustrate the philosopher’s powerful observations and insights. This self-guided, interpretive trail honors his legacy as one of America’s great naturalists.

Thoreau was a frequent visitor to Brister’s Hill and late in his life he conducted studies in forest succession. These studies resulted in his posthumous essays, “The Succession of Forest Trees” and “The Dispersion of Seeds.”

This trail is free and open year-round with parking at Walden State Pond Reservation. Dogs are welcome but must be leashed.

The Thoreau Society Shop at Walden Pond

915 Walden St. Concord, MA

The Shop at Walden Pond is a store that carries products related to Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond, and other famous historical authors that called Concord home. It’s located at the deep and beautiful kettle pond where Thoreau lived during the two years, two months, and two days he based his book Walden around.

Open year-round, the shop’s staff are knowledgeable about Thoreau, his contemporaries, and the local wildlife and history. The shop’s merchandise is primarily related to Thoreau and includes books, apparel, artwork, stationary, gifts, jewelry, and other souvenirs. Sales benefit the Thoreau Society, which is the oldest and largest author society in the United States.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

34 Bedford St, Concord

Pay your respects to the famous author and naturalist at his final resting place in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. He was originally buried with his grandparents in the Dunbar plot, but was later moved, along with his father and siblings, to their own family lot on Author’s Ridge.

Henry David Thoreau left an enduring legacy, with works that inspired presidents, naturalists, and revolutionaries. He is one of Concord’s most celebrated historical figures and authors whose works endure even to this day.

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