Thoreau's Life (1817-1862)
Transcendentalists... Concord... Boston
Antislavery... Underground Railroad...
US and world events
Henry David Thoreau (christened David Henry) is born on July
12 in Concord, Massachusetts, to John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau.
Missouri Compromise postpones a national crisis over slavery.
At four or five, Henry sees Walden Pond for the first time. "One
of the most ancient scenes stamped on the tablets of my memory,
the oriental Asiatic valley of my world..."
a planned industrial community for efficient textile manufacture,
entrepreneurs establish Lowell, Massachusetts, on the Merrimack
After attending a private preschool and then public school, Thoreau
attends the newly founded Concord Academy and prepares for college.
of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, advocating
immediate emancipation and racial equality.
of Andrew Jackson.
of David Walker, Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.
Two more editions before Walker's death in 1830. Furious efforts
to suppress it in the South.
1831, January: In Boston,
first issue of William Lloyd Garrison's weekly
paper The Liberator. It will publish without interruption
until the ratification of the XIII Amendment (1865).
Nat Turner leads a slave revolt in Virginia.
Turner is executed in December.
In Boston, Garrison founds
the New England Anti-Slavery Society.
Ralph Waldo Emerson resigns
his Unitarian ministry.
Despite "barely getting in" to Harvard College, Thoreau
maintains above-average grades, continues classical literature,
and studies French, Italian, and German, as well as math, geology,
zoology, botany, and natural and intellectual philosophy.
word "scientist" is coined by William Whewell in England.
It will gain slow acceptance, replacing "natural historian"
or "natural philosopher" only after Thoreau's death.
begins emancipation of slaves in all colonies, including the
Attacks against Boston
abolitionists. Garrison is dragged through tbe streets. The Massachusetts
legislature considers a law banning abolitionist activities.
war against the Seminoles in Georgia and Florida.
In Britain, Queen Victoria begins a reign that will last until her death in
Thoreau reads Emerson's Nature, Goethe, and modern German
philosophy. Emerson addresses his "American Scholar"
to Thoreau's graduating class.
Thoreau receives his degree from Harvard College, graduating
19th in a class of 44.
He meets Emerson, who becomes his mentor and friend: "'What
are you doing now?' he asked. 'Do you keep a journal?' So I make
my first entry today." Thoreau's lifelong Journal will
reach seven thousand pages.
accepts a teaching position at Concord's public school but, unwilling
to administer routine corporal punishments, he resigns after
Thoreau's mother and sisters are among the founding members of
the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Financial panic launches
the U.S.'s first nationwide economic depression. Henry's family's precarious finances will stabilize
only with the success of John Thoreau Senior's pencil-manufacturing
Thoreau reopens the defunct Concord Academy, joined by his older
brother John, Jr. Their private school, featuring nature walks
and reasoned discussion instead of rote learning and corporal
punishment, is a success.
from their homeland, the Cherokees embark on the Trail of Tears.
Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery.
The British Empire completes full
emancipation of slaves.
Thoreau works in his father's home-based pencil factory; gives
first lecture to Concord Lyceum; deepens his friendship with
Henry and his brother John take a boating trip on the Concord
and Merrimack rivers -- the source of Thoreau's first book --
and both court 17-year-old Ellen Sewall. "There is no
remedy for love but to love more."
Horace Mann establishes the first public teacher-training facility
in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Mass., with its enormous complex of mills, has become New England's
second largest city and the industrial center of America.
Cuba, slaves aboard the Amistad revolt and seek refuge
in the United States.
First John and then Henry propose marriage to Ellen Sewall; both
are rejected. Henry publishes poetry and essays in the Dial,
the new Transcendentalist quarterly.
Brook Farm is established
west of Boston "to combine the thinker and the worker in
the same individual." The utopian community, which Thoreau
visits once but never joins, will last until 1847.
Frederick Douglass begins
10-year association with W. L. Garrison.
Supreme Court declares Amistad survivors free to return
The Thoreau brothers close their school due to John's poor health;
Henry moves into Emerson's home as protégé and
Thoreau climbs Mount Wachusett. "We have only to stand
on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon."
The sudden death of brother John from lockjaw is a traumatic
experience for Henry, who succumbs to a psychosomatic or "sympathetic"
lockjaw even though he is not infected.
Later in the year, Thoreau meets a new Concord arrival -- Nathaniel
Hawthorne, who finds him "a genuine observer, which I suspect
is almost as rare a character as even an original poet."
For ten months, Thoreau lives at Staten Island, N.Y., as a tutor
to William Emerson's children. He has no luck with New York publishers,
but newspaper editor Horace Greeley offers help and the two become
In Concord, the last issue
of the Dial is published.
assists in his father's pencil factory, where he makes profitable
improvements in the manufacturing processes. In April, he and
a friend accidentally start a fire in Walden Woods that consumes
300 acres. Some townsmen will never forgive this carelessness.
a midsummer excursion to northwestern Massachusetts, Thoreau
climbs Mount Saddleback (Greylock) and hikes into the Catskills.
In Concord, Emerson speaks publicly against slavery
for the first time.
Slicing through Walden Woods, a new railway runs four
trains a day from Boston to Concord, making the town a suburb.
Lewis Hayden escapes from slavery in Kentucky. He
will settle in Boston in 1849, soon becoming a militant community
Publication of Margaret Fuller,
Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
Publication of Frederick Douglass,
Narrative of the Life...
Thoreau builds and moves into a one-room house at Walden Pond.
He begins to write journal entries destined for some literary
work based on his life at Walden.
James K. Polk sends U.S. troops to the Rio Grande and declares
war on Mexico.
First year of famine
in Ireland. Immigrants begin trickling to America, including the Irish railroad workers, serving-girls
and shanty-dwellers Thoreau meets around Concord and will depict
in Walden and his Journal.
While living at Walden, Thoreau drafts A Week on the Concord
and Merrimack Rivers as a memorial to his brother. He takes
his first trip to the Maine woods.
He conceives the first version of Walden as lecture material
"addressed to my townsmen."
spends one night in jail for refusing to support slavery by paying
the poll tax: "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or
in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?
Why has every man a conscience then?"
1846, August: The
Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society holds its annual fair and
rally in a grove at Walden Pond. Notable speakers (using Thoreau's
front step as the platform) include Emerson and Hayden.
1847, Autumn: After two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau
abandons the house at the pond, accepting an offer to live with
the Emerson household while Ralph Waldo lectures in Europe. Here,
Thoreau will bond with the Emerson children and experience an
intense platonic affection for Lidian (Mrs. Emerson).
collects specimens for the eminent naturalist Louis Agassiz.
He now writes every morning and takes long walks every afternoon.
He reads Coleridge on using natural history to discover laws
of creation, learns taxonomy, and buys botanical and zoological
reference books. The top floor of the family's new house in Concord
will become Henry's combination bedroom, study, and museum for
In Boston, Frederick Douglass meets John Brown.
Douglass now rejects Garrison's non-violent abolitionism in favor
of political engagement.
Women's Rights Convention, Seneca Falls.
In Rochester, Douglass begins publication of his antislavery
periodical North Star.
In Europe, The Communist Manifesto.
Mexico yields two-fifths of its territory (including California)
to the U.S.
Emerson returns from Europe; advises Thoreau to risk underwriting
the publication of his first book, A Week on the Concord and
Merrimack Rivers, himself. The friendship cools on both sides.
Thoreau's first essay on Maine, "Ktaadn," is published
in Sartain's Union Magazine. He begins an intermittent career
as a professional lecturer, enjoying a small wave of celebrity.
He studies surveying, and begins revising Walden, a process
that will occupy years.
The publication of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
is a commercial failure: "I have now a library of nearly
nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."
"Resistance to Civil Government" (later known as "Civil
Disobedience") is published by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
in the first and only issue of Aesthetic Papers.
Thoreau writes journal pages on the decline of his friendship
Thoreau begins to mark a lightly revised Walden for printing,
expecting publication soon. This early version of Walden,
driven by Thoreau's satirical criticism of contemporary values
and false reforms, still lacks many nature passages now considered
Thoreau adopts a more intense, professional approach to nature
study, beginning to sketch out a life's work in this field. He
takes a first trip to Cape Cod.
Death of Thoreau's sister Helen, a schoolteacher, from tuberculosis.
discovered in California, triggers a massive westward rush: "That
so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding
the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value
to society! And that is called enterprise!"
U.S. enacts into law the Compromise of 1850,
including the Fugitive Slave Law, authorizing slaveholders and
slave-catchers to seize runaways in the free states.
Publication of Emerson, Representative Men.
Publication of Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter.
Death of Margaret Fuller
in a shipwreck; Thoreau travels to Fire
Island to recover her personal effects, but finds little. "Once...
it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body..."
works frequently as a surveyor; visits Canada (Québec),
reads natural history of Alexander von Humboldt. He is elected
to the Boston Society of Natural History.
The bulk of Thoreau's writing -- more
systematic, more detailed observations -- is now done in the
Journal, which Thoreau shapes into a distinctive vehicle for
multiple purposes, composing long entries from notes gathered
during walks. This way he can preserve a new spontaneity and
immediacy of style.
Thoreau ceases thinking of Walden as
Thoreau tours steam-powered textile mills at Clinton,
1851, February: Boston becomes a testing ground of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Virginia refugee Shadrach Minkins, arrested in
spirited into safety by African American activists led by Lewis
Hayden with the support of an antislavery crowd. Hayden conceals
Minkins and brings him to an Underground Railroad safe house
in Concord, en route to freedom in Canada.
Refugees pass though Concord irregularly as a stop on their
journey to Canada and freedom. One safe house is that of the
Thoreaus, lifelong abolitionists. Henry is one of the town's
most frequent conductors.
throughout Massachusetts, definitively splits from Garrison.
Hayden leads an attempted
rescue of arrested fugitive
Thomas Sims, but pro-government forces are too vigilant this
increases his gathering of scientific and technical data during
walks in the woods; he begins to read Darwin.
of Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale.
Publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe,
Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly, a best-seller
that crystallizes wide public sentiment against slavery (but
is criticized by Garrison in The Liberator).
Thoreau begins using his Journal to revise Walden extensively.
He develops Walden with less insistence on outward social
reform and on displaying his alternative life style as a counterexample,
and more as a personal journey involving uncertainty and discovery.
By developing the cycle of the seasons into
the book's primary structure, Thoreau transforms Walden
into the story of his quest, passing through various changes
marked by the progress of the seasons and advancing towards self-knowledge.
With less editorializing in the new sections, he writes less
explicitly about himself, relying more on the perfect correspondence
between man and nature to give his descriptions human significance.
The storytelling takes on mythic and archetypal dimensions.
Thoreau's friendship with Emerson reaches a low point.
Thoreau: "Talked, or tried to talk,
to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lost my time nay, almost my identity."
Emerson: "Henry is militant... does
not feel himself except in opposition."
Thoreau takes a second trip to the Maine woods. He publishes
the first parts of A Yankee in Canada, as well as pre-publication
excerpts from Walden, in Putnam's Monthly.
Beecher Stowe visits Hayden in Boston,
includes his narrative in A Key to Uncle
Tom's Cabin, Presenting the Original Facts and Documents...
The Kansas-Nebraska Bill repeals
the Missouri Compromise, leading to armed conflict in "bleeding
The Fugitive Slave Law
is reaffirmed in Boston
with the the arrest, trial,
and rendition of Virginia refugee Anthony Burns, amid widespread
protests. Hayden and others lead an ill-fated rescue effort that
leaves one man dead. President Pierce orders
troops to Boston.
Thoreau reacts to the Burns affair with "Slavery in Massachusetts."
Beyond nonviolent refusal, Thoreau begins to accept the need
for violent resistance against slavery: "I need not say
what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up, but
as I love my life, I would side with the light, and let the dark
earth roll from under me, calling my mother and my brother to
Publication of Thoreau, Walden, or, Life in the Woods.
Thoreau notes only two words about it in his Journal, yet is
seen walking through the town "in a tremble of great expectation,
looking like the undoubted King of all American lions" (Emerson).
First Cape Cod essays published in Putnam's Monthly; Thoreau
takes a second trip to Cape Cod.
of Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.
Brief excursions by Thoreau to various parts of New England and
to New Jersey; in Brooklyn, Thoreau meets Whitman and reads Leaves
of Grass, second edition: "We ought to rejoice greatly
Massachusetts antislavery Senator
Charles Sumner is attacked on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Thoreau makes a third trip to Cape Cod and a third trip to the
Maine woods; his second Maine woods essay is published; he meets
John Brown in Concord.
Economic panic of 1857.
U.S. Supreme Court finds against Missouri slave Dred Scott and declares citizenship impossible for African
Americans, a decision sharply denounced in Northern antislavery
Death of Henry's father; Henry takes over pencil factory; lectures
John Brown leads a disastrous antislavery raid
on Harpers Ferry. Captured and tried, he is sentenced to death.
Thoreau stirs controversy with a spirited defense of John Brown:
"I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee
circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable."
Publishes essays on Brown, who is executed in December.
Publication of Charles Darwin, The Origin
of Species, a strong influence upon Thoreau's nature studies.
Thoreau reads his lecture "The Succession of
Forest Trees," his major contribution to science, in Concord.
Thoreau aggravates a severe cold while counting tree
rings in Walden Woods, the onset of his fatal illness.
research notes on American Indians reach eleven volumes; declining
health forces him to suspend plans for a book.
Abraham Lincoln is elected
President, sparking the Confederate secession.
As his tuberculosis deepens into consumption, Thoreau visits
Minnesota in search of drier climate. (See
Corinne Smith's new research, posted at the Thoreau Institute's site.)
Confederates fire on Fort
Sumter. Beginning of Civil War.
23,000 men die in the battle of Shiloh.
Thoreau declares he can never recover
while the war lasts, because he is "sick for his country."
1862, May 6:
"For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to
be buried in it." Death of Thoreau at the family home.
1862, May 9:
Thoreau is laid to rest in the New Burying Ground, his casket
covered with wildflowers. "The country knows not yet, or
in the least part, how great a son it has lost." (Emerson)
proclaims emancipation of slaves in the free states. "We
were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky... we were
watching by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new
day," declares Douglass. "We were longing for the answer
to the agonizing prayers of centuries."