Thoreau's Surveys

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is one of the iconic surveyors of this country: he is a man of renown to whom we point with pride as having been a practitioner of our profession. Of course, he-like several of our presidents-did not achieve that renown by surveying. He did it by writing.
Thoreau's best-known work is Walden, the account of his experiment in simple living. But he is also known for polemical tracts, such as "Civil Disobedience," and nature studies, one of them entitled "Walking." In addition, he kept voluminous journals. Had he not written so much-and written so well-he would have faded into the obscurity that is the fate of most surveyors.

Although surveying is not Thoreau's self-defining occupation, it is his most self-fulfilling. We can only guess that he acquired an interest in it in the course of his study of mathematics at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1837. When he began to teach math at the school he operated with his brother in 1840, he bought a combination circumferenter and level to give the subject "vivid application" (The Days of Henry Thoreau, by Walter Harding, 1966; all the succeeding quotes are from this book).

After their school closed, Thoreau supported himself by doing essentially odd jobs. Partly in self-defense and partly in jest, he cited more than a dozen occupations for the 1847 Harvard yearbook, among them surveying. In the succeeding years, however, he turned to it more and more because he found the work "satisfying and remunerative."

The most intriguing of Thoreau's surveys during this time is the survey of Walden Pond during the winter of 1846. It was generally accepted that the pond was immensely deep, but no one knew how deep. The unknown was a challenge to Thoreau. He set up a grid on the frozen surface of the pond, dug holes in the ice, and plumbed the pond with a weighted string. Plotting his measurements, he produced a plan of the outline of the pond and a profile of its depth.

In 1849, he decided to make surveying his profession. He had a handbill printed, listing the services he offered (see graphic) and bought a notebook, which he inscribed: "Field Notes of Surveys made by Henry D. Thoreau since 1849." He also "made up a list of fourteen books to study, had his compass repaired and inquired about the prices of drawing instruments." (Pencils he apparently got for the asking from his father's factory.) In the following spring, he bought a new compass and chain. For the next 10+ years, he did more than 200 surveys, on average more than 20 a year.

As the word spread of Thoreau's proficiency at surveying, the demand for his services rapidly increased. In 1851, for example, he worked on Daniel Shattuck's new house on January 7, John Hosmer's wood lot on February 5, White Pond for the new official town map on the 17th, Cyrus Stowe's swamp lot on the 20th and 27th, his wood lot in east Concord on March 3, then James McCafferty's farm, Timothy Brooks's estate, and a new street across the railroad tracks for Francis Monroe, land near the factory for Thomas Ford on April 12, a new street and house lots for Cyrus Stow on the 19th, the new courthouse property on the 29th, a new road for the town on May 3, the courthouse lawn, then the West Center School property on May 24 and a boundary line for Mrs. Barber on June 2, a field for James Wood on the 9th, a road in Acton on the 19th and 20th, Edmund Hosmer's farm on the 18th and 21st, a boundary for F. R. Gourgas on the 28th, a new road to Bedford on July 12 and 14, the courthouse fences on August 2, a boundary line for Rockwood Hoar on September 8, the town''s boundaries with the selectmen in mid-September, the boundaries of David Loring's property in mid-October, Reuben Brown Fair Haven Hill lot on October 20, a line for Stow on the 28th, the "Ministerial Lot" for Trustees of the Ministerial Fund in mid-November, the Concord-Carlisle town line for the selectmen in early December, a wood lot for Samuel Barrett on the 6th, and the Ministerial Lot on the 8th and 9th.

The sheer amount and the variety of the work makes one's head spin. He was also involved in lawsuits. In 1853 and again in 1859, Thoreau measured mill dams that had been built, the first on a stream and the second on the Concord River, resulting in damage to crops and grasslands upstream. In 1857, he determined that his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had indeed cut trees that stood on an adjoining property; but he also discovered that an incorrect deed had been provided by the previous owner of the lot, as a result of which the previous owner had to pay the fine imposed by the court. Most of his work was done in and around Concord, but he also surveyed in nearby towns. Several times, he went to Cape Cod, and once as far as Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

Thoreau's last survey is dated December 1, 1860. Soon thereafter, he fell ill and died two years later. Upon his death, his heirs had the good sense to donate his survey plans to the Concord Free Public Library. They were never published in book form. Recently they have, however, been processed and cataloged through a grant from the National Publication and Records Commission and are available over the internet. The web page is entitled "Henry David Thoreau Land and Property Surveys" but can be found by searching for "Thoreau's surveys." The site contains 165 numbered entries, but many are multiple, raising the total to well over 200. Each plan can be downloaded in cropped form as well as enlarged; some of the plans require several pages.

Thoreau had mixed feelings about his success as a surveyor. It had its rewards. It provided him with needed income, as much as three dollars a day. It also took him out of doors and out of town, where he longed to be. Occasionally, the work paid off with the sighting of a bird or a flower he had not seen before, or the finding of an Indian relic. At times, the day's work disposed him toward poetry and music in the evening.

But the work kept him too busy. Being an avid skater, he chided himself one year (1851) for failing to notice sooner that ice had formed sufficient for skating. Being a man of principles, he was disappointed by the greed of his clients. He would ride mutely along with them to a contested boundary. Witnessing one's man's obsession with a boundary stone, he opined that the devil must be his surveyor. 

Throughout his career, however, Thoreau was unstinting in the performance of his work. The practice of his expertise was not simply a matter of technical proficiency to him. It engaged all his personal qualities: his love of nature, his respect for order, and his indomitable character.

About the Author

  • Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm Schmidt is the former owner of the surveying firm Bascom and Sieger in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You may contact him at willischmidt@verizon.net.

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