Henry David Thoreau and the United States Coast Survey

Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s most prominent environmental writers, supported himself as a land surveyor for much of his life, parceling land that would be sold off to loggers. In the only study of its kind, Patrick Chura analyzes this seeming contradiction to show how the best surveyor in Concord combined civil engineering with civil disobedience.

Placing Thoreau’s surveying in historical context, Thoreau the Land Surveyor explains the cultural and ideological implications of surveying work in the mid-nineteenth century. Chura explains the ways that Thoreau’s environmentalist disposition and philosophical convictions asserted themselves even as he reduced the land to measurable terms and acted as an agent for bringing it under proprietary control. He also describes in detail Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden Pond.

By identifying the origins of Walden in—of all places—surveying data, Chura recreates a previously lost supporting manuscript of this American classic. In part, it is a book about the recovery of history.

Excerpt from Thoreau the Land Surveyor

In the decade before the publication of Walden in 1854, the U.S. Coast Survey, led by charismatic superintendent Alexander Bache, was the most important scientific institution in America, attracting some of the country’s best minds in fields ranging from astronomy to marine biology. The annual reports of the Coast Survey published not only new harbor maps but findings about marine plant and animal life, coastal climatology, tides and currents, and terrestrial magnetism. Beginning in the 1840s, Bache also democratized the survey by employing “tidal observers,” common citizens sometimes using equipment no more sophisticated than a weighted cod line, to provide preliminary data for Coast Survey use. As an important intellectual pursuit and a specifically American cultural activity, the Coast Survey became a focal point for the nation’s ideas about economics and the environment, an arena in which higher mathematics interacted with patriotic and commercial interests on a large scale.

The widespread publicity and models of scientific procedure generated by the Coast Survey likely had an important cross-disciplinary influence on Henry Thoreau, both prompting him to conduct measuring experiments and offering him precedents for affording them meaning. In Cape Cod, Thoreau’s many landscape measurements suggest that Coast Survey methods were well integrated into his thought processes and that his identity as a surveyor derived in part from the perceptual attitude of one of Bache’s tidal observers.

Soon after arriving on his first visit to Cape Cod in 1849, Thoreau used a makeshift quadrant to determine the vertical height of the Highland lighthouse:

I borrowed the plane and square, level and dividers, of a carpenter who was shingling a barn nearby, and using one of those shingles made of a mast, contrived a rude sort of quadrant, with pins for sights and pivots, and got the angle of elevation of the bank opposite the light house, and with a couple of cod-lines the length of its slope, and so measured its height on the shingle.

Unhindered by the lack of a compass and chain on this trip, Thoreau paced out distances and conducted topographical studies with pretensions to mathematical precision, the processes and results of which formed a significant part of his literary text.

Chapter 5 of Cape Cod, which recounts Thoreau and Ellery Channing’s overnight stay at the cottage of Wellfleet oysterman John Newcomb, is particularly rich in surveying terminology. The oysterman’s remark about the incompetent surveyors of his own property—that “they who surveyed his farm were accustomed, where the ground was uneven, to loop up each chain as high as their elbows; that was the allowance they made, and he wished to know if I could tell him why they did not come out according to his deed, or twice alike”—provided Thoreau with the chance to disparage bad surveying procedures. But rather than explaining the inaccuracies that would result from such crude slope-chaining techniques, Thoreau took a humorous stance by commenting that Newcomb “seemed to have more respect for surveyors of the old school, which I did not wonder at.”

In response to Newcomb’s questions about his background, Thoreau gave a curious answer: “I told him that I was a surveyor.” The statement is interesting because at the time this conversation took place, Thoreau was not a surveyor in the professional sense. Other than the as-yet-unpublished map of Walden Pond and some work for Ralph Waldo Emerson, he had produced only one known survey before 1849. The conclusion that Thoreau saw himself as a kind of surveyor, in particular a type of informal Coast Survey correspondent, before he began working professionally is inevitable. Where his sense of himself was concerned, Thoreau had been a type of surveyor since the early 1840s, when he and his brother John took schoolchildren into the fields to teach them mathematics by conducting differential leveling operations, or since 1846, when he had decided on his own to carefully measure and map Walden for no reason other than curiosity and love for the pond. To some extent, he had been a surveyor in outlook for his entire adult life, and running lines for his neighbors, or emulating Bache, were indications of mental habits that had been with him from the beginning.

In Walden, Thoreau’s strong response to Coast Survey methods is even more apparent. Bache’s hydrographic work had clear significance for American commerce, but it somehow mattered also at Walden, where surveying the pond’s frozen surface was explicitly modeled on harbor surveying. Thoreau’s interest in determining a clear picture of the slopes and contours of the pond bottom is analogous to the attempts of the Coast Survey to establish the depths of coastal waters and locate the treacherous shallows and irregularities that could spell disaster for maritime commerce. Accuracy and precision were crucial to Bache’s awe-inspiring project but were equally indispensible in the symbolic nautical world of Walden, and for the same reasons: “For by the error of some calculator,” Thoreau wrote, “the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have reached a friendly pier.”

As an amateur engineer with broad competencies and environmental interests, Thoreau possessed the skills to decipher Coast Survey results, understand their significance, and field-test some of the survey’s insights. To a considerable extent, Thoreau’s description of his pond survey in Walden reads like the published annual reports of the Coast Survey, which Thoreau owned and read. Seemingly aware of this correlation, Thoreau works out comparisons between his small-scale hydrographic work and the deepwater surveying carried on by Bache: “As I sounded through the ice I could determine the shape of the bottom with greater accuracy than is possible in surveying harbors which do not freeze over.” The hypothesis that follows—“I could calculate the variation [in the pond’s depth] for each one hundred feet in any direction beforehand within three or four inches. . . .The effect of water under these circumstances is to level all inequalities”—could easily be appended to one of Bache’s tide tables or reports on the effect of currents on bottom configuration. Finally, the Walden surveyor arrives at a synthesizing insight that might well have interested the coast surveyors as a rudimentary principle. Linking elements of geographic and hydrographic science, Thoreau proposes the rule that “cape becomes bar, and plain shoal, and valley and gorge deep water and channel.” Making an explicit comparison between the waters of Walden and the frontiers of surveying science then being explored by Bache, Thoreau asks, “Who knows but this hint would conduct to the deepest part of the ocean as well as of a pond or a puddle?”

A visual comparison of the Walden map with a typical Coast Survey product strengthens Thoreau’s analogy, showing fundamentally similar cartographic procedure and lexicon. Bache’s “Chart of Ship and Sand Shoal Inlets,” published, like Walden, in 1854, includes a prominent true north and depth soundings at frequent intervals “so as to represent the figure of the [ocean] bottom.” It designates the character of the bottom—“Sand, Mud, Shells, Gravel or Specks”—with abbreviations similar to the “s – soft bottom” and “h – hard” bottom descriptions Thoreau used on his initial draft survey of Walden Pond. Bache’s work helps explain why Thoreau took the trouble to locate and pencil-in on his finished survey the submerged “Sand-bar” at the entrance to the pond’s northern cove. The finding and publication of such shoals and shallows was a chief purpose of the Coast Survey.

For both Bache and Thoreau, precise geographic observations had philosophical potential. Bache’s annual report for 1853 observed that “the charts furnished by the surveys are its most important practical results,” but “in the course of the minute investigations required for this purpose, facts of a striking kind are ascertained.” By accurately determining that the greatest depth of Walden Pond was “exactly one hundred and two feet,” Thoreau gave the lie to legends that it was bottomless, but the real meaning of this critical datum was universal: “What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics.” As Bache saw it, the Coast Survey provided facts that spoke a universal language and observed “strict fidelity to nature,” practices which meshed seamlessly with beliefs about the correspondence between physics and ethics expressed by Thoreau in his pond survey.

. . . “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits,” Thoreau asserted in Walden. In his surveying business, Thoreau carefully followed the complex processes described in the technical surveying manuals of his day. In the numerous surveying-related passages that appear in his literary works, however, Thoreau wrote his own surveying textbook. In doing so, he enriched his literary-philosophical observations with meanings that did not always contradict the norms and standards of his profession but almost never failed to lend them new significance, sometimes in strikingly creative ways. These unconventional rereadings and innovative rewritings of engineering principles comprise ample cultural material and carry considerable political significance. In Cape Cod and Walden, they illustrate how important nineteenth-century surveying procedures were both applied and transformed by Thoreau’s perceptions.
Click here for a collection of scanned land and property surveys of Henry David Thoreau at the Concord Free Public Library.

For more on Thoreau’s surveys, see columnist Wilhelm Schmidt’s February 2009 article, “Thoreau’s Surveys”.

Patrick Chura is associate professor of English at the University of Akron and author of Vital Contact: Downclassing Journeys in American Literature from Herman Melville to Richard Wright. He is the son of a surveyor/civil engineer who, while growing up, often accompanied his father on surveying projects.

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