III. Thoreau and Maps


Supporting Maine History. The focus of our work is, of course, Maine and its history. Our collecting policy emphasizes the preservation of materials with a clear Maine connection, and many of our special public programs address Maine concerns.

Maps are integral to many aspects of Maine history, most obviously in relation to the many explorers and travelers who traced the region’s coasts, rivers, and hills and to the division of the interior into towns for sale and settlement. These two themes coincide when Henry David Thoreau first traveled into the Maine woods in 1846 during his second summer at Walden. Thoreau’s profession as a land surveyor in Massachusetts (items 7 and 8) presented him with a significant paradox. While his work took him repeatedly into the woods around Concord and permitted him to observe nature closely, each survey inevitably presaged further human modification of the landscape and destruction of those woods. Thoreau nonetheless held all maps up to a high standard for both topographical and geometrical accuracy. He was therefore very disappointed that the standard map of Maine (item 5) seemed to bear little relationship to the actual rivers and lakes of the interior; he much preferred a less common, but higher resolution, map of Maine’s public lands (item 6). For more information about Thoreau, his surveying, and his use of maps at Walden Pond and in Maine, see Kent Ryden, “‘A Labyrinth of Errors’: Thoreau, Cartography, & The Maine Woods,” in his Landscape with Figures: Nature & Culture in New England (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001), 96-134.

5. “A Labyrinth of Errors”

Moses Greenleaf — land agent, developer, and state booster — first published this large wall map in 1829 as part of his attempt to attract new investment and settlers to Maine’s interior. He included New Brunswick because, at that time, the precise boundary between Maine and Canada remained in dispute. This edition was published after his death by his son (also Moses). While some minor revisions were made of the internal waterways, the map’s interior was still based on outdated surveys and reports from the 1820s and earlier. This particular map was heavily annotated by someone seeking to document the disposition of Maine’s public lands. Such manuscript additions are crucial in helping us understand how maps were used in the past. See Walter M. Macdougall, Settling the Maine Wilderness: Moses Greenleaf, His Maps, and His Household of Faith, 1777-1834, Occasional Publication of the Osher Library Associations, 3 (Portland, Me.: Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine, for the Friends of the Osher Map Library, 2006).

Note: this map offers an important lesson in preservation. Removing its significant water stains would also remove its extensive, unique, and important water-color annotations. We therefore elected to stabilize the map, to prevent further deterioration, but not to restore it to a pristine state.

item image

Moses Greenleaf (1777-1834)
Map of the State of Maine with the Province of New Brunswick, 3rd ed. ([Portland, Me.], 1829|1844)
Copper engraving in four sheets, with hand-applied water color, plus manuscript annotations (ink and water color); 128cm x 103.5cm
Osher Collection

6. “The only [map of Maine] that at all deserves the name”

On the first night out from Bangor on his first trip into the Maine Woods, in 1846, Thoreau stayed in a tavern in Madawamkeag. In his diary, he wrote the following: “The last edition of Greenleaf’s Map of Maine hung on the wall here, and, as we had no pocket map, we resolved to trace a map of the lake country: so dipping a wad of tow into the lamp, we oiled a sheet of paper on the oiled table cloth, and, in good faith, traced what we afterwards ascertained to be a labyrinth of errors, carefully following the outlines of the imaginary lakes which the map contains. The Map of the Public Lands of Maine and Massachusetts is the only one I have seen that at all deserves the name.” From “Ktaadn,” first published in The Union Magazine 3 (1848) and then reprinted as the first part of The Maine Woods, ed. Sophia Thoreau and William Ellery Channing (Boston, 1864).

“The only [map of Maine] that at all deserves the name”

One provision of Maine’s 1820 separation from Massachusetts was the equitable distribution of Maine’s unallocated lands between the two states. As land agent for Massachusetts (1820-1851), Coffin prepared this map in 1835 to help organize the sale and allocation of the lands surveyed both before and after 1820. For more on the division of land, see the contemporary annotations made on item 5. Thoreau’s own copy of Coffin’s map, with his pencil annotations, can be consulted on the
Concord Free Public Library’s website (map 165 in the collection of Thoreau’s surveys and maps).

item image

Coffin, George W. (fl.1811-1865)
A Plan of the Public Lands in the State of Maine Surveyed under Instructions from the Commissioners & Agents of the States of Massachusetts and Maine (Boston, 1835)
Lithograph, in six sheets; each sheet 76cm x 57cm (paper; imprint size varies)
On loan from the Harvard Map Collection, Harvard College Library

7. Thoreau’s Survey of Emerson’s Woodlot

Cooperating with Other Cultural Institutions. Items 6, 7, and 8 have all been borrowed from collections held by other cultural institutions, specifically the Harvard Map Collection in Harvard College Library (item 6) and the American Antiquarian Society (items 7 and 8). These loan items illustrate our policy of collaborating with other cultural institutions in order to extend the reach of our work. In return, we make items from our collections available to other cultural institutions.

The table to the left of the graphic plan lays out the basic methods of land surveying in early America: the surveyor used a compass (see item 10) to define the bearing of each section of boundary line, and a chain (see item 11) to measure its length, or distance. Each corner of the lot was marked by blazing a tree; the blaze-trees around Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wood lot are listed at lower-left. The town line — marked by a dashed line — had already been determined, so Thoreau did not need to survey that line again.

More of Thoreau’s plans of Emerson’s property can be consulted on the
Concord Free Public Library’s website (maps 31a-b and 34 in the collection of Thoreau’s surveys and maps).

item image

Thoreau, Henry David (1817-1862)
“Plat of that part of R W Emerson’s Woodlot and Meadow by Waldon Pond contained within the Lincoln Bounds; the woodlot being a part of what was known in 1746 as Samuel Hapwood’s ‘pasture’ and deeded by him as such to his ‘son Jonathan, tanner.’ Surveyed by H. D. Thoreau March 1850.”
Manuscript (pen and black ink); 51cm x 40.5cm
On loan from, and reproduced here courtesy of, the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.

8. Thoreau’s Survey of John Moore’s Farm

Surveying compasses use magnetized needles which point to the magnetic north pole rather than the true, geographic north pole; they thus measure bearings with respect to magnetic north. But, because magnetic north pole migrates over time, so the angle of “variation” between magnetic and true north at any place also changes over time. Traditionally, surveyors could find the direction of true north by observing the sun at noon, or certain stars at night; this then permitted them to define the magnetic variation. Thoreau recorded the variation on February 3rd, 1853, as being 9?° westerly; when Albert Wood resurveyed portions of Moore’s farm in 1886, he found the variation to have changed by 1½° (although he did not specify whether the change was easterly or westerly). Another of Thoreau’s plans of Moore’s property can be consulted on the Concord Free Public Library’s website (map 94a-c in the collection of Thoreau’s surveys and maps; see also maps 32, 63a, and 63c).

item image

Thoreau, Henry David (1817-1862)
“Plan of John B. Moore’s Farm, Concord, Mass. Surveyed by Henry D. Thoreau Feb. 1853”
Manuscript (pen and black ink), with annotations in red ink made in November 1886 by Albert E. Wood; 39cm x 86.5cm
On loan from, and reproduced here courtesy of, the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.