Thoreau’s New Jersey Connection
by Wayne T. Dilts

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Wayne Dilts is an English teacher in New Jersey, and a Thoreau Society board member.

[1]      People who know of Henry David Thoreau either know that he was the author of Walden, or that he was the guy who lived alone by Walden Pond for a couple of years, or both. But very few know that Thoreau spent a great deal of time surveying properties as a means to make some money. And even fewer know that the largest tract of land he ever surveyed, and the only one outside of Massachusetts, was in New Jersey.

[2]      Thoreau's first survey was of Walden Pond in 1846, while he was living there. He began to do property surveys for a fee in 1849, and for the following 12 years, he executed more than 100 surveys around the Concord area. But the largest tract he surveyed was the 260+ acre undeveloped Eagleswood compound on the banks of the Raritan River in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

[3]      Thoreau was sought out by the owner of Eagleswood, Marcus Spring, to do the survey. That invitation came on a recommendation from Thoreau’s friend, Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, who was on one of his “conversation” tours in New York City in the fall of 1856. Alcott became acquainted with Marcus Spring through Elizabeth Peabody, who had been Alcott’s teaching assistant some years earlier at his Temple School in Boston. Miss Peabody, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister-in-law, was then teaching at the Eagleswood School.

[4]      Thoreau certainly was capable of handling a surveying job of this size. He had been surveying professionally for seven years, and according to the surveys on file at the Concord Free Public Library, had done at least 88 surveys by that time. But Thoreau had never expressed any interest in visiting or working in New Jersey before. He had traveled through the Garden State, when he had made a lecturing trip to Philadelphia in 1853. But there is no evidence that he even set foot in New Jersey at that time.

[5]      It may have been Thoreau’s skill as a surveyor that intrigued Marcus Spring, but it was more than just surveying that Spring wanted. Thoreau also had a reputation as a lecturer, and the offer to survey Eagleswood included the opportunity for Thoreau to present a series of Sunday evening lectures to the Eagleswood residents. Thoreau left Concord for Perth Amboy on October 24 and didn’t return home until November 25.
 

Eagleswood

[6]      Marcus Spring was a philanthropist, an abolitionist, and a Quaker, and he founded the Eagleswood community in Perth Amboy in 1852. The community was centered on present-day Smith Street and included a half-mile frontage on the Raritan River. Marcus and his wife, Rebecca Spring, were New England Quakers and familiar names to Thoreau and Alcott.

[7]      There were two Utopian societies in New Jersey in the 19th century: the first, the North American Phalanx, was founded in 1842 and lasted 12 years; the second was the Raritan Bay Union which was founded by Marcus Spring in 1853.  A year earlier, Spring bought the 268 acres of land on Raritan Bay in Perth Amboy and, along with 30 other families that had all been former members of the Phalanx, established the Raritan Bay Union. Spring had been a Director of the Phalanx and owned several hundred shares of stock but had never lived in that community.

[8]      The Phalanx was based on the principles of Charles Fourier, as had been Brook Farm in Massachusetts at about the same time. The Raritan Bay Union would be less communistic and more like the Religious Union of Association founded in Boston in 1847 by Rev. William Henry Channing, a close friend of the Springs. Society, they felt, would change once it witnessed successful Utopian settlements. Keep in mind that in 1856, there was much debate in this country over the future of the union and that of slavery.

[9]      Raritan Union Bay was different in its economic structure — no member was forced to surrender personal property, and little emphasis was placed on the sharing of labor — more emphasis was placed on education to bring about social change.

[10]      Eagleswood “seems to have been to provide a home and center of activity among sympathetic friends for a group of prominent expatriated Abolitionists,” according to Henry Seidel Canby in his early biography of Thoreau. One of the Eagleswood residents was Theodore Weld, who ran the school, which was the cornerstone of the community’s success. Weld was well known as an outspoken Abolitionist and was “largely responsible for the organization of anti-slavery sentiment throughout the West,” according to Canby. Also a member of the community was former Alabaman J. G. Birney who had freed his slaves in his home state and then became a candidate for U.S. President in 1844. It was Birney’s Presidential candidacy that had split the New York State delegation vote that resulted in James Polk’s election as President. It was Polk who “engineered” the war with Mexico that had stirred so much sympathy in Henry Thoreau in the 1840s.

[11]      The Eagleswood school attracted students from around the country and, run by Weld, was so pivotal to the community’s success that when the Welds left in 1860 because of an illness of their son, the community collapsed.

[12]      The following year, 1861, Spring established the Eagleswood Military Academy on the property. The Academy was successful through the Civil War but closed in the late 1860s. Several years later, the main building became the Eagleswood Park Hotel. Marcus Spring died in 1874 and Rebecca then moved to California. The hotel operated successfully until 1888 when the Eagleswood estate was sold to Calvin Pardee, who began the commercial expansion of the property by establishing a tile business on it.

[13]      A word about Rebecca Spring: in 1859, after hearing about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Rebecca Spring traveled to Charles, West Virginia to see abolitionists Absolom Haslett and Aaron Dwight Stevens, two of John Brown’s raiders who were sentenced to death. She comforted them in their final hours and promised to bury their bodies in “free” northern soil. She brought their two bodies to back with her to Perth Amboy and buried them in a small cemetery on the Eagleswood grounds. In 1899, their remains were transported to North Elba, New York, and were re-buried with the bodies of John Brown and others from the Harpers Ferry incident. And Thoreau knew Rebecca Spring three years earlier.
 

Thoreau Writes About Eagleswood

[14]      Thoreau made five dated entries in his journal while he was in New Jersey, and some were obviously written after he had returned home. For October 24, he wrote:

Friday. 12 M.(noon) – Set out for Eagleswood, Perth Amboy, N. J. Spent the afternoon in Worcester. By cars in evening to Allyn’s Point and Steamer Commonwealth to New York. (J 9, 133)
[15]      Much of what we know of Thoreau’s experiences in New Jersey come from letters that he wrote; there is very little information in his journal. In a letter to his sister Sophia written Saturday, November 1, Thoreau described his impressions, squarely tongue-in-cheek, of the Quakers and their habits.
      This is a queer place …. The city of Perth Amboy is about as big as Concord, and Eagleswood is 1¼ miles S W of it, on the bay side. The central fact here is evidently Mr. (Theodore) Weld’s school — recently established — around which various other things revolve.
[16]      The very night he arrived, Thoreau was invited to attend one of the regular Saturday night outlets of entertainment, a dance. Thoreau wrote, again in his letter to Sophia:
      Saturday evening I went to the school room, hall, or what not, to see the children & their teachers & patrons dance. Mr Weld, a kind looking man with a long white beard, danced with them, & Mr [E. J.] Cutler his assistant, lately from Cambridge, who is acquainted [with F. B.] Sanborn, Mr Spring — and others. This Sat. eve-dance is a regular thing, & it is thought something strange if you dont attend. They take it for granted that you want society! (FL 287)

      Sunday forenoon, I attended a sort of Quaker meeting at the same place — The Quaker aspect & spirit prevails here — (Mrs. Spring says “does thee not?”) — where it was expected the spirit would move me… and it, or something else, did, an inch or so. I said just enough to set them a little by the ears & make it lively…

      I had excused myself by saying that I could not adapt myself to a particular audience, for all the speaking and lecturing here has reference to the children, who are far the greater part of the audience, & they are not so bright as N. E. children….

[17]      An interesting contrast to Thoreau’s opinion of the Eagleswood children as "not so bright" as their New England counterparts is Bronson Alcott’s description, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, of presumably the same children at a similar meeting the Sunday before Thoreau’s lecture. Wrote Alcott, "the children, some thirty or more, and all intelligent and attentive, and making our audiences worthy of our themes, ‘Home and Housekeeping, Marriage and Culture.’”
 

The Surveyor

[18]      Thoreau had never set out to become a surveyor. He was self-taught. How he ended up becoming one is a combination of many things, including his penchant for exactitude, what Emerson called in Thoreau’s eulogy his “natural skill for mensuration, growing out of his mathematical knowledge, and his habit of ascertaining the measures and distances of objects which interested him…. This, and his intimate knowledge of the territory about Concord, made him drift into the profession of land surveyor” (Emerson). It was also due to his love of the outdoors, and his ultimate need to earn money as a result of his foray into publishing.

[19]      Thoreau did not become famous from his writings while he was alive, and he never profited financially as a writer. In fact, he went into debt in order to get his first book published in 1849. And it was this desire to be published and the ensuing debt that prompted Thoreau to earn money by surveying property.

[20]      Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, never sold all of the 1000 copies of the first printing during Thoreau’s lifetime. Even his second book, Walden, published five years later, and which is considered to be his masterpiece, also did not sell well while Thoreau was alive: the first edition of 2000 copies of Walden took almost eight years to sell, and the second printing did not take place until very near the time of Thoreau’s death from tuberculosis in 1862.

[21]      But it was his determination to be an author and his deep belief in what he wrote that prompted him to do something that was difficult for him — to go into debt — for $450 to get A Week published in 1849. And then do something even more foreign to his nature – work for money in order to pay off that debt. It was that same determination and belief that led Thoreau to become a surveyor — first around Concord, then — because his reputation grew as someone reliable — even further, but, until October, 1856, always in Massachusetts.

[22]      By the end of 1856, two years after Walden was published, Thoreau had been surveying properties for seven years, and he was enjoying a growing reputation as a surveyor of merit. The evidence left behind suggests that Thoreau did not think that performing the Eagleswood survey would take as long as it did. That it became much more than he anticipated can be found in a letter he wrote to his friend, Harrison Blake in Worcester, Mass., on November 19th, when he had been at Eagleswood for 25 days already: “I have been here much longer than I expected…” (FL 290).

[23]      Also, in his letter to his sister Sophia after his first week at Eagleswood, Thoreau wrote:

 … I have been constantly engaged in surveying Eagleswood — through woods ravines marshes & along the shore, dodging the tide — through cat-brier mud & beggar ticks — having no time to look up and think where I am……I shall be engaged as much longer. Mr. Spring wants me to help him about setting out an orchard & vineyard — Mr. Birney asks me to survey a small piece for him
[24]      (If he did do a survey for Mr. Birney, it is not included with those in the Concord Free Public Library set).
 

The New Jersey Lectures

[25]      That Thoreau was expected to give lectures while in Perth Amboy, in addition to performing the survey, was evidently one of the reasons Marcus Spring wanted Thoreau to do the survey. Bradley Dean documented a note that Thoreau wrote to Spring before he arrived in New Jersey, saying that he was “bringing compass and lectures as you request” (Dean Lecture 51).

[26]      The three lectures delivered in Perth Amboy were “Moosehunting,” “Walking,” and “What Shall It Profit.” In his November 19 (1856) letter to Blake, he says: “I have read three of my old lectures … to the Eagleswood people, and, unexpectedly, with rare success — i.e., I was aware that what I was saying was silently taken in by their ears.”

[27]      Thoreau only gave a total of four lectures during all of 1856 - he repeated “Walking” in Amherst, New Hampshire, on December 18 that year. All three of the lectures at Eagleswood were delivered on Sunday evenings as part of the community routine, which included those earlier-referred-to Saturday evening dances.

[28]      Thoreau delivered the first lecture on Sunday, October 26, the night after his arrival. He read what he called “Moosehunting” which was first read to the Concord Lyceum on December 14, 1853, as “An Excursion to Moosehead Lake” and included details about one of his trips to Maine. Much of this lecture would later be published as “Chesuncook” in The Atlantic Monthly in June and July, 1858 (Canby 374). The publication of this essay was also what prompted Thoreau to write a scathing letter to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, James Russell Lowell, when changes to his manuscript were made and published without his permission.  Among some of the other things Thoreau wrote, he said, “I could excuse a man who was afraid of an uplifted fist, but if one habitually manifests fear at the utterance of a sincere thought, I must think his life is a kind of nightmare continued into broad daylight” (Canby 375).

[29]      Despite his reservations about his audience being comprised mostly of children, the lecture was apparently successful, as he reported to Sophia: On Sunday evening, I read the moose-story to the children to their satisfaction.

[30]      Because Thoreau did not write much about the surveying or the lectures in Perth Amboy, what we know about his second lecture delivered at Eagleswood, “Walking,” we learn from Bronson Alcott, who recorded in his journal on Nov. 2, 1856:

Evening, Thoreau reads his lecture on Walking to the whole company, and interests his company deeply in his treatment of nature. Never had such a walk as this been taken by any one before, and the conversation so flowing and lively and curious – the young people enjoying it particularly.
[31]      If Alcott’s assessment of Thoreau’s lecture was accurate, the reaction of the children may have softened Thoreau’s impression of the New Jersey youth before his third lecture.

[32]      This lecture on “Walking” was one of Thoreau’s favorites, delivering it a total of eight times in his lifetime, the first on April 23, 1851, at the Concord Lyceum when it was simply called “The Wild.” In it he expounded his philosophies of natural preservation, such as his claim that “… in Wildness is the preservation of the World.”  He expanded that lecture to include the simple joy he found in walking, or “sauntering” as he preferred to call it, and how he felt it was necessary to his health and well-being to do that at least four hours a day, regardless of the weather (Canby 286).

[33]      Thoreau resisted publishing this lecture until he was close to death, and then prepared it himself. It appeared as the leading article in The Atlantic Monthly (which had a different editor by then) in June 1862, the month after his death. But with the lead time required in the publishing business, it was probably already in print when he died on May 9. There is no indication in that issue of the magazine that Thoreau had already passed away.

[34]      The third and final lecture was “What Shall It Profit?” which he delivered on Sunday, November 16. In that same letter to Blake, responding to Blake’s invitation to come to Worcester and deliver the “What Shall It Profit” lecture there after he returned from New Jersey, Thoreau wrote, “I feel some objection to reading that “What shall it profit” lecture again in Worcester [Thoreau’s emphasis. He had delivered the same lecture there on January 4, 1855]; but if you are quite sure that it will be worth the while … I will even make an independent journey from Concord for that purpose.”

[35]      Thoreau first delivered this lecture on December 6, 1854, in Providence, Rhode Island. He would eventually deliver “What Shall it Profit?”six times, but sometimes with varying titles, which also included “Getting a Living”, and “What Shall It Profit (a Man if he Gain the Whole World But Lose His Own Soul)?” According to Walter Harding, when Thoreau prepared it for publication, also near his death and also for The Atlantic Monthly, he initially titled it “Higher Laws” but when it appeared it was called “Life Without Principle” (Harding 342).

[36]      I could attempt to describe this lecture, but I couldn’t do it as eloquently as Walter Harding did in The Days of Henry Thoreau when he wrote, “This essay epitomizes in a few pages the very essence of Henry’s philosophy. It is his essay on self-reliance, and asks his audience to get down to fundamental principles and not to be led astray by public opinion, the desire for wealth or position, or any other diverting influence. It is pure Transcendentalism, a plea that each follow his own inner light.” (342).

[37]      It was with Bronson Alcott the next weekend, November 23-24, that Thoreau visited Walt Whitman, a man who would become one of his three “heroes.” Thoreau was very impressed by Whitman, calling him “a great man” (Harding 372). He already had a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in his personal library, but upon leaving his visit, Whitman inscribed a copy of the second edition to Thoreau, who, in turn, inscribed a copy of A Week to Whitman.

[38]      Emerson would claim that Thoreau revered only three men: Joe Polis, his Indian guide in Maine; John Brown, for his tenacity in his belief that slavery was wrong; and Walt Whitman because he felt Whitman wrote about the truth: “He has spoken more truth than any American or modern that I know” (Harding 375).
 

Conclusion

[39]      Becoming a surveyor for profit is tied directly to Thoreau’s desire to be a published author. His first survey for payment was done in November 1849, shortly after he went into debt to get  A Week published. Surveying served as the motivation to earn money – one of the only times he ever showed that desire. And surveying allowed Thoreau to be debt-free by the end of 1853, eight months before Walden was published.

[40]      The lectures he gave in New Jersey were not new, and would ultimately become major factors in the canon of Thoreau’s writings. So why was this trip to New Jersey not as simple as he must have thought or certainly hoped? Certainly the undeveloped terrain, the size of the property, the fact that he had no assistance, and, I believe, the fact that he was away from home. This was the only survey he did outside of Massachusetts. While he was working, he could not take his accustomed walks, nor did he do much writing.

[41]      I believe it was that last statement that is the most telling. He didn’t write very much. He didn’t have the time. He only wrote a couple of letters. His journal entries seem to have been, for the most part, written after he got back home.

[42]      This was a bigger job than he anticipated, both in size and scope. But out of it came his refinement as a surveyor and lecturer, and his association with, and appreciation for, Walt Whitman.


Sources

Canby, Henry Seidel. Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939.
Concord Free Public Library (CFPL). Special Collections. Concord, Mass.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Thoreau.” Atlantic Monthly. Boston: Ticknor and Fields,
      August, 1862. 239.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Knopf, 1965.
Perth Amboy (NJ) Evening News. “Eagleswood, A Local Social Experiment, Attracted
      Literary Giants of the 1800s.” Nov 12, 1949.
Sanborn, F. B. Henry D. Thoreau. American Men of Letters series. Boston: Houghton
      Mifflin, 1888.
---, Ed. Familiar Letters of Thoreau. The Concord Edition, Excursions, Poems, and
Familiar Letters by Henry D. Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Riverside
      Press, Cambridge, 1929. Vol. 2.
Torrey, Bradford, and Francis H. Allen. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Salt Lake
      City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1984.


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