An Original Land Survey In the Hand of Henry David Thoreau

A real rarity, this being the first one we have ever carried in our three decades, showing Thoreau’s mastery of the land

Of his time writing this survey, he wrote in his journal: “Surveying the Tommy Wheeler farm…. The philosopher is so forced to recognize principles which long study might not detect. And the naturalist even will stumble upon some new and unexpected flower or animal.”; We acquired this document from the descendants of...

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An Original Land Survey In the Hand of Henry David Thoreau

A real rarity, this being the first one we have ever carried in our three decades, showing Thoreau’s mastery of the land

Of his time writing this survey, he wrote in his journal: “Surveying the Tommy Wheeler farm…. The philosopher is so forced to recognize principles which long study might not detect. And the naturalist even will stumble upon some new and unexpected flower or animal.”; We acquired this document from the descendants of the property owners and it has never before reached the market

Surveyors are often found tucked away in the quiet corners of history. Many figures that loom larger than life today once claimed surveying as a profession, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown. The art of measurement, when practiced correctly, is as much philosophy as science. Author A.C. Mulford, in his classic treatise “Boundaries and Landmarks”, described the attributes of a true surveyor: “Yet it seems to me that to a man of active mind and high ideals the profession is singularly suited… It is a profession for men who believe that a man is measured by his work, not by his purse…”

Writer, philosopher and surveyor Henry David Thoreau was such a man. To say Thoreau’s mind was active would be an understatement. His interests were broad and he spoke with authority on many subjects. Thoreau was never satisfied with the status quo; he was the type of person who refused to take “yes” for an answer. Thoreau’s view of the role played by one’s occupation was simple: “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it…”

Thoreau is perhaps America’s most famous surveyor, not just of land but of its inhabitants. He could walk paths and be surrounded by animals, find an arrowhead buried under two rocks. And he knew the turns in the land, the angles of the embankments, better than anyone.

Thoreau best known for his literary works such as “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience.” His contemporaries often judged him as eccentric and a recluse. Although Thoreau’s literary work wasn’t fully appreciated until the early 20th century, his work as a surveyor was well thought of during his lifetime. Soon after Thoreau’s death in 1862, his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a biographical essay in which he stated: “He [Thoreau] had a natural skill for mensuration, growing out of his mathematical knowledge… his accuracy and skill in this work [surveying] were readily appreciated, and he found all the employment he wanted.” Thoreau himself saw surveying as a kind of allegory for his life in nature, writing in Walden, ”For many years, I was self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons.”

Thoreau may not have been paid for surveying forest paths, but he earned more as a surveyor than he did from any other occupation, and his jobs included surveying woodlots, farms, roads, and commercial properties, for which he received relatively steady remuneration, and which sometimes came directly from the state when he was paid by the Concord selectmen. In fact, between 1849 until shortly before his death in 1862, he gained a reputation as one of the best land-surveyors available in the rapidly developing Concord region. Yet Thoreau did only about 200 surveys in his lifetime, and most of those that survive are in institutions. We have never before had one, and in fact can find fewer than half a dozen that have reached the public market in the past 40 years. We are therefore particularly delighted to present this one.

Nothing can take you closer to Thoreau’s mastery of the land and his surroundings than an original survey.

Autograph document signed, completely in Thoreau’s hand, April 28, 1856, with the hand-drawn integral survey still present. It states at top left, “Plan of Davis Piece (so called) in the S.W. part of Concord Mass., belonging to Thomas Wheeler, surveyed by H.D. Thoreau”. The “H” in the signature has been torn away. At lower left it reads, “Scale of 4 chains, or 16 rods, Distances by chains and links.” The sketch shows the Davis Piece to be 26 acres 7 rods, and the abutting properties are specified. A draft copy of this document resides in the Concord Public Library.

The Tommy Wheeler farm appears a number of times in the spring of 1856. Thoreau wrote in his journal: “Surveying the Tommy Wheeler farm… Mr. Newton, with whom I rode, thought that there was a peculiar kind of sugar maple which he called the white; knew of a few in the middle of Framingham and said that there was one on our Common… Observing the young pitch pines by the road south of Loring’s lot that was so heavily wooded, George Hubbard remarked that if they were cut down oaks would spring up, and sure enough, looking across the road to where Loring’s white pines recently stood so densely, the ground was all covered…” “About 3.30 P. M., when it was quite cloudy as well as raw, and I was measuring along the river just south of the bridge, I was surprised by the great number of swallows…”

We acquired this document from the descendants of the property owners and it has never before reached the market

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