Henry’s Rock and Mineral Collection, by Robert M. Thorson

Thoreau rocks

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.  —Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Walden's Shore, by Robert M. Thorson

Blind luck. Sometimes, by sheer chance, we stumble onto something wonderful. This happened to me last spring during the eleventh hour of working on Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science, my new book emphasizing Thoreau’s self-taught skills as a physical scientist. The “something” I refer to is a collection of rock and mineral specimens gathered by Henry David Thoreau. As with the epigraph of my book (quoted above), it puts a solid foundation beneath this loftier scholarly project. And, as an added benefit, it provides readers of the Thoreau Society Bulletin with case study of what our organization is all about: collegial sharing.

Fortuitous Error

Walden’s Shore was already deep into production. The Harvard University Press overseers had given their final approval. The catalog description and interior design were complete. As part of the copy-edit stage, I was taking care of last-minute details, in this case tracking down the ownership of a drawing showing Thoreau rowing his boat at “pond-side.” I encountered it as a glossy photographic plate facing page 218 of Henry Seidel Canby’s 1939 biography of Thoreau. My particular interest was the way this image showed the trail network leading down to the west side of Thoreau’s Cove, his primary access to Walden’s shore.

May Alcott, Thoreau in his boat at WaldenCanby’s caption reads: “Pencil drawing by May Alcott of Thoreau’s cabin on Lake Walden. Thoreau in his boat at the foot of the path.” Credit for the image was given as: “Courtesy of Wayside Museums,” an organization I’d never heard of, and which I initially confused with Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts.  Using Google, I eventually stumbled across a sepia-toned photographic postcard titled “Fruitlands and the Wayside Museums.” This organization, now known as Fruitlands Museum, Inc., sprawls across land below Prospect Hill where Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane founded their ill-fated Transcendentalist utopian community in 1843.

Within a few minutes, I was on the phone chatting with Mike Volmar, the museum’s Chief Curator. After briefly describing my book project, I inquired whether they had rights to the drawing, which I had mistakenly identified as the work of Louisa May Alcott, rather than of her sister Abigail May Alcott.  Mike agreed to have one of their interns look into it. When I phoned back the following week, he said they no record of the photo, and suggested I try the Concord Free Public Library instead. Just before hanging up—and perhaps to mitigate my disappointment—he mentioned that somewhere in storage on the property was a rock and mineral collection by Henry Thoreau.

“What?” I exclaimed with surprise! I had no idea that collecting rocks and minerals was part of Henry’s natural history project. “Is there really such a thing?” 

“Yes,” said Mike matter-of-factly. He then described how it had been on exhibit for decades in the original farmhouse museum before being moved into long-term storage a few years back. “Could I see it?” I asked. “I'll see if I can find it,” he replied. 

I could barely contain my excitement. Within few days he had found the collection and brought it to the main administrative building. Additionally, he had dug out the museum’s “Thoreau” file, an office folder stuffed with perhaps a dozen pages. Within a week, I was in their conference room, appreciating, inspecting, and photographing the specimens, which rested within a simple glass case measuring about two feet on a side. I also transcribed the labels and read the Thoreau file, which linked him to the physical specimens.

Gypsum from HDT's rock collection

Henry’s Specimens

By this time, Walden’s Shore reached the galley-proof stage. All issues of content were supposedly behind us.  Thankfully, the staff at Harvard Press agreed to my appeal that something so relevant could be included, even if it contributed to some delay. Happily, I was able to mention it in my introduction, add several paragraphs in different sections, insert several lengthy notes, and acknowledge those who helped. 

Thoreau’s collection consists of nineteen specimens of thirteen rocks and minerals. Using the names on the labels, they are: Pyrite, Chalcopyrite, Quartz pyrite, Calcareous tufa, Chalcedony, Granite, Clay from Martha's Vineyard, Mica schist, Feldspar, Magnetite, Gypsum, Selenite, and Sulphur. Several specimens were either unlabeled or mislabeled. Taken together, this seemingly random collection is dominated more by natural history oddities than by gem-like minerals. Also present were mundane specimens of local rock, labeled accordingly.  A technical description of this collection is now underway.

Thoreau's rock boxHaving examined Henry’s specimens, my first questions were: “Where did they come from?” and “Did Thoreau collect them himself?” Initially, I thought that some had come from beyond the reach of Thoreau’s travels, meaning he must have purchased, traded, or bartered for them. For help, I turned to the Massachusetts Office of the State Geologist in Amherst, where geologist Joseph Kopera was more than helpful. He surprised me by writing that every single one of these specimens could have been collected by Thoreau during his travels in New England.

Where might Henry have kept his collection? In The Days of Henry Thoreau, Walter Harding documented that he kept his natural history materials, including his rocks and minerals, in his attic room of the family’s Main Street house. And in what container? Likely this was in one of his “geological cases,” two of which he gifted to the Reverend Charles Osgood of Cohasset, Massachusetts. This gave Henry an excuse to visit with Osgood’s wife, Ellen Sewall Osgood, a Thoreau family friend and Henry’s one and only young love.

One of Osgood’s geological cases, complete with mineral specimens, was gifted back to the Concord Museum. There, Curator David Wood, an expert in 19th century material culture, pulled it from storage to show me. The cases are hand built from thin pieces of mahogany, perhaps scrap from one of the cabinetmakers on Concord’s Milldam. Its “pigeon-hole” compartments were still full of mineral specimens. My guess is that Thoreau had his specimens in one as well, before giving it away.

Thoreau desk at FruitlandsSeveral strong circumstantial arguments link the Fruitland rock and mineral collection to Thoreau. All specimens were sized to fit the compartments of the geological cases. The label on the Fruitland exhibit reads, “Collected by H. D. Thoreau.” The chain of ownership from historic documents makes perfect sense: After Thoreau's death, his sister Sophia assumed responsibility for his manuscripts, possessions, and collections. When she donated much of the latter to the Boston Society of Natural History, his rocks and minerals were not on the inventory, suggesting they remained in family hands. When Sophia died, Henry’s remaining possessions went to Franklin Sanborn, his former friend and early biographer. It was from him that Clara Endicott Sears, founder of Fruitland Museum, purchased her collection of Thoreau artifacts and memorabilia, beginning about 1910. The construction techniques for the Fruitlands exhibit case, and the hand-lettered, black-ink calligraphy style of the labels, are both consistent with the opening of the Fruitlands Museum in 1914. An early photograph, dating to sometime after 1917, shows a mineral specimen case on Thoreau’s desk and beneath his bookshelf.

The most explicit proof that the rock collection is indeed that of Henry Thoreau is a letter dated December 15, 1955 from William Henry Harrison, who succeeded Clara Endicott Sears as museum director. He was responding to a letter dated two weeks earlier, from Miss Lena Cushing, who requested a list of all of the museum’s Thoreau materials.  Harrison’s letter describes a “collection of Thoreauviana...[a] desk, two bookcases (so-called ‘minister's bookcases’) which were made by Thoreau, some minerals collected by him [emphasis added], a small collection of Indian stone relics belonging to him, [and] a few pencils from the Thoreau factory.” The “Indian stone relics” remain as a fairly well-known collection. The “minerals collected” remain there as well, though they seem to have escaped the attention of scholars.

The final argument linking Thoreau to the specimens is his own written work. In his Journal he confirms the collection of mineral specimens as part of his natural history program. And the mineral and rock names from the Journal match the specimen labels: chalcedony, pyrite, quartz, feldspar, magnetite, granite, mica schist.  Exploring these literary links is another work in progress.

Mica Schist from HDT's collection

 “Under the Radar” Collection 

I’m slightly embarrassed to report my discovery of Thoreau’s mineral collection as the result of blind luck resulting from an error, rather than successful scholarly sleuthing. I had failed to find it after spending two years reading everything Thoreau wrote prior the publication of Walden (with the exception of his notebooks), much of the scholarly literature on Thoreau’s science, and eight biographies. In all this, I had found no mention of Thoreau’s collection, not even in the first-person biography of the man who owned it, Franklin Sanborn (1882). Nor is there any mention in the homage-biography of Thoreau’s best friend, William Ellery Channing (1902), or in the scholarly biographies of Henry Canby (1939), Walter Harding (1960), and Robert Richardson (1986). Most surprising to me is its lack of mention in a 1974 Concord Saunterer article titled “Minerals of Concord” written by Eugene H. Walker, a professional geologist serving as president-elect of the Thoreau Society.

Nevertheless, there it was, sitting in plain sight on Thoreau’s desk in the Fruitlands Farmhouse Museum. Surely its curator, Mike Volmar cannot have been the only one with knowledge of Thoreau's mineral collection before he shared it with me. If you did, or if know someone who did, please let me know.

In his Journal, Henry mentions that Concord’s only “precious stone” is the so-called “cinnamon stone,” an unusually clear variety of garnet renown for its gem quality. Though he documents his knowledge of this mineral, he didn’t bother to collect garnets, which are locally abundant, or other gems. More precious to him were the stony curiosities of natural history, from which he extracted true wealth. This observation supports my thesis in Walden’s Shore, that Thoreau’s Walden is as strongly grounded in physical reality as it is in language, literature, and mythology.


Asher B. Durand, Rock Study

Robert M. Thorson is a Professor of Geology at the University of Connecticut, the author of five books, the latest being Walden's Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science (Harvard, 2014), an Op-Ed columnist for the Hartford Courant, and the coordinator of the Stone Wall Initiative, "the" go-to resource for anyone interested in New England's historic stone walls.

The Thoreau Society is delighted to welcome Robert M. Thorson as a speaker at this year's Annual Gathering in July.  Please see our agenda for more information about his presentation.   

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