Henry David Thoreau

Portrait of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. He was also an influential transcendentalist. He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, USA on 12th July 1817 and died on 6th May 1862, also in Concord aged 44.

Major Works

“Civil Disobedience” and “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849)
“Walden; or, Life in the Woods” (1854)
“Echoes of Harper’s Ferry” (1860)

Biography Timeline

Henry David Thoreau was born on 12th July 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, USA. His father John Thoreau was a pencil maker and his mother was Cynthia (nee Dunbar). His paternal grandfather had been born on the British Isle of Jersey and his maternal grandfather, Asa Dunbar, had led the “Butter Rebellion” at Harvard College which was the first recorded student protest in the American colonies. He was christened David Henry but always styled himself with the names in reverse order.

1828: He starts his education at the Concord Academy.

1833: He goes to Harvard College where he lives in Hollis Hall and studies classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. 

1835: He takes leave of absence from Harvard and teaches at a school in Canton, Massachusetts. There he contracts tuberculosis which is to reoccur throughout his life.

1836: He writes the poem “Nature”.

1837: He officially graduates from Harvard but according to legend refuses to pay the fee for his Harvard master’s diploma. He teaches at the Concord public school but resigns after a few weeks as he opposed the giving of corporal punishment. He meets Ralph Waldo Emerson through a mutual friend. Emerson suggests Thoreau should contribute essays and poems to “The Dial” a quarterly periodical and lobbies the editor Margaret Fuller on his behalf.

1838: He opens Concord Academy, a private school, with his elder brother John. 

1839: John and he travel by boat on the Concord and Merrimack rivers which supplies material for Thoreau’s first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”.

1840: In July “Aulus Persius Flaccus”, about the Roman poet and satirist, is his first essay published the “The Dial”. During this period, he follows transcendentalism as advocated by Emerson, Fuller and Alcott.

1841: On 18th April he moves in with the Emerson family. He acts as children’s tutor, assistant to Emerson and general odd job man.

1842: His brother John dies in his arms after contracting tetanus and lockjaw after cutting himself shaving. The school they had established is forced to close. His essay “Natural History of Massachusetts” is published.

1843: He moves to Staten Island, New York for seven months ostensibly to tutor William Emerson’s nephew but in reality, to make it as a writer in New York. Homesick and lacking in paid literary employment he goes back to Concord. He publishes “A Walk to Wachusett” and “A Winter Walk”.

1844: Back in Concord Thoreau works in his family’s pencil factory where they are now using the Conte process. He continues writing whilst working there. In April he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally start a fire that destroys 300 acres of Walden Woods.

1845: He begins a two-year experiment in simple living by building a small cabin on land owned by Emerson in the forest around the shores of Walden Pond. Whilst there, he writes his only large piece of literary criticism entitled “Thomas Carlyle and his Works”.

1846: On 24th or 25th July Thoreau accidentally bumps into the local tax collector, Sam Staples, who asked him to pay six years of poll taxes He refuses due to his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery and thus has to spend one night in jail. Someone, probably his aunt, pays the tax and he is released. This story is related in his essay “Civil Disobedience”. He makes a brief trip to Mount Katahdin in Maine during the year.

1847: He is asked to move back into the Emerson house to help Emerson’s wife Lidian while her husband is away in England.

1848: In January and February he gives lectures at the Concord Lyceum on “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” and explains his tax resistance. “Katahdin and the Maine Woods” is published. In July Thoreau moves out of the Emerson’s house and moves to nearby Belknap Street.

1849: His sister Helen dies of tuberculosis. He self-publishes “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” about their trip to the White Mountains as a tribute to his brother John but fewer then 300 copies are sold. He starts work as a surveyor in order to pay off his debts. Elizabeth Peabody publishes his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” in her publication “Aesthetic Papers” in May.

1850: He moves to 255 Main Street where he is to live for the rest of his life. In the summer he travels to Cape Cod and Quebec. 

1851: He becomes engaged in the “Underground Railroad”, a network of secret routes and safe-houses in the USA, due to his annoyance at the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act.  He becomes more and more interested in natural history and is an admirer of Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle”. He begins to keep detailed notes on the countryside around him.

1853: Parts of “A Yankee in Canada” are published.

1854: “Walden, or Life in the Woods” is published. He travels to Philadelphia and New York City. “Slavery in Massachusetts” is published. 

1856: He surveys the Eagleswood Community near Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

1857: He travels to Cape Cod and Maine Woods.  “Chesuncook” is published.

1858: He travels to the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

1859: His father dies. He delivers a lecture in Concord on 30th October, “A Plea for Captain John Brown”.

1860: “A Plea for Captain John Brown” is published in his essay “Echoes of Harper’s Ferry”. He reads Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and publishes “The Succession of Forest Trees”. He contracts bronchitis after counting tree rings one night during a rain storm. His health never fully recovers.

1861: He travels to Minnesota to try and regain his health.  Back in Concord, he spends months working on his journal and compiling lists and charts about seasonal variations. He works on his books “The Maine Woods and Cape Cod” and “Faith in a Seed and Wild Fruits”. He travels to Detroit, Chicago and the Great Lakes region and visits Niagara Falls.

Henry David Thoreau died on 6th May 1862 of tuberculosis. Emerson wrote the eulogy at the funeral and Thoreau was buried in the Dunbar family plot. He and his family’s remains were later moved to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.

Further Information

List of works by Thoreau.