Henry David Thoreau
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A Chronology of Thoreau's Life, with Events of the Times

Student Permission to Quote | Note to Teachers

Color Key:
Thoreau's Life (1817-1862)
Transcendentalists... Concord... Boston
Antislavery... Underground Railroad...
US and world events

1817 Henry David Thoreau (christened David Henry) is born on July 12 in Concord, Massachusetts, to John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau.

1820 The Missouri Compromise postpones a national crisis over slavery.

1821 At four or five, Henry sees Walden Pond for the first time. "One of the most ancient scenes stamped on the tablets of my memory, the oriental Asiatic valley of my world..."

1821 Envisioning a planned industrial community for efficient textile manufacture, entrepreneurs establish Lowell, Massachusetts, on the Merrimack River.

1823 After attending a private preschool and then public school, Thoreau attends the newly founded Concord Academy and prepares for college.

1826 Foundation of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, advocating immediate emancipation and racial equality.

1828 Inauguration of Andrew Jackson.

1829 Publication of David Walker, Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Two more editions before Walker's death in 1830. Furious efforts to suppress it in the South.

1831, January: In Boston, first issue of William Lloyd Garrison's weekly antislavery paper The Liberator. It will publish without interruption until the ratification of the XIII Amendment (1865).

1831, August: Nat Turner leads a slave revolt in Virginia. Turner is executed in December.

1832 In Boston, Garrison founds the New England Anti-Slavery Society.

1832 Ralph Waldo Emerson resigns his Unitarian ministry.

1833 Despite "barely getting in" to Harvard College, Thoreau maintains above-average grades, continues classical literature, and studies French, Italian, and German, as well as math, geology, zoology, botany, and natural and intellectual philosophy.

1833 The word "scientist" is coined by William Whewell in England. It will gain slow acceptance, replacing "natural historian" or "natural philosopher" only after Thoreau's death.

1834 Britain begins emancipation of slaves in all colonies, including the West Indies.

1835 Attacks against Boston abolitionists. Garrison is dragged through tbe streets. The Massachusetts legislature considers a law banning abolitionist activities.

1837 U.S. war against the Seminoles in Georgia and Florida.
In Britain, Queen Victoria begins a reign that will last until her death in 1901.

1837 Thoreau reads Emerson's Nature, Goethe, and modern German philosophy. Emerson addresses his "American Scholar" to Thoreau's graduating class.

1837 Thoreau receives his degree from Harvard College, graduating 19th in a class of 44.

1837 He meets Emerson, who becomes his mentor and friend: "'What are you doing now?' he asked. 'Do you keep a journal?' So I make my first entry today." Thoreau's lifelong Journal will reach seven thousand pages.

1837 Thoreau accepts a teaching position at Concord's public school but, unwilling to administer routine corporal punishments, he resigns after two weeks.

1837 Thoreau's mother and sisters are among the founding members of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society.

1837 Financial panic launches the U.S.'s first nationwide economic depression. Henry's family's precarious finances will stabilize only with the success of John Thoreau Senior's pencil-manufacturing business.

1838 Thoreau reopens the defunct Concord Academy, joined by his older brother John, Jr. Their private school, featuring nature walks and reasoned discussion instead of rote learning and corporal punishment, is a success.

1838 Removed from their homeland, the Cherokees embark on the Trail of Tears.
Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery.
The British Empire completes full emancipation of slaves.

1839 Thoreau works in his father's home-based pencil factory; gives first lecture to Concord Lyceum; deepens his friendship with Emerson.

1839 Henry and his brother John take a boating trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers -- the source of Thoreau's first book -- and both court 17-year-old Ellen Sewall. "There is no remedy for love but to love more."

1839 Educator Horace Mann establishes the first public teacher-training facility in Lexington, Massachusetts.

1839 Lowell, Mass., with its enormous complex of mills, has become New England's second largest city and the industrial center of America.

1839 Off Cuba, slaves aboard the Amistad revolt and seek refuge in the United States.

1841 First John and then Henry propose marriage to Ellen Sewall; both are rejected. Henry publishes poetry and essays in the Dial, the new Transcendentalist quarterly.

1841 Brook Farm is established west of Boston "to combine the thinker and the worker in the same individual." The utopian community, which Thoreau visits once but never joins, will last until 1847.

1841 Frederick Douglass begins 10-year association with W. L. Garrison.

1841 U.S. Supreme Court declares Amistad survivors free to return to Africa.

1842 The Thoreau brothers close their school due to John's poor health; Henry moves into Emerson's home as protégé and resident handyman.

1842 Thoreau climbs Mount Wachusett. "We have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon."

1843 The sudden death of brother John from lockjaw is a traumatic experience for Henry, who succumbs to a psychosomatic or "sympathetic" lockjaw even though he is not infected.

1843 Later in the year, Thoreau meets a new Concord arrival -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, who finds him "a genuine observer, which I suspect is almost as rare a character as even an original poet."

1843 For ten months, Thoreau lives at Staten Island, N.Y., as a tutor to William Emerson's children. He has no luck with New York publishers, but newspaper editor Horace Greeley offers help and the two become friends.

1843 In Concord, the last issue of the Dial is published.

1844 Thoreau assists in his father's pencil factory, where he makes profitable improvements in the manufacturing processes. In April, he and a friend accidentally start a fire in Walden Woods that consumes 300 acres. Some townsmen will never forgive this carelessness.

1844 On a midsummer excursion to northwestern Massachusetts, Thoreau climbs Mount Saddleback (Greylock) and hikes into the Catskills.

1844 In Concord, Emerson speaks publicly against slavery for the first time.

1844 Slicing through Walden Woods, a new railway runs four trains a day from Boston to Concord, making the town a suburb.

1844 Lewis Hayden escapes from slavery in Kentucky. He will settle in Boston in 1849, soon becoming a militant community leader.

1845 Publication of Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
Publication of Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life...

1845 Thoreau builds and moves into a one-room house at Walden Pond.

1845 He begins to write journal entries destined for some literary work based on his life at Walden.

1846 President James K. Polk sends U.S. troops to the Rio Grande and declares war on Mexico.

1846 First year of famine in Ireland. Immigrants begin trickling to America, including the Irish railroad workers, serving-girls and shanty-dwellers Thoreau meets around Concord and will depict in Walden and his Journal.

1846 While living at Walden, Thoreau drafts A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as a memorial to his brother. He takes his first trip to the Maine woods.

1846 He conceives the first version of Walden as lecture material "addressed to my townsmen."

1846, June: Thoreau spends one night in jail for refusing to support slavery by paying the poll tax: "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?"

1846, August: The Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society holds its annual fair and rally in a grove at Walden Pond. Notable speakers (using Thoreau's front step as the platform) include Emerson and Hayden.

1847, Autumn: After two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau abandons the house at the pond, accepting an offer to live with the Emerson household while Ralph Waldo lectures in Europe. Here, Thoreau will bond with the Emerson children and experience an intense platonic affection for Lidian (Mrs. Emerson).

1847 Thoreau collects specimens for the eminent naturalist Louis Agassiz. He now writes every morning and takes long walks every afternoon. He reads Coleridge on using natural history to discover laws of creation, learns taxonomy, and buys botanical and zoological reference books. The top floor of the family's new house in Concord will become Henry's combination bedroom, study, and museum for specimens.

1847 In Boston, Frederick Douglass meets John Brown. Douglass now rejects Garrison's non-violent abolitionism in favor of political engagement.

1848 First Women's Rights Convention, Seneca Falls.
In Rochester, Douglass begins publication of his antislavery periodical North Star.
In Europe, The Communist Manifesto.
Mexico yields two-fifths of its territory (including California) to the U.S.

1848 Emerson returns from Europe; advises Thoreau to risk underwriting the publication of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, himself. The friendship cools on both sides.

1848 Thoreau's first essay on Maine, "Ktaadn," is published in Sartain's Union Magazine. He begins an intermittent career as a professional lecturer, enjoying a small wave of celebrity. He studies surveying, and begins revising Walden, a process that will occupy years.

1849 The publication of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a commercial failure: "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."

1849 "Resistance to Civil Government" (later known as "Civil Disobedience") is published by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in the first and only issue of Aesthetic Papers.

1849 Thoreau writes journal pages on the decline of his friendship with Emerson.

1849 Thoreau begins to mark a lightly revised Walden for printing, expecting publication soon. This early version of Walden, driven by Thoreau's satirical criticism of contemporary values and false reforms, still lacks many nature passages now considered central.

1849 Thoreau adopts a more intense, professional approach to nature study, beginning to sketch out a life's work in this field. He takes a first trip to Cape Cod.

1849 Death of Thoreau's sister Helen, a schoolteacher, from tuberculosis.

1849 Gold, discovered in California, triggers a massive westward rush: "That so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value to society! And that is called enterprise!"

1850, February: U.S. enacts into law the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Law, authorizing slaveholders and slave-catchers to seize runaways in the free states.

1850 Publication of Emerson, Representative Men.
Publication of Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter.

1850, July: Death of Margaret Fuller in a shipwreck; Thoreau travels to Fire Island to recover her personal effects, but finds little. "Once... it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body..."

1850 Thoreau works frequently as a surveyor; visits Canada (Québec), reads natural history of Alexander von Humboldt. He is elected to the Boston Society of Natural History.

The bulk of Thoreau's writing -- more systematic, more detailed observations -- is now done in the Journal, which Thoreau shapes into a distinctive vehicle for multiple purposes, composing long entries from notes gathered during walks. This way he can preserve a new spontaneity and immediacy of style.

Thoreau ceases thinking of Walden as near completion.

1851, January: Thoreau tours steam-powered textile mills at Clinton, Mass.

1851, February: Boston becomes a testing ground of the Fugitive Slave Law. Virginia refugee Shadrach Minkins, arrested in Boston, is spirited into safety by African American activists led by Lewis Hayden with the support of an antislavery crowd. Hayden conceals Minkins and brings him to an Underground Railroad safe house in Concord, en route to freedom in Canada.

Refugees pass though Concord irregularly as a stop on their journey to Canada and freedom. One safe house is that of the Thoreaus, lifelong abolitionists. Henry is one of the town's most frequent conductors.

1850 Douglass lectures throughout Massachusetts, definitively splits from Garrison. Hayden leads an attempted rescue of arrested fugitive Thomas Sims, but pro-government forces are too vigilant this time.

1850 Thoreau increases his gathering of scientific and technical data during walks in the woods; he begins to read Darwin.

1850 Publication of Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale.

1852 Publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly, a best-seller that crystallizes wide public sentiment against slavery (but is criticized by Garrison in The Liberator).

1852 Thoreau begins using his Journal to revise Walden extensively. He develops Walden with less insistence on outward social reform and on displaying his alternative life style as a counterexample, and more as a personal journey involving uncertainty and discovery.

By developing the cycle of the seasons into the book's primary structure, Thoreau transforms Walden into the story of his quest, passing through various changes marked by the progress of the seasons and advancing towards self-knowledge. With less editorializing in the new sections, he writes less explicitly about himself, relying more on the perfect correspondence between man and nature to give his descriptions human significance. The storytelling takes on mythic and archetypal dimensions.

1853 Thoreau's friendship with Emerson reaches a low point.

  • Thoreau: "Talked, or tried to talk, to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lost my time nay, almost my identity."

  • Emerson: "Henry is militant... does not feel himself except in opposition."

1853 Thoreau takes a second trip to the Maine woods. He publishes the first parts of A Yankee in Canada, as well as pre-publication excerpts from Walden, in Putnam's Monthly.

1853 Harriet Beecher Stowe visits Hayden in Boston, includes his narrative in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Presenting the Original Facts and Documents...

1854 The Kansas-Nebraska Bill repeals the Missouri Compromise, leading to armed conflict in "bleeding Kansas."

1854 The Fugitive Slave Law is reaffirmed in Boston with the the arrest, trial, and rendition of Virginia refugee Anthony Burns, amid widespread protests. Hayden and others lead an ill-fated rescue effort that leaves one man dead. President Pierce orders troops to Boston.

1854 Thoreau reacts to the Burns affair with "Slavery in Massachusetts." Beyond nonviolent refusal, Thoreau begins to accept the need for violent resistance against slavery: "I need not say what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up, but as I love my life, I would side with the light, and let the dark earth roll from under me, calling my mother and my brother to follow."

1854 Publication of Thoreau, Walden, or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau notes only two words about it in his Journal, yet is seen walking through the town "in a tremble of great expectation, looking like the undoubted King of all American lions" (Emerson).

1855 First Cape Cod essays published in Putnam's Monthly; Thoreau takes a second trip to Cape Cod.

1855 Publication of Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.

1856 Brief excursions by Thoreau to various parts of New England and to New Jersey; in Brooklyn, Thoreau meets Whitman and reads Leaves of Grass, second edition: "We ought to rejoice greatly in him."

1856 Massachusetts antislavery Senator Charles Sumner is attacked on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

1857 Thoreau makes a third trip to Cape Cod and a third trip to the Maine woods; his second Maine woods essay is published; he meets militant abolitionist John Brown in Concord.

Economic panic of 1857.

1857 U.S. Supreme Court finds against Missouri slave Dred Scott and declares citizenship impossible for African Americans, a decision sharply denounced in Northern antislavery groups.

1859 Death of Henry's father; Henry takes over pencil factory; lectures frequently.

1859 John Brown leads a disastrous antislavery raid on Harpers Ferry. Captured and tried, he is sentenced to death.

1859 Thoreau stirs controversy with a spirited defense of John Brown: "I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable." Publishes essays on Brown, who is executed in December.

1859 Publication of Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, a strong influence upon Thoreau's nature studies.

1860, September: Thoreau reads his lecture "The Succession of Forest Trees," his major contribution to science, in Concord.

1860, December: Thoreau aggravates a severe cold while counting tree rings in Walden Woods, the onset of his fatal illness.

1860 Thoreau's research notes on American Indians reach eleven volumes; declining health forces him to suspend plans for a book.

1861 Abraham Lincoln is elected President, sparking the Confederate secession.

1861 As his tuberculosis deepens into consumption, Thoreau visits Minnesota in search of drier climate. (See Corinne Smith's new research, posted at the Thoreau Institute's site.)

1861, April: Confederates fire on Fort Sumter. Beginning of Civil War.

1862, April: 23,000 men die in the battle of Shiloh. Thoreau declares he can never recover while the war lasts, because he is "sick for his country."

1862, May 6: "For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it." Death of Thoreau at the family home.

1862, May 9: Thoreau is laid to rest in the New Burying Ground, his casket covered with wildflowers. "The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost." (Emerson)

1862, September: Lincoln proclaims emancipation of slaves in the free states. "We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky... we were watching by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day," declares Douglass. "We were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries."

Bibliography for the Chronology

Chief sources:
Raymond R. Borst, The Thoreau Log (1992)
Paul Brooks, The People of Concord (1990)
Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (enlarged edition, 1982)
James O. & Lois E. Horton, Black Bostonians (1979) and In Hope of Liberty (1997)
Henry Mayer, All on Fire (1998)
Wendy McElroy, Civil Disobedience (1985)
Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986) and Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995)
Robert Sattelmeyer, The Remaking of Walden (1990)
Richard J. Schneider, Henry David Thoreau (1987)
Smith, Corinne Hosfield, Thoreauļæ½s 1861 Minnesota Journey: An Annotated Transcript (2009)
Joel Strangis, Lewis Hayden (1999)

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) these pages about Thoreau, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows.

Calliope Film Resources. "A Chronology of Thoreau's Life, with Events of the Times." Copyright CFR. http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thorotime.html [And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

Teachers! Thoreau is your gateway to the "American Renaissance," the Transcendentalists, environmental science, the turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War... and key figures and episodes in African American history. Use these Thoreau pages and links provided by Calliope to enhance your curriculum.

Thoreau = Interdisciplinary


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Updated Feb. 20, 2010