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Thoreau worked as a professional surveyor, creating over 100 land and property surveys from 1846-1860. 

 The Concord free Public Library (CFPL) curates and provides on-line public access to digital copies of Thoreau’s original “Land and Property Surveys” and microfilm public access to images of Thoreau’s original “Field Notes of Surveys Recorded by Henry D. Thoreau (November 1849 – December 1860)” .

Thoreau’s earliest surveys on file at the CFPL are his 1846 surveys of Walden Pond’s subsurface topography. 

https://concordlibrary.org/special-collections/thoreau-surveys/133a

https://concordlibrary.org/special-collections/thoreau-surveys/133b

Thoreau’s Walden Pond work was incorporated in the map products of other surveyors of his time including H.F. Walling’s 1852 map of Concord. 

See: Walling’s map note “Walden Pond surveys, by H. D. Thoreau, Civ. Eng.”

httpeventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:1257bc79ts://collections.l

  After leaving Walden Pond Thoreau began keeping his “Field Notes of Surveys Recorded by Henry D. Thoreau (November 1849 – December 1860)”

 A the microfilm copy of Thoreau’s “Field Notes of Surveys ” is available for viewing at the CFPL.

The first entry in Thoreau’s “Field Notes of Surveys” dated November 1849 contains comments describing a survey of Isaac Watt’s Woodlot.

A derivative  copy of Thoreau’s resulting survey of “Isaac Watt’s Woodlot” appears as a 16” x 10” drawing composite of two 8” x 10” sheets rotated with North up: 

Readers are encouraged to zoom in on a copy of the original  survey by pointing and clicking on specific points on the CFPL survey image:

https://concordlibrary.org/special-collections/thoreau-surveys/85a

The outer perimeter consists of eleven points labeled A to L, (no J), that define a series of eleven two point edges.  The length of each edge was measured using a surveyor’s chain and recorded in units of rods and links.  The compass orientation for each edge also is shown.

In order to compute the area of Isaac Watt’s Woodlot, Thoreau identified and labeled 38 rectangular quarter acre lots within its perimeter plus 14 odd shaped lots around its periphery.

 The east corner of the survey image (lower-right, above) includes a column of values for the 14 odd shaped lots and a total value. Thoreau made a math error when summing the 14 values.

The 14 odd shaped lots on the periphery listed and numbered by Thoreau include:

92 square rods in lot # 15 (lower right)

58 square rods in lot # 01 (lower left)

70 square rods in lot # 33  (middle left)

65 square rods in lot # 18   (above lower right)

60 square rods in lot # 19+  (above #18)

60 square rods in lot # 44+  (above #19)

70 square rods in lot # 45  (upper right)

60 square rods in lot # 52  (above #45)

140 square rods in lot # 51  (left of #52

30 square rods in lot # 50  (below #51)

50 square rods in lot # 37  (below left of #50)

62 square rods in lot # 36  (left of #37)

64 square rods in lot # 35  (left of #36)

66 square rods in lot # 34  (left of #35)

Thoreau incorrectly computed the total area for those lots as 907 square rods = 5.66 acres. (160 square rods = one acre)

The correct sum of the data for the 14 odd shaped lots is 947 square rods = 5.91 acres, a difference of 40 square rods or a 0.25-acre under count by Thoreau.

Within the perimeter Thoreau also identified 38 rectangular quarter acre lots: 38/4=9.50 acres.

Grand total area = 9.50 rectangular quarter acre lots plus either 5.66 acres or 5.91 acres odd shaped lots = 15.56 or 15.41 acres, a difference of 0.25 acre.

At the end of his “Field Notes of Surveys” for Isaac Watt’s Woodlot Thoreau said:  “Surveyed 52 lots of a quarter of an acre and some cases more.”

All but one of the odd shaped lots contains more than a quarter acre.

In summary, Thoreau undercounted the total acreage of Isaac Watt’s Woodlot by 0.25 acres on his worksheet, but his survey map is correct in every respect except for his note summarizing the area of the odd shaped lots.

Thoreau said he surveyed 52 lots which is correct and the average lot size for the combined quarter acre 38 uniform shaped lots and 14 odd shaped lots equals slightly more than 15 acres, just as Thoreau described  “52 lots of a quarter of an acre and some cases more”. 

So although Thoreau’s list of odd shaped lots appears to contain an under count of 40 rods or 0.25 acre, the error as a percent of the total area is small (0.25/15= 1.7%)

 Thoreau mentions other known inaccuracies such as “Greatest error in IK & KL” which appears to be a zone edge approximation along its Virginia Road boundary across the road from Thoreau’s birthplace and current Headquarters of the Thoreau Society.

Survey # 135 can be difficult to locate on the ground today but I believe its northeast corner is at the location of Thoreau’s birthplace on Virginia Road that is also the current Headquarters of the Thoreau Society.

See below:

The survey’s western most corner that Thoreau refers to as point “A” on his sketch is at the former Headquarters of the Thoreau Society on Old Bedford Road. (Approx.)

Moss states that: “I think it was the woods back of the old Kettell place on Lexington Road.  It was divided into 52 lots and cut in 1849-50.”1

 It is not known whether Thoreau ever described the total acreage surveyed as 15.56 or 15.41 acres other than his notation “907/160=5.6” which should have been 947/160=5.9.  Thoreau’s survey drawing is accurate in locating and labeling each of the 52 lots.

Thoreau’s math error was a minor error because the final survey document is graphically correct in every respect.  Every one of the 52 woodlots is correctly described and only his intermediate summation of the area of 13 irregular lots appears to have an under count error by a quarter acre. 

As he stated, Thoreau had recorded a survey of “52 lots of a quarter of an acre and some cases more” for Isaac Watt’s Woodlot during November 1849. 

Thoreau’s mapping ability evolved over time as he gained experience, acquired new tools e.g. surveyor’s chains, transits and newly available surveying instructions. 

Thoreau’s library included a copy of Elements of surveying and navigation: with a description of the instruments and the necessary tables / by Charles Davies. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1847, c1835.  Note: Multiple copies of this book are available online as a result of Google Books copying of several public libraries. 

http://www.archive.org/stream/elementsofsurvey00davi/elementsofsurvey00davi_djvu.txt

Understanding of Thoreau’s writing for any given time period will benefit from an awareness of Thoreau’s working environment as a surveyor.  Thoreau’s References to natural features of his time may be related to the location of Thoreau’s fieldwork as a surveyor and may still be relevant today.

“Isaac Watt’s woodlot” looks like part of “Bedford Levels” on Gleason’s 1906 Map of Concord at the intersection of Virginia Road and Old Bedford Road, a.k.a. “Meriams Corner”.

When locating Isaac Watt’s Woodlot remember its area is one quarter that of Walden Pond that Thoreau reported as 61 acres or 4 times the size of Isaac Watt’s woodlot (15.6/61 = .25.6%) and visible for comparison on Gleason’s 1906 map of Concord.

https://aschmidt01742.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/gleason1352.jpg

References:

1: A CATALOG OF THOREAU’S SURVEYS IN THE Concord Free Public Library (CFPL) Edited by Marcia Moss

THOREAU SOCIETY BOOKLET 28

THE THOREAU SOCIETY

GENESEO, NEW YORK

1976

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The first entry in Thoreau’s “Field Notes of Surveys” dated November 1849 contains comments describing a survey of Isaac Watt’s Woodlot. 

 “Outlines measured with accuracy, corners being one tenth of an angle.”

Copy from CFPL microfilm:

copy of the survey may be viewed at http://www.concordlibrary.org/scollect/Thoreau_surveys/135.htm

The survey image includes a worksheet on which Thoreau listed and then incorrectly computed the total area for 14 odd shaped lots as = 907 square rods (907 /160=5.66 acres).

By my calculation the correct sum of the data for the 14 odd shaped lots listed is 947 square rods=5.91 acres, a difference of 40 square rods or a 0.25-acre under count by Thoreau.

In addition, Thoreau identified 38 uniform quarter acre lots/4=9.50 acres.

Grand total area = 9.50 uniform quarter acre lots plus either 5.66 acres or 5.91 acres odd shaped lots = 15.56 or 15.41 acres, a difference of 0.25 acre.

At the end of his “Field Notes of Surveys” for Isaac Watt’s Woodlot Thoreau said:  “Surveyed 52 lots of a quarter of an acre and some cases more.”

(All but one of the odd shaped lots was more than a quarter acre.).

 In summary, Thoreau undercounted the total acreage of Isaac Watt’s Woodlot by 0.25 acres on his worksheet, but his survey map is correct.

 Thoreau only said he surveyed 52 lots which is true and the average lot size for the combined quarter acre 38 uniform shaped lots and 14 odd shaped lots equals slightly more than 15 acres, just as Thoreau described  “52 lots of a quarter of an acre and some cases more”. 

So although Thoreau’s table of odd shaped lots appears to contain an undercount error of 40 rods or 0.25 acre the error as a percent of the total area is small (0.25/15= 1.7%) and the map contains other known inaccuracies such as Thoreau notes that “Greatest error in IK & KL” which appears to be a zone edge approximation along its Virginia Road boundary across the road from Thoreau’s birthplace and current Headquarters of the Thoreau Society.

Nevertheless, Thoreau had recorded a survey of “52 lots of a quarter of an acre and some cases more” for Isaac Watt’s Woodlot during November 1849. 

 “V  Plan in pencil”

For more details and help locating each of the 14 odd shaped lots and 38 uniform shaped quarter acre lots covering 15.56 acres of Isaac Watt’s Woodlot see my discussion at: https://aschmidt01742.wordpress.com/2010/03/07/thoreaus-1849-survey-of-isaac-watts-woodlot/

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“There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”
— Alexander Von Humboldt

http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/303739.Alexander_Von_Humboldt

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Henry Thoreau initially surveyed and took up residence here in May 1850.

The property was surveyed and merged with adjacent parcels in June  1850 and again October  1856, property of  Daniel Shattuck.

In 1857 the three combined parcels were purchased by John Thoreau.   At that time additional property was added on the east side .

Boundaries of each of the additions after May 1850 are visible on the final John Thoreau 1857 Plan.

Thoreau lived here until his death 1862.

Much of his Journal and other writing and many survey drawings may have been created here.

The Thoreau pencils also may have been designed and manufactured here.

The property initially was surveyed on May 25 1850 when Thoreau recorded a “Plan of the Yellow House Lot, so called”, and now known as 255 Main St. Concord MA. That plan may be viewed in the CFPL collection as survey # 129 at:

http://www.concordlibrary.org/scollect/Thoreau_surveys/129.htm

On June 19, 1850 Thoreau recorded a “Plan of Daniel Shattuck’s Cottage – House Lot Concord MA. That plan may be viewed in the CFPL collection as survey # 108 at: http://www.concordlibrary.org/scollect/Thoreau_surveys/108.htm

On Oct. 6, 1850 Thoreau recorded a  “Plan of the Cottage House Lot on Main Street, and a Lot on Monroe Street Belonging to Daniel Shattuck …Oct. 6, 1856″ 

That plan may be viewed in the CFPL collection as survey # 109 at: http://www.concordlibrary.org/scollect/Thoreau_surveys/109.htm

This plan also contains the”small school house” at the southeast corner of Main and Thoreau street, so called today, formerly,  “Monroe Street”.

On March 30 1857 Thoreau recorded A Plan of John Thoreau’s House Lot and Plan of the Yellow House Lot, so called and now known as 255 Main St. Concord MA. Thoreau’s sketch says Area = 36731 SF.

A single Family Structure shown on the property was built 1815 according to the 2011 Concord GIS.

The following image of John Thoreau’s House Lot is provided courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum:

https://aschmidt01742.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/thoreau%E2%80%99s-illustrated-atlas-1849-1860-volume-1857/

Thoreau notes that “the East part surveyed and (platted) & added to the west part.”

Upon inspection, the East part clearly is the same Yellow House Lot surveyed by Thoreau May 25 1850, above.  The West part has been added to the original Yellow House Lot, so called.

No structures are shown on the May or June 1850 surveys but a single Family Structure may be seen on Thoreau’s March 30 1857 Plan of John Thoreau’s House Lot and Plan of the Yellow House Lot, so called survey of Daniel Shattuck’s Cottage.

The west side neighboring lot is Daniel Shattuck’s Cottage – The House Lot surveyed by Thoreau June 19, 1850 and now at 267 Main St. Concord MA.

A view of the Thoreau House on 255 Main Street in Concord, MA 2011, shown below:

Note: Louisa May Alcott Negotiated the  purchase  of John Thoreau’s Property  from the Estate of Sophia Thoreau.   An agent’s letter, dated Bangor, 7 March 1877, addressed to Miss L. M. Alcott, proposed to sell the property for $5000:

“Bangor March 7, 1877

Miss Alcott, Concord, Mass.  Yours of 6th came to hand this morning.

I do not fully understand your offer.  The owners will not think it advisable to make any repairs whether sold to you or other parties.  And in my making the offer of $5000 I assumed the property would be transferred in its present condition.  I feel that the offer made you was a fair one and that the favorable change that has occurred in the state of the country since will further increase its value rather than diminish it.  Still although I have had an application from a Boston party since I saw you to whom I replied that I could not negotiate with them until after 10th’ns?? )  By consultation with the owners I am authorized to write requesting that you make a definite offer to take the property in its present condition with  the amount you will pay and the terms of payment.

If it is any object to you to pay $2000 or 2500 cash and the balance in 1 & 2 years with interest at 6% secured by mortgage one will do so.

The wish to close the affairs of the estate as soon as we can possibly and therefore made you the offer at what we deemed a low figure.

Still if you make up your mind to offer the $4500 making your repairs & will write me at once, I will give you a deeded answer pro or con on receiving your letter.

Signed:

Bangor Maine agent for the Thoreau estate in Concord, MA

I answered by offering $4500 without any repairs and think we will take it.  People already congratulate us on our new house.

Signed:

Louisa M. Alcott

My translation of the two letters has been taken from a copy of the original letter provided courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.

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