Henry David Thoreau: Scientist, Capitalist, Land Surveyor

We have been talking a great deal about the history of capitalism on American Science, particularly focusing on how histories of science, technology, and the environment relate to this recent sub-field. (This post nicely aggregates the discussion.) I want add to this dialogue by considering a topic that also touches on an earlier post on the relationship between literature and science—in this case, I want to examine Henry David Thoreau’s work as a land surveyor, and how it might have contributed to his literary vision. 

Henry David Thoreau, a Land Surveyor, Wearing a Beard

My dad is a land surveyor, and I spent a summer working on field crews. Since I began studying the history of technology, I’ve been thinking about how one could write a history of changes in technologies and practices within that profession. In some ways, surveying is a thoroughly mundane activity. It is often nearly invisible, beyond those times when we occasionally spot a surveying crew out in the field. A number of advanced technologies have contributed to the invisibility of current practice. Yet, surveying, both as an activity and as a social station, was highly conspicuous earlier in US history, when property lines were foggy, when most of the population relied on the land for its living, and when surveyors were the adjudicators of important competing claims. Moreover, many famous people were also famously land surveyors, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown. By chance, I recently discovered Patrick Chura’s Thoreau The Land Surveyor, a book that raises interesting questions about scientific, technological, environmental, and literary history in the 19th century.

Here are some things I learned from it.  

Despite Thoreau’s misgivings about society, he became Concord’s chief surveyor in 1851, flagging inability to fully withdraw from the state and business that he loathed. Besides work as a schoolteacher and being an employee of his father’s pencil factory, surveying was Thoreau’s longest and steadiest held work. Like all land surveyors, Thoreau played an essential role as an adjudicator in public and private controversies. As Chura writes, 

“One might imagine the posing of the question . . . ‘Will you accept the result’s of Henry [David Thoreau]’s work?’ followed by [someone]’s binding assent, ‘Yes, I will trust his work.’ During a period when a land register was not in existence and there were no licensing requirements for the persons who carried out surveys, a reputation for integrity, which Thoreau clearly possessed, could be the primary factor in enabling a surveyor to fulfill the crucial role of legal arbiter.” (18; More on this notion of trust below.)

Chura begins by meditating on Thoreau’s internal conflict around land surveying.  His assumption of this social role can seem ironic, even hypocritical. On the one hand, Thoreau resisted capitalism and paid work, and he had few kind words for land ownership. On the other hand, Thoreau needed bread. But Chura goes deeper than this: he tries to show how Thoreau’s brand of land surveying came closer to the rebelliousness of John Brown than to establishment figures like George Washington. He argues that
“the best surveyor in Concord often managed to combine civil engineering with civil disobedience.” (21) Furthermore, Chura asserts that, for Thoreau, surveying was a kind of spiritual and scientific knowing that profoundly informed his literature. 

The US Coast Survey, originally formed in 1807, played a fascinating role in Thoreau’s intellectual life and career as a land surveyor. The agency experienced a significant boom after Alexander Dallas Bache came to head it in 1843. The survey effort was often in the public spotlight, shaping ideas about science and democracy. It had important functions related to the health of the nation and its population, economy, and defense. Churra quotes an 1847 issue of the Literary World, which stated that the Coast Survey “promoted the best interests of the country, by contributing to lessen the loss of life and property on the water, and we have no doubt that other discoveries as valuable as this remain to reward its labors.” Benjamin Peirce, a Harvard mathematician and father to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, assumed leadership of the survey in 1867, and the philosopher himself found his most reliable and long-lived employment in the agency. Indeed, there is some evidence that Coast Survey influenced C. S. Peirce’s ideas in key ways. (Hanky, I’m looking at you.) Earlier histories have drawn out some of these issues in the coastal survey (here and here and here) and Chura pushes the topic further, but the agency could use a major reinvestigation by someone trained in cultural history and the history of science. 

Thoreau worked with the agency during Bache’s reign, and he learned a great deal about the instruments and methods of land surveying during his time there. He also learned about the cultural meaning of surveying from his experiences. Chura notes,
“The Coast Survey may well have had an important cross-disciplinary influence, both prompting Thoreau to conduct measuring experiments and offering him precedents for affording them meaning. The national survey emphasized cultural interrelationships, boldly articulating a rationale for geographic exploration that was at once commercial, scientific, philosophical, and patriotic.” (59)  The Coast Survey played such a pervasive role in Thoreau’s day that many people saw Thoreau’s Walden (1854) as derivative of it. One of Thoreau’s early readers, a Mr. Hill, thought that Thoreau’s book was meant as a farce and that the survey bits in it were “but a caricature of the Coast Surveys.” (45)

And–as some may forget–Thoreau did survey Walden Pond. 

Yet, in creating his map of Walden, Thoreau also sought to distance himself from the Coast Survey and most professional land surveying. The Coast Survey was primarily focused on the issues of territory and trade, and professional surveying centered on private property. Thoreau’s map of Walden, however, made no reference to any political or property lines, outside of the rail line in the top right corner. (Of course, the historian Leo Marx earlier examined Thoreau’s reaction to the railroad in great detail.) As a squatter, Thoreau marked his own living place simply “house.” He saw the survey of Walden, as Chura writes, as “less a cultural responsibility than a duty of self-culture.” (67)

Surveying for Thoreau could be a poetic activity of self-development. He called it an “‘unnecessary’ science,” which contrasted with its role in his professional life. It was a way of coming to know the world in a different and deeper way. He took surveying equipment with him on walks, and in Walden, he wrote, “For many years I was a self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyors, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes.” As Chura writes, “For a man who always believed that facts about the natural world ‘are truths in physics, because they are truth in ethics,’ a strict dichotomy between measuring and morality would not have made sense anyway.” (91)  At the same time, in a way akin to the Frankfurt School and other critics of instrumental reason, Thoreau feared that his surveyor’s “dry knowledge” of Walden woods would “affect my imagination and fancy” in so that he would no longer be able to see “wildness and native vigor there.” Thoreau also no doubt enjoyed the perks that came with the profession. Surveyors had a federally-sanctioned right to trespass for the purposes of their work in the U.S. Land Law of 1830. Little could have appealed more to Thoreau, who enjoyed “sauntering” over the land in whichever direction he cared to, especially over those “across-lot routes.”

Chura writes a number of interesting things about Thoreau’s relationship with his hero, John Brown, but I only want to briefly touch on a few of the points:
Brown used surveying to challenge proslavery activists who settled on Indian land in Kansas. Thoreau saw this as an ideal role for the profession, using its instruments and methods to upend social injustice. In his writings on Brown, Thoreau played up the rebel’s role as a land surveyor because it supported Brown’s cause. Brown vision was one of order, Thoreau argued, and Brown represented the interests of the state by fighting unfair land practices. Thoreau also emphasized Brown’s role as a land surveyor to disprove the man’s supposed insanity. Surveyors, through the very trustworthy status of their profession, were the opposite of crazed.

Thoreau continued surveying later in life, focusing his personal efforts especially on the Concord River. Early editors of Thoreau’s Journals cut his survey data of the river, but Chura points out that close observation of Thoreau’s notes shows something very interesting. In his early notebooks, Thoreau would intersperse lyrical reflections on nature with more piecemeal technical and quantitative survey data. The two parts of himself were in uneasy tension. But overtime Thoreau began recording the data increasingly in full sentences. His poetic and technical selves came to merge.

Textile Mills on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers

Thoreau also understood the political ramifications of surveying the river, which was being diverted increasingly for watermills and agriculture. In battles over land, corporate mill owners often legally won out over traditional farming interests. Thoreau may have returned to places again and again in order to record the influences of these societal trends, as capitalism remade this natural resource he so adored. 
In the end, Thoreau The Land Survey draws out some interesting interconnections between histories of capitalism, science, technology, the environment, and American culture more broadly. Chura’s book will, at times, undoubtedly frustrate any historian of science and technology. For instance, people in these fields, such as Ted Porter and Steven Shapin, have written for many years about the role trust plays in science. Others, including Susan Spellman and Pamela Laird, have covered the topic in business history. My own horn toots. So, it seems like a real missed opportunity when Chura fails to interact with this literature on trust. Moreover, the book should have engaged much, much deeper with environmental history. Finally, it sometimes drops into, what I can only call, “surveying internalism,” as it recounts surveying practices in technical detail that will leave most readers cold. Still, I learned a lot from this book.


8 thoughts on “Henry David Thoreau: Scientist, Capitalist, Land Surveyor

  1. Dan

    Lee, this is fascinating! I think I might have to look into Chura's book. I've often used Thoreau as an example in my environmental history class of the way individuals live in tension with themselves and their convictions. Thoreau as a surveyor gained the capacity to walk wherever he wanted, while in the process strengthening the boundaries that he generally abhorred. This passage from “Walking” always gets me:

    “For my part, I feel, that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper.(8) Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will o’ the wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features. The Walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town, sometimes finds himself in another land than is described in their owners’ deeds, As it were in some far away field on the confines of the actual Concord, where her jurisdiction ceases, and the idea which the word Concord suggests ceases to be suggested. These farms which I have myself surveyed, these bounds which I have set up appear dimly still as through a mist; but they have no chemistry to fix them; they fade from the surface of the glass; and the picture which the painter painted stands out dimly from beneath. The world with which we are commonly acquainted leaves no trace, and it will have no anniversary.” (more here)

    A “border-life” indeed! (I don't think I ever realized that a “border-life” is probably an old surveyor's pun…)

    The stuff on the Coast Survey is particularly interesting. There are some other studies on the Coast Survey that do a bit of what you're pointing towards, including Slotten's book and a recent biography (kinda) of Bache by Axel Jansen. Jansen plays up the argument that Bache intended to create a republican, scientific citizenry. That Thoreau might have been directly influenced by Coast Survey interactions strengthens that argument a great deal–I want to know about that connection the most. But Jansen also focuses on the nationalism of the Coast Survey's methods. Thoreau shows how the same scientific methods that led Bache toward a version of manifest destiny thinking could be embraced by man who had no particular qualms with leaving a union that supported the immorality of slavery. Survey methods don't have a politics.


  2. Lee

    Thanks for your helpful and enriching comments, Dan, and thanks for reminding me of Slotten's and Jansen's books. I knew I'd forgotten a few things, but couldn't recall them. I like Slotten's book, and I've wanted to pick up Jansen's. I will now.

    You're right: survey methods don't have politics. Boundaries often do. I really like Chura's–or is it Thoreau's?–point that surveying precision could be liberatory, as in the case of J. Brown.

    I have little doubt that my second archival project will bring me back into the 19th century. My current historical addiction: Hoboken's Elysian Fields as a site of the HOTeES. There is so much in the 19th century that beckons me, while the 20th century, in my own home field, the history of technology, frankly feels constipated.


  3. Hank

    Let me say a word for the politics of methods!

    Dan, I understand you might mean “politics” in a more specific/less theoretical sense, but it seems to give up too much to say that methods might not entail politics or political effects all their own.

    We should at least be as open to that as we are to Lee's retreat to “Boundaries often do.” The idea that methods have a politics might reveal new layers of your point about Thoreau's internal tensions!


  4. Nora Moore

    My grandpa was a surveyor. I don't know much about the profession myself, but the topic catches my eye. I hadn't known that Thoreau was a surveyor. It's really cool to learn more about famous people like that. They seemed to do more with their lives than a lot of celebrities do now. http://PLSurvey.com



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