Henry David Thoreau Visited Natick in 1857

One Monday in late August, 1857, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) left his home in Concord and rode down to “Natic” to talk about trees and plants with Austin Bacon (1813-1888). With a decent horse, Thoreau could have made the 14-mile trip in less than two hours. Thoreau obviously thought August 24 was a notable day—in his journal, he wrote almost 1,200 words about his visit to Bacon’s house on Walnut Street in “Natic,” including:

"I measured a scarlet oak NE of his house--on land of the heirs of John Bacon, which at 7 feet from the ground...was 10 ft 8 inches in circumference…It has a large & handsome top…This has grown considerably since Emerson measured [it]…Bacon says E. [Emerson] pronounced it the largest Scarlet oak in the state.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Thoreau were good friends and neighbors in Concord, and they were skilled naturalists. It’s no surprise that Thoreau enthusiastically spent a day doing field work with Bacon, who was listed in the 1866 North American Naturalists’ Directory as a botanist.

Austin Bacon was not only a respected amateur botanist—he was a Natick surveyor and a prolific writer/historian who dabbled in making scientific instruments. He and Thoreau obviously stayed in touch, because Bacon also was mentioned in Thoreau’s 1854 journal when they visited a Concord lime kiln. In Thoreau’s 1856 journal he wrote that “upwards of 800 species were collected from Natick soil in three years’ time, by a single individual” who was named as “Bacon the Surveyor.” In that entry, Thoreau managed to spell “Natick” correctly.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), an 1856 daguerreotype by B. Maxham.

The account of the 1857 field trip to Bacon’s home on Walnut Hill included Thoreau’s observations on the plant life and physical development of the town, and on the botanical expertise of his host. Thoreau noted that Bacon pointed out, near the scarlet oak, “…an elm on the N side of the same field, some 10 ft in circ. which he said was as large in 1714—his grandmother having remembered it nearly so long.”

During the day, the men crossed “…a bare hill with some walnuts on it—formerly called Pine Hill—from whence a good view of the new town of Natic—on the NE base of this hill, Bacon pointed out to me what he called Ind. corn hills…the hillocks were in singular rows 4 ft apart…I was confident that if Indian, they could not be very old—perhaps not more than a century or so—for such could never have been made with the ancient Ind. hoes—clamshells—stones—or the like, but with the aid of plows & white men’s hoes…”

Austin Bacon lived on Walnut Street, south of the Boston and Worcester Turnpike (now Route 9). The 1857 outing with Thoreau included exploration of Bacon family lands. Both the Austin Bacon home, built in 1845, and the Jonathan Bacon home, built in 1829, are identified on an 1859 map of Natick and have been used as residential properties to this day.

Selected sources and additional reading: 

Natick Historical Society collections.

Davidson Library of the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau.” Accessed June 9, 2019. http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/writings_journals24.html