May 6, 2012

Guest post: Death of Henry David Thoreau

May 6, 1862: Henry David Thoreau died 150 years ago today. Throughout the winter of 1861-62 Thoreau was confined to the house as his health deteriorated. He had picked up a cold in the winter of 1860 from Bronson Alcott which eventually developed into bronchitis, then tuberculosis. Thoreau even took a trip to Minnesota in the early spring of 1861 in search of health, but the change of scenery and climate made him no better.

Now that he was house-bound, Thoreau began to busily prepare several of his old essays for publication. In February 1861 he had gotten a request from his publisher, James T. Fields, to submit his works for the Atlantic Monthly. Thoreau gladly accepted Fields's offer but his previous run-ins with publishers left him cautious. He wrote Fields, "Of course, I should expect that no sentiment or sentence be altered or omitted without my consent." Throughout the late winter and early spring Thoreau re-worked several of his old lectures and put them into publishable form. "Walking," "Life Without Principle," "Autumnal Tints" and "Wild Apples" were all submitted to Fields for publication.

Thoreau was so weak at times that he couldn't even lift a pen, and his sister Sophia worked on the manuscripts while her brother dictated. By April Thoreau couldn't even climb the stairs to his bedroom, so his family brought his old Walden Pond cot downstairs to the front parlor. Bronson Alcott reported that Thoreau was "feeble," yet his spirits remained high. A friend later commented that he had never seen "a man dying with so much pleasure and peace." When asked by his aunt if he'd made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, "I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt."

On May 6, 1862 the end was near and, as his family gathered around him, Thoreau slipped into his final rest. He'd been working on his "Maine Woods" manuscripts and his thoughts remained on writing until the end; his sister and mother distinctly heard him say "moose" and "Indian" before he passed. Henry Thoreau died at 9:00 a.m. His sister Sophia commented that she felt as if "something very beautiful had happened — not death." Henry David Thoreau was just 44 years old. "Walking" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in June 1862.

*Richard Smith is an independent historian specializing in the antebellum period, with a special interest in the Transcendentalists. He has been involved in Living History for 20 years and for the last 11 years has portrayed Henry David Thoreau in and around Concord, Massachusetts. For more on today's guest blogger, visit

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