Students examine the work of Henry David Thoreau, writer and surveyor.

Surveyors are often found tucked away in the quiet corners of history. Many figures that loom larger than life today once claimed surveying as a profession. The art of measurement, when practiced correctly, is as much philosophy as science in my view. A.C. Mulford, in his classic treatise “Boundaries and Landmarks” 1described the attributes of a true surveyor: “Yet it seems to me that to a man of active mind and high ideals the profession is singularly suited… It is a profession for men who believe that a man is measured by his work, not by his purse…”

Writer, philosopher and surveyor Henry David Thoreau was such a man. To say Thoreau’s mind was active would be an understatement. His interests were broad and he spoke with authority on many subjects. Thoreau was never satisfied with the status quo; he was the type of person who refused to take “yes” for an answer. Thoreau’s view of the role played by one’s occupation was simple. “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it…”2

Thoreau is best known for his literary works such as “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience.” His contemporaries often judged him as eccentric and a recluse. Although Thoreau’s literary work wasn’t fully appreciated until the early 20th century, his work as a surveyor was well thought of during his lifetime. Soon after Thoreau’s death in 1862, his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, another acclaimed author of the time, wrote a biographical essay in which he stated: “He [Thoreau] had a natural skill for mensuration, growing out of his mathematical knowledge… his accuracy and skill in this work [surveying] were readily appreciated, and he found all the employment he wanted.”6 History and surveying go hand in hand. The profession requires each surveyor to “follow in the footsteps” of those who have gone before. It is for this very reason the study of our predecessors, which is often neglected, is so important.

The home of Thoreau's mother in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau peacefully died in the front parlor on May 6, 1862 at the age of 44.

In the Footsteps of Thoreau

On May 6, 2002, some of my surveying students from Cleveland State Community College and East Tennessee State University and I traveled to Concord, Mass., to study Thoreau and his surveys. To prepare for the trip, the students focused on the survey Thoreau did for Emerson during the winter of 1848. This is the property where Thoreau lived while writing much of “Walden.” Thoreau’s cabin and pond are on the south end of the property and the bean field, as described in “Walden” is to the north. The cabin is gone now and the bean field is wooded. The cabin was last seen as part of a hog pen for a local farmer.3

The students also studied Thoreau’s field notes as published in “Transcendental Climate” by Kenneth W. Cameron in 1963. The three-volume set contains facsimiles of the journals and notes of well-known writers during the transcendental movement of the 1800s. Reviewing Thoreau’s notes gave some insight as to why his work was so highly regarded. Thoreau was a Harvard graduate and was an excellent mathematician. He often conducted coordinate geometry, sans calculator, in the margins of his field notes. Thoreau also thoroughly documented his research, stating the source and date of the original survey. He took great care in determining the magnetic declination for his surveys. It appeared he often checked his declination using Polaris at elongation several times during the course of many of his surveys. A handbill he distributed stated his surveys were easily retraced due to his careful determination of magnetic declination. Thoreau carefully described each corner he set in his field notes. It’s obvious he understood the importance of preserving evidence. In R.B. Buckers book “Land Surveyors Review Manual”4 he described the importance of preserving evidence this way:

“One of the highest levels of professional responsibility of a licensed land surveyor is demonstrated by his or her willingness to take measures to preserve and perpetuate evidence of corner locations. That, in fact, may be the primary reflection of professionalism.”

Instructor Barry Savage (center) talks with Bradley Dean , PhD (right) by Walden Pond while student Dave Sheely is hard at work. Thoreau's Cove can be seen in the background.
On the morning of May 10 we loaded the van and headed north. We arrived at the Thoreau Institute around 1 a.m. on May 12. The following morning I let the guys sleep in while I walked the site with Bradley Dean, PhD. Dean is a Thoreau scholar at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. I had contacted the institute in the fall of 2001 for information regarding Thoreau’s surveys for a series of lectures I was writing. One thing led to another and Dean invited us to the institute. Our reason for going was twofold. It was a rare opportunity for my students and Dean was to use the surveys in his writings and research. Visiting the site with Dean was a unique experience. He knows Thoreau’s life and writings very well so he pointed out subtle details I would have otherwise missed. Later when I pointed out these tidbits to the students, I stressed the often-overlooked responsibility of a surveyor to carefully measure, document and describe such detail for future generations. Mulford put it this way: “…in the hands of the Surveyor, to an exceptional degree, lie the honor of generations past and the welfare of the generations to come; in his keeping is the Doomsday Book of his community…”5Following my initial site visit I decided to split the students into two crews. One crew was to concentrate on the pond and cabin site, the other crew focused on the bean field.

Once at the site we divided into crews. Both crews used a Topcon GTS-223 total station (Topcon, Pleasanton, Calif.) and HP48 data collectors (Hewlett Packard, Palo Alto, Calif.) with TDS Survey Pro software (Tripod Data Systems, Corvallis, Ore.). The first crew started at the south end of the Emerson lot. The second crew went to the north end, in the area Dean believes to be the bean field described in “Walden.” The southern crew began by locating two split stones supposedly set as markers by Thoreau. His plat of 1848 shows 552.54' between the stones. The crew found the distance to be 552.70', a little less than a quarter of a link. The crew used this line as a base to calculate the likely positions of other markers. Although no more monumentation was found, Thoreau’s drawings did show many natural features, especially near the pond he so dearly loved. The distance from the split stone to the water’s edge was 303.7' according to Thoreau’s drawing. When the south crew got to the pond and did a stakeout to look for the corner near the pond, the position fell exactly at the water’s edge, just as Thoreau’s 1848 plat shows.

Students (left to right): Nick Roberts, Tyson Olinger, Seth Klien, Dave Sheely, Zac Morgan, Josh Morgan and instructor Barry Savage, PLS, on the shore of Walden Pond.
The crew to the north found Thoreau’s survey to be quite accurate as well. Thoreau carefully describes the bean field in “Walden” by giving several measurements. The bean rows were all described as being 15 rods in length. Judging from the topography of the area it would appear this is an accurate measurement. There were so many rows that if placed end to end they would total seven miles. Based on writings in Thoreau’s journals the rows were placed three feet apart. It was in Thoreau’s very nature to begin describing any place he wrote about by giving dimensions first. Emerson once wrote that Thoreau had a “habit of ascertaining the measures and distances of objects which interested him, the size of trees, the depth and extent of ponds and rivers, the height of mountains, and the air-line distance of his favorite summits…”6

The dimensions of the bean field were just as Thoreau described, with only one discrepancy. The dimensions for the field placed a small portion across the current roadway. During our short trip, we didn’t have time to research the location of the road as it existed in Thoreau’s day. The northern crew also located two sites known as the “Zilpha cellar” and the “Whelan cellar.” Zilpha was a runaway slave who lived near the bean field in the early 19th century. During the war of 1812 British troops burnt her home. Upon returning from work and finding her home gone, she wandered off in despair and was never seen again. The Whelan site was an area near the middle of the bean field. The Whelan family moved Thoreau’s cabin to this site after he left the pond. They lived there until one night during a snowstorm. Mr. Whelan had too much to drink and left his family, never to return. The last known residents of the cabin were pigs, after parts of the structure were used to construct a pen.

Thoreau's cabin site at Walden Pond. Thoreau lived here for two years while writing "Walden."

Surveying Truth

I wanted the students to learn more than the mechanics of Thoreau’s work. I wanted them to understand the vital roles integrity, truth and thought play in becoming a surveyor. Emerson once described Thoreau as “a speaker and actor of the truth&mdas;born such—and was ever running into dramatic situations from this cause.” In Thoreau’s work “Life Without Principle” he writes: “As far as my own business, even that kind of surveying which I do with most satisfaction my employers do not want... When I observe there are different ways of surveying, my employer commonly asks which way will give him the most land, not which is most correct.” This is a dilemma every surveyor has faced. It is only a dilemma when a surveyor forgets his or her primary role to tell the truth, the entire truth; even if it’s not the truth our clients want to hear. Emerson was correct when he described Thoreau’s dedication to truth as a catalyst for confrontation. To a surveyor, always telling the truth has two universal outcomes. One is a good night’s sleep; the other is the guarantee that half the people he/she encounters will dislike the surveyor and his/her work.

It’s no secret that over the past 75 years surveying has lost much of its former status as a profession. Any surveying magazine you pick up today will most likely have an article or two on how to improve our image in the public eye. I believe it is important to study and understand those surveyors who came before us and had a positive impact on society. Thoreau isn’t remembered for his surveying. He is remembered as a person of thought and integrity. This might be a good place for all of us to start.


1 Mulford, A.C. 1912. Boundaries and Landmarks New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 89.

2 Thoreau, Henry David. 1863. Life without principle. The Atlantic Monthly (October).

3 Thoreau’s plat of this survey can be viewed at the website for the Concord Free Public Library, and is survey number 31a.

4 Buckner, R.B. 1991. Land Surveyors Review Manual. Rancho Cordova: Landmark Enterprises, 325.

5 Mulford, Boundaries and Landmarks, 89.

6 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1862. Thoreau – Part 1: A biographical essay. The Atlantic Monthly (August).