Cape Cod Woods 150 Years Ago: So Big That Thoreau Gets Lost In Them
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Cape Cod, Thoreau’s classic account of his visits to this sandy peninsula. Of the four visits he made to the Cape from 1849 to 1957, the first three provided the material he used in his book, which was published posthumously in 1865. His last trip, taken in June of 1857, is distinctive for several reasons.
It exists only in his Journal. Unlike the first three visits, where he either rode the stagecoach as far as Orleans or took the ferry from Boston to Provincetown, in 1857 he took the newly-completed railroad as far as Plymouth, got a ride in a wagon as far as Manomet, and then walked the entire length of the Cape, from Sandwich to Provincetown, going through, among other places, the village of Bass River in Yarmouth and the eastern part of Brewster.
True to his stubborn nature, Thoreau largely avoided the main roads and settlements. Instead, using his compass and charts, he navigated by dead-reckoning. Setting out from Harwich Center on his way to Orleans, he walked along the northwest shores of Hinckley, Sheep and Long Ponds. Stopping for lunch on the high bluffs of Long Pond, he made the uncharacteristic observation that “it appeared to be the best place for an inland hotel on the Cape.”
Then he makes a remarkable comment: “I struck off northeast…through uninterrupted woods for almost an hour.” Now, we tend to think of mid-19th century Cape Cod as a completely treeless place, and indeed, much of the Cape was. But earlier on his walk, a man in Bass River had told Thoreau that there was a “large tract of wood running down the center of the Cape from Sandwich, three miles wide and thirty long.”
The eastern end of this “wooded tract” ran through what is now Nickerson State Park, which, in fact, has unusually mature stands of white pine, beech and oak. So thickly wooded was the forest here, Thoreau writes, that “laying down my pack, I climbed an oak and looked off; but the woods bounded the horizon as far as I could see on every side… This gave me a new idea of the extent of Cape Cod woodland."
And though he doesn’t admit it, it also made him realize that he was lost. Eventually he came to a house in the woods, where he spoke with “a woman with a child in her arms.” It was rare, then, to find a house so far inland off any main road. The 1858 atlas of Brewster, in fact, shows only four houses in the area that is now Nickerson State Park. The woman confirmed Thoreau’s position, and from there he set off towards Orleans, at one point observing another “woman mending a fence nearly a mile from a house, using an ax,” and passing “two or three more of those peculiar ponds with high shiny sand banks.” This, as far as I know, is the first detailed description of the human and natural history of what is now Nickerson State Park, and next week I’ll tell you about a possible surviving artifact connected to Thoreau’s visit there.