Thoreau's Journal Captures the Beauty and Essence of Cape Cod Now and 150 Years Ago
Last week I traced Thoreau’s 1857 walk on Cape Cod, which led him through a substantial forest in what is now Nickerson State Park in Brewster. His Journal of that walk gives us a rare glimpse into the life of the few people then inhabiting what is now the state park, including two women he met, one “with a child in her arms” and another “mending a fence….using an ax.”
When we visit a place like Nickerson State Park, which was established in 1921 in the eastern part of Brewster, we are tempted to think that it has always been like this, a piece of virgin woodland preserved from human alteration. But it was only some 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, that the Park was transformed into its present state by crews of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC, as it was known, was made up of young men drafted out of the widespread joblessness of the Depression to live in barracks in the park as they built most of its present roads, pond landings, campsites and trails. The ruins of these barracks have only recently been uncovered and marked.
Before being a state park, these extensive woods and numerous ponds were a private game and fishing park, owned by the family of Roland Nickerson, a 19th century railroad magnate who in the 1890s built the magnificent mansion and large carriage house on Route 6A that is now the Ocean Edge condominium complex. But before that, whose woods and ponds were these? Who owned them, used them, when and for what?
There is, on the north side of a small, unnamed pond in the northeast corner of the park, a small family cemetery. For years it lay in unmarked obscurity, and I was always surprised when I came upon it in my own wanderings through the park. Recently, however, it has been cleared out and officially labeled on the park map as an “Historical Cemetery.” There are only two limestone grave markers in the cemetery. One is for a “Mr. John Crosby/Died/Aug. 7, 1843/ Aet 68,” and the other one for a “Mrs. Dorcas Crosby/ Died/July 14, 1846:/Aet. 35.”
It would be nice to think that Dorcas Crosby was the woman that Thoreau described encountering “with a child in her arms,” or perhaps she was the other woman he saw “mending a fence….using an ax.” It would give a concrete connection, through these old gravestones, to Thoreau’s passage through these woods 158 years ago. But Dorcas Crosby died eleven years before Thoreau’s visit here, and in any case, none of the houses shown in this area on the 1858 atlas are labeled “Crosby.” So it wasn’t her that Thoreau encountered. It’s possible that it was one of Dorcas’ daughters that he met, who married a Long or a Linnell, a Redding or an Eldredge – names shown on the atlas in the vicinity of the cemetery. Then again, because it’s such a small cemetery, and set in such a remote part of the park, it may have been a smallpox cemetery. We’ll probably never know. At any rate, as was his gift, Thoreau managed, in his brief passage through these woods – now a heavily visited recreational area – to capture much of the essence, beauty and mystery that it still possesses.