PART ONE: A PROBLEMATIC THOREAU ON VACATION
Today marks the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birthday. This talented, problematic writer was a study in contradictions. He was an elegant writer on the subject of the natural world, but prone to didactic lecturing on the subject of humanity. He was an avid student of history, especially Indian history, but he failed to reconcile his fictional and romantic image of Indians of the past with the realities of the contemporary Indians whom he met in Massachusetts and Maine during his lifetime. Below is a story about a favorite day of Thoreau’s life while vacationing in Lakeville, Massachusetts which includes a collision of Thoreau’s conflicting beliefs, and its devastating legacy a century later, which led to the desecration of the grave of a multiracial man who Thoreau met that day.
In the autumn of 1855, 38 year old Henry David Thoreau spent a perfect day by Assawompset Pond in Lakeville, Massachusetts. It was the favorite spot of his friend Daniel Ricketson, who was eager to share its natural beauty with Thoreau. Thoreau later wrote that the memory of that day “gleam[ed] in my mind’s eye”, and would carry him through the cold winter at home in Concord, Massachusetts. Ricketson arranged the day to include Thoreau’s favorite things – an exploration and collection of local flora, and intellectual discussions about philosophy and local Indian history. The highlights for Thoreau included hunting for clamshells and Indian artifacts along several Lakeville ponds, taking botanical notes of the plants he saw along the way, venturing off the main road to view Indian petroglyphs, finding a rare blooming flower, and taking in the natural beauty of Lakeville’s “broad, shallow lakes.”
Only one thing “vexed” Thoreau’s day, a disappointing encounter with Thomas Smith and Pamelia Sepit Hector, a married multiracial couple with Native American and African slave heritage. They trespassed on the Smiths’ property on Betty’s Neck as Thoreau searched the beach for Indian artifacts and Ricketson lectured about “ancient” Indian history. The white men called out to the couple, who were fishing in Assawompset Pond in their boat, and asked that they approach and converse. Thoreau was flabbergasted to note that the woman was steering and fishing with her husband, quite unlike a Yankee lady. The eccentric Ricketson and socially awkward Thoreau barraged the surprised couple with a multitude of questions about their “Indian blood”. Of the couple, the man Thomas Smith (quickly ascertained to be “one-fourth Indian” and three-fourths “negro”) was more responsive to their questions, and, although he provided them with a number of useful facts about Assawompset Pond’s botany and geography, Thoreau was disappointed by Thomas’s “ignorance” of Indian history. Thoreau later even asked a white Lakeville resident to verify information Thomas Smith provided about the types of fish in the pond and the pond’s depth (it turned out Thomas was accurate in his knowledge of the pond from which he made his livelihood). Thoreau never even learned the first name of Thomas Smith’s wife, instead calling her “Tom Smith’s woman”, his “squaw”, who reluctantly revealed that her maiden name was Sepit. Ricketson and Thoreau made numerous comments about her Indian appearance, demanded to know her history, and were briefly excited to discover she was a “half-breed” from the area. But Smith’s wife was immediately insulted by these strange men and their insistent, rude questions and insensitive comments, and mostly refused to answer them, or replied sarcastically or defiantly. All the while, she had the gall to be a woman steering her own boat, which was designed and built by her husband. It is an understatement to say that Thoreau and Ricketson did not know what to make of Pamelia, whose name remained unlearned by Thoreau.
Thoreau frequently wrote flowery passages in his writings about the romantic ancient Indian, hunting, running with peaceful solitude through the woods. “The charm of the Indian to me, is that he stands free and unconstrained in Nature, is her inhabitant and not her guest, and wears her easily and gracefully. But the civilized man has the habits of the house. His house is a prison, in which he finds himself imprisoned and confined, not sheltered and protected.” Thoreau was obsessed with searching fields and shorelines for Indian artifacts, “relics of a race which has vanished as completely as if trodden into the earth.” And yet there were numerous Indian communities throughout Massachusetts in Thoreau’s lifetime who certainly had not “vanished” and yet were invisible to Thoreau. His few encounters with actual Indians rather than imagined ones inevitably ended in his disappointment that they were not the romantic figures from his mind. Instead they were impoverished and often understandably confused by the lecturing white man who unexpectedly appeared before them, demanding answers to private questions. He often left these conversations with the conclusion that contemporary Indians were unintelligent, ignorant, or lazy, and added racist theories on top of his conclusions about the “disappearance” of the “Indian race” as a result of intermarrying with the “negro” race. Poverty, Thoreau felt, led to a simplicity of life that he could almost admire, but he could not tolerate the comparison of an impoverished life to his own decision to “live deliberately” in simplicity, as he chose to do in Walden. “The savage lives simply through ignorance and idleness or laziness, but the philosopher lives simply through wisdom.”
Thoreau was a man of contradictions, many of his own making. “Why is [it] that we look upon the Indian as the man of the woods? There are races half-civilized, and barbarous even, that dwell in towns, but the Indians we associate in our minds with the wilderness.” As Thoreau walked the southern shore of Assawompset Pond on Betty’s Neck in Lakeville, he documented no indication of awareness that he was walking on the property of the Indian community there, which had been known as the Assawompset village for thousands of years, and still had a small village of Indian families. Like his views on poverty, Thoreau loved the idea of wilderness, but not the reality. If you took his description of his day in Lakeville at face value, you too might have believed that Thoreau walked through a vast wilderness of forest and shore on Betty’s Neck, alone but for their brief interruption by the Smiths. But he either did not see – or chose not to – the vibrant Indian community which still existed on their ancestral homeland. And despite Thoreau’s finding inspiration in the beauty of Assawompsett Pond and his thrill of feeling like he was in the wilderness, his excursion along the shore was still a half-hour walk in each direction, followed by refreshments available at the popular Sampson’s Tavern nearby.
Years ago I lived in Billerica, Massachusetts beside the Concord River, which I had only heard of through Thoreau’s first book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. One of my first weekend trips after moving to the area was a visit to Walden Pond, where I was taken by surprise by the noise from the highway, train, and tourists. At the time, I thought “how things have changed!”, but upon researching more details that evening, discovered how much it had actually stayed the same since Thoreau’s time – it was simply that Thoreau had written those components out of his story in search of “solitude”. Thoreau neglected to mention in Walden his weekly walks home to his mother’s for home cooked meals and her frequent visits to bring him groceries. He hosted occasional parties with his friends in his cottage, and had the companionship of the swimmers and boaters on Walden Pond. The commuter rail from Boston brought trains along the western side of the pond. Not to mention that one year prior to Ralph Waldo Emerson allowing Thoreau to live on Emerson’s land on Walden Pond for two years rent-free, Thoreau had accidentally started a fire which burned 300 acres of his beloved Walden Woods.
Thoreau loved nature, and his ability to vividly capture what he saw in the environment still paints a graphic picture over almost two centuries later. He lectured about the need for simplicity, and his out-of-context quotes are often idolized by modern minimalists. But he was not a man who pared his possessions down by keeping only those which “sparked joy,” instead, he focused on brutal utility. Although his writings on nature could be passionate, his writings about his fellow man were filled with admonishments. He disdained food, alcohol, and beverages other than water, complained about sensuality and music, and would chastise others who engaged with those most human of things. In his journals, he commented on the ugly housing, unfashionable clothing, and crude moral characters of the impoverished people he encountered. If he truly believed “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” his pedantic beliefs did not offer them much of a solution. Schulz notes, “Only someone who had never experienced true remoteness could mistake Walden for the wilderness or compare life on the bustling pond to that on the mid-nineteenth-century prairies. Indeed, an excellent corrective to “Walden” is the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who grew up on those prairies, and in a genuine little house in the big woods. Wilder lived what Thoreau merely played at, and her books are not only more joyful and interesting than “Walden” but also, when reread, a thousand times more harrowing. Real isolation presents real risks, both emotional and mortal, and, had Thoreau truly lived at a remove from other people, he might have valued them more. Instead, his case against community rested on an ersatz experience of doing without it.” See Schulz’s excellent New Yorker article “Pond Scum” for more details about Thoreau’s conflicted, misanthrophic, romantic, judgmental, poetic, difficult personality. And then see Hohn’s article “Everybody Hates Henry David Thoreau”, a spirited defense of Thoreau in response to Schulz’s piece. See also a discussion in the New York Times of Thoreau’s black and Irish neighbors in “At Walden, Thoreau Wasn’t Really Alone With Nature.” And Elise Lemire’s valuable Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts.
Thoreau was a strange contrast to his friend Daniel Ricketson, who was bombastic, emotional, and eccentric. When Thoreau visited Lakeville with Ricketson in 1855, it was only the second time the men had ever met in person. Ricketson had purchased Walden immediately after its publication in 1854 and written Thoreau a fan letter. The two men struck up a correspondence, and Thoreau visited his wealthy, intellectual fan at Christmas in 1854. They enjoyed each other’s company and discourse, and became fast friends, although each man wrote privately – and sometimes directly – stark assessments and grievances of the other’s personality quirks and annoyances. The 42 year old Ricketson was a New Bedford Quaker lawyer with similar passions as Thoreau – he was a poet, author, historian, abolitionist, philanthropist, and performed many of his writings in a small shack built on his vast 53 acre estate named “Brook Lawn” where he frequently entertained the literary elite, nicknaming themselves the “Shanty Society”. It was obviously appealing to Thoreau.
In 1857, 26 year old Anna Alcott wrote her first impression of Ricketson to her father Amos Bronson Alcott. Her letter gives some insight into the reactions that Thomas and Pamelia Smith had while talking with Ricketson and Thoreau on Assawompset Pond two years earlier: “We were surprised Sat. evening by a funny little man walking in and introducing himself as Mr. Ricketson of New Bedford. He stared at us one by one and then said, ‘So you are Mr. Alcott’s daughters, are you?’ – then looking at me ‘You look like your father, you’ve got his eyes and complexion.” So he kept saying the funniest [viz. strangest] things. ‘How old are you? What do you weigh & how much can you bear? How’s your temper?’ He was much taken by Abby & said he should call to see her by daylight. Mother looked her very best & behaved beautifully. I knew he liked her and enjoyed his visit, for he came again on Sunday and stayed till I thought I should sink into the floor. He thinks of building a house here this year, and made fine plans, but he is a very singular man, and I shouldn’t be surprised to hear he had hung himself on a tree any day. Did you ever suspect him of being crazy at all?”
Both Thoreau and Ricketson wrote journal entries detailing their own interpretations of what Thoreau later remembered as the highlight of his trip, their perfect day spent at Lakeville, Massachusetts on 2 October 1855. But even between these two friends, there are differences in their accounts which speak volumes about what each man found significant during their time together. Some important observations about the day were written by Ricketson, but never mentioned by Thoreau, and vice versa. And although both men went to Lakeville in part to discuss local Indian history, neither made the most of a chance encounter with actual local Indians to engage meaningfully with either contemporary or historical issues involving the Assawompset Indian community. And because their interaction was so blundered, Thoreau missed an opportunity to discover the significant stories about the lives and histories of Thomas Smith and his wife Pamelia Sepit Hector, which this blog series will help to reveal. On an otherwise pleasant day, only the awkwardness of Thoreau’s encounter with the Smiths “vexed” him. Yet today it seems vexing to know that Thoreau, a talented writer and observer of the world, was too caught up in racist thinking and disappointment in the disconnect between romantic “Indians in [my] mind” and the real Indian couple before him to actually connect with and learn their stories. We have access to millions of words by Thoreau, but only a paragraph and three little sketches of Thoreau’s meeting with the Smiths. The fascinating stories of the Smiths and their 19th century community on Betty’s Neck – though unknown to Thoreau – deserve more.
Learning about the lives of the Smith family is especially valuable in light of a recent terrible injustice to Thomas Smith, whose gravestone was stolen in 2008 and later recovered by Lakeville police in 2009. The recovered gravestones are now under protection by the Wampanoag tribe. A gravel pit company or housing development several decades ago removed Thomas and his brother William Smith’s headstones and footstones from their cemetery on Betty’s Neck, perched them against a tree in a nearby swamp, and bulldozed over their graves (as well as probably numerous other Indian graves whose burial plots were not marked by headstones, likely including the bold Pamelia Sepit Hector). This was not discovered until an attempt in the 2000s to document and plot all of the cemeteries in Lakeville, which resulted in the book Lakeville, Massachusetts Gravestone Inscriptions, 1711-2003. Local historians have attempted to determine where the original cemetery was, but to this day its exact location has not been precisely found.
The lack of protection for – or even community knowledge of – small, forgotten New England cemeteries is a common problem as development overtakes long unused historic places. But the Smith cemetery (also known as the Indian Shore Cemetery) was forgotten in part because it belonged to the Betty’s Neck Indian community, which was as invisible to Thoreau in 1855 as it was to outsiders a century later when the only obvious evidence of that community which remained on the property was their names carved into gravestones and the much older petroglyphs carved into stone on the shore of Assawompset Pond. Without the stories of Thomas and Pamelia (Sepit Hector) Smith and their community being well-known and valued, their gravestones were mistreated, their graves devastated, and their ancestors’ petroglyphs covered in modern graffiti.