The Thoreau Household in 1840

Daguerreotype of Sewall, 1847
Daguerreotype of Sewall, 1847

We recently announced a new web resource consisting of four journals kept by Edmund Quincy Sewall Jr. between 1837 and 1840, when Sewall was between nine and twelve years old. Of particular interest is a journal kept in March and April 1840, when the boy was a student at John and Henry David Thoreau’s Concord Academy and a boarder in the Thoreau household.

In the opening entry in his Concord journal, written a few days after his arrival, Edmund wrote, “There are three other boys who board here and go to the school – Charles Jesse & Joseph. Charles came up with me in the stage.” Charles was Charles Cummings, later a silversmith. We also know that Jesse’s surname was Harding, but we know nothing more about him or Joseph.

The presence of four active boys in the house led to predictable consequences. In the entry quoted above, Edmund continues:

This was a day of misfortunes. At noon Charles & I fired upon a party of boys going by in the road. A skirmish ensued and we being inferior in force although Joseph and Jesse had joined us were driven into the house except Charles who was chased away by the boys. We boys in the house being desirous of seeing the marauders ran into the entry where there was an open window and (as we afterwards found) a pudding cooling to look out of the window. None of us saw the pudding till it was lying bottom upwards on the ground and each declared that he was not conscious of knocking it over….Just before supper Joseph who was leaning the back of his chair against the wall slipped down hurt him self some and the chair more for one of the upright rods at the back was started. I believe nobody knows of this but us boys and I hope it will not be discovered before its time. In the evening a small bottle of blue ink was upset on the table cloth.

The U.S. census of 1840, taken nominally on June 1, listed a total of twelve people in John Thoreau Sr.’s house. Only heads of households were listed by name in the census, with other persons enumerated by only gender, race, and age range. However, it is possible to identify seven of the individuals by name. The nucleus of the family consisted of John and Cynthia Thoreau and their sons John and Henry. The other residents included Cynthia’s sister Louisa Dunbar, and Edmund’s aunt Prudence Ward and her mother Prudence (Bird) Ward.[1] There are also three boys aged between ten and fifteen; these were undoubtedly students at the Thoreau brothers’ school and one of them may have been Edmund. The census also lists two “free colored” women aged between ten and twenty-four in the Thoreau household. These were likely servants, perhaps two of the twenty-three African Americans listed as residents of Concord in the 1840 census, and as we shall see they were no longer in the Thoreau household by October.

A newly available letter provides some details about servants and boarders in the Thoreau household in this period. On October 8, 1840, Prudence wrote to her sister Caroline:

Detail of letter from Prudence Ward to Caroline Ward Sewall, October 8 1840
Page of letter from Prudence Ward to Caroline Ward Sewall, October 8 1840

Some change has taken place in our family—besides the coming & going of girls, & the doing without, as at this present— Mrs. T. has consented to take Mrs. Brown to board, & she is expected shortly, & she will also take a Dr. & Mrs. Prescott— an old gentleman and his wife, that is if they assent to terms— then we are to have no boys.  Mrs. T required a q[uarte]r of a dollar more for their board if they stayed this winter in view of being obliged to keep an extra fire for them— The parents are not willing for this, & another place has been found for them. — At present Jessey & two little brothers are here, the latter because of their mother’s sickness— Jessey will leave when his brothers go away.  He would like best to remain – & could stay— as one could be accommodated at the parlor fire— but the family where the others have gone choose to have three or none. [2]

All of this activity and “coming & going” appears to have been a source of stress for Henry. While Edmund was in Concord, Henry wrote in his journal “How shall I help myself? By withdrawing into the garret, and associating with spiders and mice—determining to meet myself face to face sooner or later….The most positive life that history notices has been a constant retiring out of life—a wiping ones’ hands of it—seeing how mean it is, and having nothing to do with it.”[3]

Readers, if you can identify Edmund’s fellow boarders Joseph or Jesse, or Mrs. Brown and Dr. and Mrs. Prescott, please let us know!

[1] Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), 21-22.

[2] Prudence Ward to Caroline Ward Sewall, October 8 1840, Sewall Family Papers, AAS.

[3] Henry D. Thoreau, Journal, ed. John C. Broderick et al., vol. 1, 1837-1841 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 121 (entry for April 8, 1840).

Published by

Tom Knoles

Marcus A. McCorison Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts

2 thoughts on “The Thoreau Household in 1840”

  1. Mrs. Brown is Lucy Brown, the sister-in-law of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dr. and Mrs. Prescott are likely Timothy and Maria Prescott.

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