The Wheeler-Thoreau Shanty site discovery by Jeff Craig has been welcomed by historians and Thoreau enthusiasts alike, for little was known about this “lost” shanty that Thoreau had lived at for six weeks during the summer of 1837.
Charles Stearns Wheeler had built the shanty in 1836 near Flint’s Pond in Lincoln, Mass.
It is widely accepted today that Thoreau got the idea to build his Walden cabin from his experiences at Wheeler’s shanty. However, the exact location of the shanty was a complete mystery, helping to launch Jeff Craig’s search to find it seven years ago.
Craig presented his findings about the discovery to the Thoreau Society last summer, including new details about the shanty that were previously unknown. The shanty shared some important similarities with the cabin that Thoreau built at Walden Pond in 1845.
Wheeler-Thoreau Shanty Discovery
Archaeologists from five major universities contributed advice and technical assistance to evaluate the site scientifically. Preliminary evaluations indicate the Wheeler-Thoreau Shanty measured 22 feet x 22 feet. That made it larger than Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, which was 10 feet x 15 feet.
The larger size fits the historical narrative, because Wheeler also hosted other Harvard friends during the summers from 1838 to 1841.
Like Thoreau’s Walden cabin, Wheeler’s Shanty was made of wooden logs, but no nails have been found at the site. This indicates Wheeler may have cut notches at the end of the logs and then locked them in place at right angles. He built the shanty foundation of stone, while Thoreau used a mix of old bricks and stone at Walden.
According to a preliminary assessment, Wheeler used his shanty primarily during the summers. Therefore, it didn’t have a fixed fireplace and chimney. The Walden cabin, on the other hand, definitely did. Thoreau goes into great detail in Walden about how he winterized his cabin to stay warm during the two winters he lived there.
Also, unlike Wheeler’s Shanty, the Walden cabin did not have a cistern because Thoreau drank his water directly from Walden Pond. Wheeler may have needed the cistern because of the distance from Flint’s Pond to the shanty. Alternatively, the water at Flint’s Pond may not have been potable, and Wheeler built the cistern out of necessity.
Due to the continuing scientific research at the Wheeler site, the exact location will remain confidential for the foreseeable future.
Thoreau Cabin Site Discovery at Walden
In 1945, Roland Robbins had famously discovered the lost Thoreau cabin site at Walden Pond. His discovery provided critical information about the cabin’s construction, its exact dimensions and location. The discovery also allowed identification of important artifacts that Thoreau had used to build the cabin. Thoreau spent two years and two months living at Walden from 1845-1847, and he chronicled his experiences in his classic book Walden.
Aware of the historical significance of Robbins’ discovery, Jeff Craig began researching the history of Wheeler’s lost shanty site in 2012.
One source located the site on a reedy island in the middle of Flint’s Pond. Multiple sources gave conflicting location information, making the search even harder.
After five months, Craig found a possible shanty site location off the shore of Flint’s Pond. This site had a stone foundation underground, and he consulted archaeologists to help evaluate it. They identified the construction as “dry stone,” built without mortar.
Other tools included LIDAR, a laser detection method that allows archaeologists to see the actual ground surface beneath the forest and vegetation.
These two photos show aerial views of the Wheeler-Thoreau Shanty site search area at Flint’s Pond. The photo on the left illustrates the dense forest and vegetation in the search area. It made Jeff Craig’s search for the shanty site even more challenging.
Jeff Craig made a breakthrough in 2017 when he discovered important evidence at the site. Subsequent evaluation over the next three months revealed artifacts consistent with a shanty used as permanent living quarters.
A key discovery was a cistern at the site, used to collect rain water, purify it and provide drinkable water to the inhabitants.
The cistern provided strong evidence that the builders of this shanty-size stone foundation intended people to live there. The fact that the site was located where a biography about Charles Stearns Wheeler had described it offered compelling justification for the Wheeler-Thoreau shanty discovery.
The site is also located on land the Wheeler family owned in the early 19th century.
While no one has found a written record of why Wheeler built the shanty in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson was Wheeler’s Transcendentalist mentor that year. Emerson also published his famous essay Nature in September 1836. He may have influenced Wheeler and Thoreau to carry out their Transcendentalist outdoor living experiment the following summer.
The shanty site has a beautiful view of Flint’s Pond and surrounding area. The location and the pond view have similarities with Thoreau’s cabin site at Walden Pond.
There is no doubt Thoreau was influenced by the beautiful setting of Wheeler’s shanty, and drew inspiration from it building his own cabin. The six weeks Thoreau lived at Wheeler’s shanty had a profound influence on him, changing his destiny forever.
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