The recent discovery of the Wheeler-Thoreau shanty site by Jeff Craig is revealing exciting new details as the archaeological evaluation of this historic site continues.
Charles Stearns Wheeler had built the shanty in 1836 near Flint’s Pond in Lincoln, Mass. His close friend and Harvard roommate, Henry David Thoreau, spent six weeks at the shanty during the summer of 1837, and it is widely accepted today that Thoreau got the idea to build his Walden cabin from his experiences living there. The exact location of the shanty was a complete mystery, until Jeff Craig launched an exhaustive search to find it seven years ago.
Search and Possible Discovery
After conducting research about the history of the “lost” shanty in early 2013, Craig spent several months searching for the site near Flint’s Pond. After identifying a possible shanty site foundation underground, archaeologists were brought in to help evaluate it. A “dry stone” foundation was confirmed at the site, and Ground Penetrating Radar was later conducted by archaeologists to help evaluate it.
Jeff Craig made a breakthrough in 2017 when he discovered unexpected evidence at the site.
The surprise discovery was the identification of a cistern, which was used to collect rain water, purify it and provide good drinking water to the inhabitants who lived there.
The cistern provided strong evidence that the builders of this shanty-size stone foundation had included a cistern because people were living there. The fact that the site was located in the area where a biography about Charles Stearns Wheeler had described it offered compelling justification the shanty site had been found.
Silver Artifacts Found in the Cistern
Wheeler used his shanty primarily during the summers from 1836 to 1842, and a more in-depth study of the cistern has provided new details of how the cistern worked. The cistern was located immediately adjacent to the southeast corner of the Shanty, collecting rainwater from the roof. Built in-ground, the cistern’s dimensions were approximately four feet by four feet.
The cistern was built with several compartments, and the water flowed through the compartments to ensure proper filtration and treatment.
Metal fragments were found in the cistern, and some of these fragments have now been confirmed as silver. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was understood that silver helped keep water fresh. Some settlers and colonists put silver coins in their rain barrels, knowing the silver helped keep the water drinkable. Wheeler utilized the same concept in his cistern, using small fragments of silver to treat the water, keeping it fresh.
In 1836, the actual scientific details of how silver treated the water were unknown. However, Wheeler’s motivation to use the best techniques for his cistern at the time (by using sand as a filter mechanism and silver to enhance the taste of the water) would be obvious to anyone who planned to live at the shanty for extended periods of time.
Today, silver is used extensively in modern water filters, providing silver ions to enhance taste and helping to prevent harmful bacteria. NASA utilized silver in a water purifier that was built specifically for the Apollo astronauts during their missions to the moon.
With the shanty being built near Flint’s Pond, what was Wheeler’s motivation to build a complex cistern at the site? Distance may have been a factor, Wheeler’s shanty was over three times the distance to Flint’s Pond compared to Thoreau’s much shorter trip at Walden (where Thoreau drank his water directly from Walden Pond). Perhaps the water at Flint’s Pond was not potable, or the water tasted poorly due to a high mineral content. While both of these issues may have been motivating factors, consideration must also be given to the historical background of when the shanty was built.
Disease was an ever present reality in Wheeler’s time, and the knowledge that killers such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, yellow fever, typhus and cholera were a real danger to one’s health was taken seriously in the early 19th century. The causes of these diseases were poorly understood, and the medicines doctors used to treat them were largely ineffective.
By today’s standards, their medical knowledge was primitive. However, even in the early 1800’s, many scientists believed that polluted water was a potential health threat, and emphasized the importance of drinking clean water to avoid disease.
Wheeler was aware of these concerns, and it may have been another reason he went to the trouble of building a cistern. Having fresh water that was safe to drink at his shanty was obviously important to him. Wheeler’s family was also heavily involved in helping him build the shanty, perhaps one of his relatives provided the influence that led to the construction of the cistern at the site.
Unfortunately, no written record survives that describes the construction of the shanty, or why the cistern was built. However, many details about the shanty are known, including the new information that Craig’s discovery has provided.
New Details Revealed
Prior to Craig’s discovery, details about the shanty’s construction, dimensions and exact location were a complete mystery. With technical assistance from archaeologists at five major universities, important information about the Shanty has now been ascertained. Preliminary findings indicate the Wheeler-Thoreau shanty measured 22 feet by 22 feet. That made it larger than Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, which was 10 feet by 15 feet.
The larger size fits the historical narrative, because Wheeler also hosted other friends at the shanty during the summers from 1838 to 1841. Charles Hayward, Samuel Hildreth and William Davis were three of those friends, they were also in Wheeler’s 1837 graduating class at Harvard.
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.
Wheeler used his shanty primarily during the summers, and the initial assessment is that it did not 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.
Due to the continuing scientific research at the Wheeler site, the exact location will remain confidential for the foreseeable future.
Wheeler’s shanty was historically significant for several reasons. Not only did Thoreau get the idea he wanted to build his own cabin from living at Wheeler’s shanty, but Wheeler was also the first Transcendentalist to build an outdoor living experiment to get closer to nature. Wheeler had been actively working with Ralph Waldo Emerson before Emerson even published his influential essay Nature in September 1836. Nature helped define the Transcendental movement, and Wheeler was aware of Emerson’s beliefs about finding divinity in nature (and each individual) before the essay was published.
Emerson’s influence undoubtedly contributed to Wheeler’s decision to build his shanty in 1836, and the shanty was “the birthplace” of the Transcendentalists back-to-nature outdoor living experiment. The noted historian Paul Brooks wrote in his 1976 book The View from Lincoln Hill:
“Thoreau’s school friend and college roommate Charles Stearns Wheeler built himself a hut on the shores of Flint’s Pond in Lincoln while still an undergraduate; there Thoreau joined him for six weeks during a summer vacation and so got the idea for his later experiment at Walden.”
“Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind,” Emerson wrote in his History essay, “and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era.”
For more information about the Wheeler-Thoreau shanty site discovery, click on this web address: https://sites.google.com/view/wheeler-thoreaushanty/
Read more about Thoreau in Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life. This story updated in 2022.