IF CONFIRMED, THE DISCOVERY WOULD BE HISTORIC, AS THE SHANTY SITE INSPIRED THOREAU’S WALDEN CABIN PLANS
An amateur archaeologist, Jeff Craig, may have discovered the “lost” Shanty site where Henry David Thoreau spent 6 weeks in 1837 with his Harvard roommate Charles Stearns Wheeler. Wheeler and his family built the Shanty on their property at Flint’s Pond in 1836, partially motivated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his back-to-nature transcendentalist philosophy. It is widely accepted today that Thoreau got the idea to build his cabin from his experiences at Wheeler’s shanty. It is also possible Thoreau helped Wheeler build the shanty. Thoreau first sought to build his cabin at Flint’s Pond in the early 1840’s, but he could not secure permission from a landowner. Only after Emerson let him use a small parcel of his land in 1845 was Thoreau able to build his cabin at Walden Pond. In modern times, the location of Wheeler’s Shanty site had become lost, its whereabouts were a complete mystery.
Intrigued with the challenge of finding this historic site, Jeff Craig began researching the history of Wheeler’s shanty over five years ago. One source stated the site was located 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 just off the shore of Flint’s Pond. This site had a stone foundation underground, and archaeologists were consulted to assist in an evaluation of the site. The foundation was found to be a “Dry Stone” foundation (built without mortar). Definitive evidence that it was the actual site remained elusive.
A breakthrough occurred in 2017. Jeff Craig discovered important evidence at the site that summer, and the subsequent evaluation of this evidence over the next three months revealed artifacts that were consistent with a shanty structure that had been used as a permanent living quarters. The fact that the site was located in the area where a biography about Charles Stearns Wheeler had described it to be (written by John Eidson in 1951, with assistance from the Wheeler family at the time) offered compelling justification the actual site had been found. The site is also located on land the Wheeler family owned in the early 19th century.
Archaeologists from five major universities have contributed advice and technical assistance (at various times) to advance the scientific evaluation of this site. None of these archaeologists have been working on this project continuously, their participation was primarily in an advisory role. Due to the continuing scientific research being conducted at the site, the exact location will be kept confidential for the foreseeable future.
While a written record of why Wheeler built the Shanty has never been found, Emerson was serving as a Transcendentalist mentor to him in 1836 when the Shanty was built. Emerson published his famous essay Nature in September of that year, and his influence is thought to have been a factor in Wheeler and Thoreau carrying out their Transcendentalist outdoor living experiment the following summer. Besides Thoreau, Wheeler also hosted other Harvard friends at his Shanty, including Charles Hayward and Samuel Hildreth.
The Shanty site is located off the shore of Flint’s Pond, with a beautiful view of the 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.
More information about this project is available at this web address: https://sites.google.com/view/wheeler-thoreaushanty/