Thoreau in Minnesota

Minn Map 1857

"Thoreau Country" is a term that often refers to the region in and around Concord, Massachusetts. But during his lifetime, Henry David Thoreau traveled to other sites as well, to observe their natural habitats and meet their people. This includes Minnesota where Thoreau spent one month in the summer of 1861. Minnesota was chosen as the destination on the advice of his doctor who suggested the change of climate may be beneficial to Thoreau who was suffering from “consumption,” or tuberculosis as it is known today.

Thoreau was accompanied by 17 year-old Horace Mann, Jr., a family friend and aspiring naturalist. The pair departed Concord on May 11, 1861 traveling across country by rail and arriving at Dunleith, IL, now East Dubuque, IL on May 23rd. There they boarded the steamboat Itasca and sailed up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, MN, arriving there on May 26. After nearly a month of exploring the area around the Twin Cities, Thoreau and Mann saw an advertisement for “A Grand Pleasure Excursion” on the Minnesota River aboard the steamboat Frank Steele. The 300 mile trip to the Lower Sioux Agency promised the travelers a good opportunity “ see this splendid region of the country” and to witness the annual payment of government annuities to the Indians. Whatever plans Thoreau and Mann had for the remainder of their time in Minnesota gave way to this unexpected opportunity. The six day round trip on the river may not have been the “Grand Pleasure Excursion” that was advertised, but it was to Thoreau, “a very novel kind of navigation,” and an experience worth describing in length in a June 25 letter to his friend Franklin B. Sanborn, and in his “Notes on the Journey West.”

The Minnesota River excursion ended in St. Paul on the evening of June 22nd. After an overnight stay, Thoreau and Mann boarded a steamboat for Red Wing, MN where they stayed for two days before leaving on June 26 on the steamboat War Eagle, heading for Prairie du Chien, Wi. They returned to Concord on July 11, 1861. His month in Minnesota may not have improved his physical health, but throughout the rigorous two month trip, Thoreau rose above his condition, and made the most of it, thus he lived up to his own advice entered in his journal on February 23, 1841. “We do wrong to slight our sickness and feel so ready to desert our posts when we are harassed. So much the more should we rise above our condition, and make the most of it, for the fruit of disease may be as good as that of health.”

Today, many of the Minnesota sites visited by Thoreau are public parks and nature preserves, a fitting tribute and unofficial monument to Thoreau, who is known today as the father of environmentalism who proclaimed: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” For more information about Thoreau’s Minnesota Journey and the sites he visited, see:

• Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey by Corinne Hosfeld Smith, Green Frigate Books, 2012.

• Thoreau’s Minnesota Journey: Two Documents: Thoreau’s Notes on the Journey West and the Letters of Horace Mann, Jr., edited by Walter Harding. Thoreau Society Booklet No. Sixteen. Geneseo, New York 1962.

• Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Ney Nature Center

Fort Snelling

Fort Ridgley

Lower Sioux Agency,

Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

• Hennepin County Library, James K. Hosmer Special Collections, 19th Century American Studies Collection.

Places Thoreau Visited in Minnesota:

(selected list)
St. Paul, St. Anthony and Minneapolis, Lakes Calhoun and Harriet, Minnehaha Falls, Ft. Snelling, six day steamboat trip on the Minnesota River from St. Paul to Lower Sioux Agency with stops at Henderson, New Ulm, and Ft. Ridgely. During a layover at Red Wing, MN Thoreau climbed Barn Bluff.

Written by Dale Schwie of MN, Thoreau Society, Board of Directors