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Thoreau’s Reflections on the Indians and White Settlement

From A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Sunday” section, 1849


In this Billerica [MA] solid men must have lived, select from year to year; a series of town clerks, at least; and there are old records that you may search.  Some spring the white man came, built him a house, and made a clearing here, letting in the sun, dried up a farm, piled up the old gray stones in fences, cut down the pines around his dwelling, planted orchard seeds brought from the old country, and persuaded the civil apple-tree to blossom next to the wild pine and the juniper, shedding its perfume in the wilderness.  Their old stocks still remain.  He culled the graceful elm from out the woods and from the river-side, and so refined and smoothed his village plot.  He rudely bridged the stream, and drove his team afield into the river meadows, cut the wild grass, and laid bare the homes of beaver, otter, muskrat, and with the whetting of his scythe scared off the deer and bear.  He set up a mill, and fields of English grain sprang in the virgin soil.  And with his grain he scattered the seeds of the dandelion and the wild trefoil over the meadows, mingling his English flowers with the wild native ones.  The bristling burdock, the sweet-scented catnip, and the humble yarrow planted themselves along his woodland road, they too seeking "freedom to worship God" in their way.  And thus he plants a town.  The white man’s mullein soon reigned in Indian cornfields, and sweet-scented English grasses clothed the new soil.  Where, then, could the Red Man set his foot?  The honey-bee hummed through the Massachusetts woods, and sipped the wild-flowers round the Indian’s wigwam, perchance unnoticed, when, with prophetic warning, it stung the Red child’s hand, forerunner of that industrious tribe that was to come and pluck the wild-flower of his race up by the root.

      The white man comes, pale as the dawn, with a load of thought, with a slumbering intelligence as a fire raked up, knowing well what he knows, not guessing but calculating; strong in community, yielding obedience to authority; of experienced race; of wonderful, wonderful common sense; dull but capable, slow but persevering, severe but just, of little humor but genuine; a laboring man, despising game and sport; building a house that endures, a framed house.  He buys the Indian’s moccasins and baskets, then buys his hunting-grounds, and at length forgets where he is buried and ploughs up his bones.  And here town records, old, tattered, time-worn, weather-stained chronicles, contain the Indian sachem’s mark perchance, an arrow or a beaver, and the few fatal words by which he deeded his hunting-grounds away.  He comes with a list of ancient Saxon, Norman, and Celtic names, and strews them up and down this river, —Framingham, Sudbury, Bedford, Carlisle, Billerica, Chelmsford, —and this is New Angle-land, and these are the New West Saxons whom the Red Men call, not Angle-ish or English, but Yengeese, and so at last they are known for Yankees.

        When we were opposite to the middle of Billerica, the fields on either hand had a soft and cultivated English aspect, the village spire being seen over the copses which skirt the river, and sometimes an orchard straggled down to the water-side, though, generally, our course this forenoon was the wildest part of our voyage.  It seemed that men led a quiet and very civil life there.  The inhabitants were plainly cultivators of the earth, and lived under an organized political government.  The school-house stood with a meek aspect, entreating a long truce to war and savage life.  Every one finds by his own experience, as well as in history, that the era in which men cultivate the apple, and the amenities of the garden, is essentially different from that of the hunter and forest life, and neither can displace the other without loss.  We have all had our day-dreams, as well as more prophetic nocturnal vision; but as for farming, I am convinced that my genius dates from an older era than the agricultural.  I would at least strike my spade into the earth with such careless freedom but accuracy as the woodpecker his bill into a tree.  There is in my nature, methinks, a singular yearning toward all wildness.  I know of no redeeming qualities in myself but a sincere love for some things, and when I am reproved I fall back on to this ground.  What have I to do with ploughs?  I cut another furrow than you see. . . .



Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw.  There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic.  A highly cultivated man, —all whose bones can be bent!  whose heaven-born virtues are but good manners!  The young pines springing up in the cornfields from year to year are to me a refreshing fact.  We talk of civilizing the Indian, but that is not the name for his improvement.  By the wary independence and aloofness of his dim forest life he preserves his intercourse with his native gods, and is admitted from time to time to a rare and peculiar society with Nature.  He has glances of starry recognition to which our saloons are strangers.  The steady illumination of his genius, dim only because distant, is like the faint but satisfying light of the stars compared with the dazzling but ineffectual and short-lived blaze of candles.  The Society-Islanders had their day-born gods, but they were not supposed to be "of equal antiquity with the atua fauau po, or night-born gods.”  It is true, there are the innocent pleasures of country life, and it is sometimes pleasant to make the earth yield her increase, and gather the fruits in their season, but the heroic spirit will not fail to dream of remoter retirements and more rugged paths.  It will have its garden-plots and its parterres elsewhere than on the earth, and gather nuts and berries by the way for its subsistence, or orchard fruits with such heedlessness as berries.  We would not always be soothing and taming nature, breaking the horse and the ox, but sometimes ride the horse wild and chase the buffalo.  The Indian’s intercourse with Nature is at least such as admits of the greatest independence of each.  If he is somewhat of a stranger in her midst, the gardener is too much of a familiar.  There is something vulgar and foul in the latter’s closeness to his mistress, something noble and cleanly in the former’s distance . . . .


. . . If we could listen but for an instant to the chant of the Indian muse, we should understand why he will not exchange his savageness for civilization.  Nations are not whimsical.  Steel and blankets are strong temptations; but the Indian does well to continue Indian.



From A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849, “Sunday” section

Courtesy of The Thoreau Society, Lincoln, MA 


The Thoreau Society

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