Daniel Ricketson (1813–1898)

Daniel Ricketson
(30 July 1813 – 16 July 1898)
Lawyer, writer, poet, nature lover

Like many well-off young men, Daniel Ricketson applied to Harvard in 1831. However, the New Bedford, Mass. native was denied entry due to poor exam results. Studying law from 1832-1836, Ricketson became an attorney and chose to legally represent the poor, often for free. As a local historian, Ricketson wrote the first history of New Bedford, “The Whaling City,” which was also home to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Herman Melville. Purchasing land in 1851 for his future home, an estate named Brooklawn, Ricketson built a 12 foot by 14 foot shanty built on the property. Though the small building was decorated with gingerbread details, flowers, and ivy, the term “shanty” is suitable to a seafaring city.

Built sometime between 1851 and 1854, Ricketson’s shanty was similar to, though bigger than, Thoreau’s Walden Pond house. Like the Concord Transcendentalist, the New Bedford Quaker preferred a life of leisure: walking in and communing with Nature, enjoying reading and writing in the solitude of his shanty. Among the friends entertained in the shanty were intellectual and literary notables, including Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing.

Another friend, George William Curtis, referred to Ricketson as “Member for Woods and Forests” or “Brother Woodchuck” of the “Sassafras Club” in the “Editor’s Easy Chair,” a regular column in Harper’s Weekly Magazine. In a January 1863 “Easy Chair” column, Curtis raises a comparison of his friends Ricketson and Thoreau:

For he [Ricketson] is not Orson [Thoreau], this lover of woods and waters, this intimate of insects and birds; but he is Cowper, rather yearning, susceptible, affectionate.

Upon reading Walden, Ricketson wrote to Thoreau on 12 August 1854 and a friendship began. Franklin B. Sanborn writes of Ricketson:

Though early acquainted with Emerson, who was well known to New Bedford as a preacher, Mr. Ricketson, as was said, does not seem to have known much of Thoreau until the publication of “Walden” in 1854, when he was in middle life. The reading of that book caused him to seek the acquaintance and correspondence of its author, and they became fast friends, exchanging visits . . .

(Daniel Ricketson and his Friends, 4-5)

Based on their correspondence, Thoreau enjoyed time with Ricketson’s wife, Louisa, and children, Arthur, Emma, Anna, and Walton. Over the next several years the men exchanged more than 60 letters and multiple visits between New Bedford and Concord. During one of these visits, Thoreau autographed Ricketson’s copy of Walden.

Ricketson was known to sketch his friends, family, and surroundings. On Thoreau’s first visit to New Bedford, Christmas Day 1854, Ricketson sketched his impression of the Walden author. After one of Thoreau’s visits, on 2 July 1856, Ricketson writes in his journal:

He is the best educated man I know, and I value his friendship very much. His health is quite poor at present, and I fear he will hardly reach old age, which from his unconcern in regard to it the more strengthens my fears for his loss.

Thoreau visited at least once a year through 1858, with the Concord saunterer’s last visit occurring 19-24 August 1861. Ricketson persuaded Thoreau to have ambrotypes, the last of the few images of Thoreau during his lifetime, taken at E.S. Dunshee’s studio on August 21, 1861, in New Bedford, Mass.

Although the New Bedford man continued friendships with the other Transcendentalists, his last visit to Thoreau was in early September 1861. Ricketson visited Concord with a physician the Quaker believed could help Thoreau. Returning to New Bedford on 5 September, Ricketson writes in his journal:

  I think T. seemed improving when I left him at Concord . . . I hope T. may be improving and need no Doctor or absence from home.

On 13 April 1862, Ricketson writes to Thoreau:

It has been the lot of but few, dear Henry, to extract so much from life as you have done. Although you number fewer years than many who have lived wisely before you, yet I know of no one, either in the past or present times, who has drank so deeply from the sempiternal spring of truth and knowledge, or who in the poetry and beauty of every-day life has enjoyed more or contributed more to the happiness of others. Truly you have not lived in vain—your works, and above all, your brave and truthful life, will become a precious treasure to those whose happiness it has been to have known you, and who will continue to uphold though with feebler hands the fresh and instructive philosophy you have taught them.

But I cannot yet resign my hold upon you here. I will still hope, and if my poor prayer to God may be heard, would ask, that you may be spared to us a while longer, at least . . .

In May 1862, Ricketson writes in his journal:

  May 4th. Wrote and mailed a letter to Henry D. Thoreau this forenoon.

  7th. Heard of the death of my valued and respected friend, Henry D. Thoreau, who died at his home in Concord yesterday, aged 44 years. An irreparable loss; one of the best and truest of men.

  9th. Rode to town with Louisa; got ambrotype of Henry D. Thoreau at Dunshee’s. Arranged H.D. Thoreau’s letters to me, 27 in all, commencing Oct., 1854, and ending Oct. 14, 1861. His first visit to me was in Dec., 1854, and his last in August, 1861; during the interval he visited me at least once a year.

In the 22 May 1862 letter to Sophia Thoreau, Ricketson mailed one of the Dunshee ambrotypes. Sophia replies on 26 May 1862:

I need not tell you, for I cannot, how agreeably surprised I was on opening the little box, to find my own lost brother again. I could not restrain my tears. The picture is invaluable to us . . .

Correspondence between Thoreau’s sister and New Bedford friend continued to her death in 1876.

Poignantly, in “A Sketch of Henry D. Thoreau” (1863), Ricketson reflects:

It was my good fortune to know Henry D. Thoreau as a friend and correspondent during the last eight years of his life. I had been attracted by his fresh and manly thoughts as recorded in Walden, and sought his acquaintance by writing him an appreciative letter, and inviting him to visit me . . . Judging from my own relationship with him, I would say that he won rather the respect and admiration of his friends than their love. He was so superior to almost all other men that he inspired a certain amount of awe.

(Daniel Ricketson and his Friends, 16-17)

Daniel Ricketson died 16 July 1898 and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Mass. He was survived by 3 of 4 children.

Ricketson’s shanty was restored by the community in 1964 and dismantled by the city in 1981. The shanty’s foundation was excavated and a plaque marks the spot.

Partial List of Works
A History of New Bedford (1858)
The Autumn Sheaf: A Collection of Miscellaneous Poems (1869)
Factory Bell and Other Poems (1873)

Posthumously edited and published by his daughter and son, Anna & Walton Ricketson
Daniel Ricketson and His Friends: Letters, Poems, Sketches, Etc. (1902)
New Bedford of the Past (1903)
Daniel Ricketson: Autobiographic and Miscellaneous (1910)