Thoreau’s statement in Walden that “some say [Cato] was a Guinea Negro,” suggests that Cato Ingraham may have been born in Africa. What is known for sure about Cato’s early life, before he moved to Walden Woods, was that he was enslaved by Duncan Ingraham in Concord. In 1795, Cato married Phyllis Bliss under the condition that he could no longer depend on Duncan for food or other resources. Essentially, Duncan abandoned Cato, leaving Cato to his freedom rather than supporting Phyllis and however many children they might have.
Cato moved with his wife Phyllis to Walden Woods into a house Duncan built for them. According to Ellery Channing, the house was located “directly at the opening of the path from the Walden road to the Goose Pond,” just 250 feet from his neighbor Zilpah’s house. Cato and Phyllis were the last former slaves to settle permanently in Walden Woods. They joined a small free black community including Brister Freeman’s family and Zilpah who Thoreau also writes about in Walden.
When the couple moved to Walden Woods, Phyllis had a six-year-old daughter Nancy. Nancy may or may not have been Cato’s biological daughter, but they became a family. Phyllis was expecting another child with Cato at this time.
Two years later, in 1797, Duncan Ingraham moved to Medford, and sold the Walden woodlot that Cato and his family were squatting on. Town officials arranged for Cato to rent half of the house where he currently lived, and a surrounding acre of land, for 6 cents a day from the new landowner. The contract was binding for the rest of Cato’s life.
At one point, Cato was so desperate that he traveled to Medford to ask Duncan for help. Cato told Duncan he was “out of meal, meat, and wood” and could “stand it no longer.” When Duncan protested, reminding Cato that he would no longer provide for him, Cato responded, “I don’t want to hear anymore about that; I tell you I am out of everything.” Despite this emotional plea, Duncan refused to give Cato help. As a result, Cato’s infant daughter died just 18 months after moving to Walden Woods.
Years later, in the spring of 1805, Phyllis died at age 37. At the time his wife died, Cato was suffering from tuberculosis. He succumbed to the disease a few months later, after living for 10 years in Walden Woods. His older daughter Nancy died three months after Cato, at age 16, after catching tuberculosis from her father as she cared for him. Similarly, Thoreau died at the age of 44 in 1862 after becoming sick with tuberculosis several times.
To learn more about the early residents of Walden Woods, read
- Former Inhabitants
- Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord (2009) by Elisa Lemire.