In chapter 14 of Walden, “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” Thoreau records going weeks without seeing other people on his walks. He reveals, “For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods.” Thoreau begins this chapter by sharing stories about the people who lived around Walden Pond before he got there in 1845.
Before Thoreau, Walden Woods was home to outcasts of Concord society. That was no coincidence. Town officials designated Walden Woods as one of three places in Concord where former enslaved people could squat. In addition to being removed from the center of town, the land surrounding the Pond was dry and dusty, making it difficult to grow crops. Despite the beauty we recognize there today, Walden Woods was not seen as valuable land.
Starting at the end of the American Revolution, Walden Woods was home to a free black population. It was common for former slaves to remain in Concord after they obtained freedom. They had a better chance of maintaining their freedom if they lived near people who knew them. Even with the right papers, moving to a new town meant they were at a higher risk at being forced back into slavery. With that possibility in mind, former enslaved people tolerated Walden Woods’ infertility and remoteness, creating a free black community there which lasted forty years, from approximately 1780 to 1820.
Thoreau writes about three of these “former inhabitants” in Walden:
“East of my bean-field, across the road, lived Cato Ingraham, slave of Duncan Ingraham, Esquire, gentleman, of Concord village, who built his slave a house, and gave him permission to live in Walden Woods; — Cato, not Uticensis, but Concordiensis. Some say that he was a Guinea Negro. There are a few who remember his little patch among the walnuts, which he let grow up till he should be old and need them; but a younger and whiter speculator got them at last…Cato’s half-obliterated cellar-hold still remains, though known to few, being concealed from the traveller by a fringe of pines.” (Walden, 283)
“Here, by the very corner of my field, still nearer to town, Zilpha, a colored woman, had her little house, where she spun linen for the townsfolk, making the Walden Woods ring with her shrill singing, for she had a loud and notable voice. At length, in the war of 1812, her dwelling was set on fire by English soldiers, prisoners on parole, when she was away, and her cat and dog and hens were all burned up together. She led a hard life, and somewhat inhumane. One old frequenter of these woods remembers, that as he passed her house one noon he heard her muttering to herself over her gurgling pot, — “Ye are all bones, bones!” I have seen bricks amid the oak copse there.” (Walden, 283-4)
“Down the road, on the right hand, on Brister’s Hill, lived Brister Freeman, “a handy Negro,” slave of Squire Cummings once, — there where grow still the apple trees which Brister planted and tended; large old trees now, but their fruit still wild and ciderish to my taste. Not long since I read his epitaph in the old Lincoln burying-ground, a little on one side, near the unmarked graves of some British grenadiers who fell in the retreat from Concord, —where he is styled “Sippio Brister,” –Scipio Africanus he had some title to be called, — “a man of color,” as if he were discolored. It also told me, with staring emphasis, when he died; which was but an indirect way of informing me that he ever lived. With him dwelt Fenda, his hospitable wife, who told fortunes, yet pleasantly, —large round, and black, blacker than any of the children of night, such a dusky orb as never rose on Concord before or since.” (Walden, 284)
To learn more about the early residents of Walden Woods, read Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord (2009) by Elisa Lemire.