Thoreau's Journal Entry for January 24, 1855:
Reading William Wood’s New England’s Prospect (1635)

Below is Thoreau's journal entry for January 24, 1855, in which he recorded his thoughts while reading William Wood's New England's Prospect (published in 1635 after Wood returned from Massachusetts Bay). Thoreau's goal was to try to identify changes he believed had occurred in New England during the intervening 220 years.

Thoreau's original handwritten journal containing this entry is available online at: http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/writings_journals18.html

If you'd care to peruse William Wood's New England's Prospect for yourself, there's an 1865 edition of the 1633 volume available online at: https://archive.org/details/woodsnewengland00woodgoog

None of these texts is required reading for our course, but if you care to look them over, they'll give you a glimpse of some of the primary documents underlying Changes in the Land.

1855

Jan. 24. I am reading William Wood’s “New England’s Prospect.” He left New England August 15th, 1633, and the last English edition referred to in this American one of 1764 is that of London, 1639.

The wild meadow-grasses appear to have grown more rankly in those days. He describes them as “thick and long, as high as a man’s middle; some as high as the shoulders.” (Vide Indian book.) Strawberries too were more abundant and large before they were so cornered up by cultivation, “some being two inches about; one may gather half a bushel in a forenoon;” and no doubt many other berries were far more abundant, as gooseberries, raspberries, and especially currants, which last so many old writers speak of, but so few moderns find wild. We can perhaps imagine how the primitive wood looked from the sample still left in Maine. “Here no doubt might be good done with saw mills; for I have seene of these stately high grown trees [he is speaking of pines particularly] ten miles together close by the river [probably Charles River] side.” He says at first “fir and pine,” as if the fir once grew in this part of the State abundantly, as now in Maine and further west. Of the oaks he says, “These trees afford much mast for hogs, especially every third year.” Does not this imply many more of them than now? “The hornbound tree is a tough kind of wood, that requires so much pains in riving as is almost incredible, being the best to make bowls and dishes, not being subject to crack or leak,” and he speaks, both in prose and verse, of the vines being particularly inclined to run over this tree. If this is the true hornbeam it was probably larger then, but I am inclined to think it the tupelo, and that it was both larger and more abundant than commonly now, for he says it was good for bowls, and it has been so used since. Of the plums of the country he says, “They be black and yellow, about the bigness of damsons, of a reasonable good taste.” Yet Emerson has not found the yellow plum, i.e. Canada, growing wild in Massachusetts.

Of quadrupeds no longer found in Concord, he names the lion, — that Cape Ann Lion “which some affirm that they have seen,” which may have been a cougar, for he adds, “Plimouth men have traded for Lions skins in former times,” — bear, moose, deer, porcupines, “the grim-fac’d Ounce, and rav’nous howling Wolf,” and beaver. Martens.

For moose and deer see Indian book.

Complains of the wolf as the great devourer of bear, moose, and deer, which kept them from multiplying more.

For porcupine and raccoon vide Indian book.

Gray squirrels were evidently more numerous than now.

I do not know whether his ounce or wild cat is the Canada lynx or wolverine. He calls it wild cat and does not describe the little wildcat. (Vide Indian book.) Says they are accounted “very good meat. Their skins be a very deep kind of fur, spotted white and black on the belly.” Audubon and Bachman make the Lynx rufusblack and white beneath.

Says the beaver are so cunning the English “seldom or never kill any of them, being not patient to lay a long siege” and not having experience.

Eagles are probably less common; pigeons of course (vide Indian book); heath cocks all gone (price “four pence”); and turkeys (good cock, “four shillings”). Probably more owls then, and cormorants, etc., etc., sea-fowl generally (of humilities he “killed twelve score at two shots”), and swans. Of the crane, “almost as tall as a man,” probably blue heron, — possibly the whooping crane or else the sandhill, — he says, “I have seen many of these fowls, yet did I never see one that was fat, though very sleaky;” neither did I. “There be likewise many Swans, which frequent the fresh ponds and rivers, seldom consorting themselves with ducks and geese; these be very good meat, the price of one is six shillings.” Think of that!

Sturgeon were taken at Cape Cod and in the Merrimack especially, “pickled and brought to England, some of these be 12, 14, and 18 feet long.” An abundance of salmon, shad, and bass, — “The stately Bass old Neptune’s fleeting post, That tides it out and in from sea to coast;” “one of the best fish in the country,” taken “sometimes two or three thousand at a set,” “some four foot long,” left on the sand behind the seine; sometimes used for manure. “Alewives...in the latter end of April come up to the fresh rivers to spawn, in such multitudes as is almost incredible, pressing up in such shallow waters as will scarce permit them to swim, having likewise such longing desire after the fresh water ponds, that no beatings with poles, or forcive agitations by other devices, will cause them to return to the sea, till they have cast their spawn.”

“The Oysters be great ones in form of a shoe-horn, some be a foot long; these breed on certain banks that are bare every spring tide. This fish without the shell is so big, that it must admit of a division before you can well get it into your mouth.” For lobsters, “their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten.” Speaks of “a great oyster bank” in the middle of Back Bay, just off the true mouth of the Charles, and of another in the Mistick. These obstructed the navigation of both rivers.Vide book of facts.