Thoreau returns to Minnesota – Join him for a Grand Excursion


Henry David Thoreau is returning to Minnesota in June 2011.  Yes, returning….He was here just 150 years ago when he traveled to Minnesota with his young friend Horace Mann, a fellow naturalist and son of the renowned education reformer.  In poor health, Thoreau thought that a trip to “the West” would be good for his health while giving him an opportunity to study the flora, fauna and Indians of the vanishing frontier; Thoreau, it seems,  was fascinated and impressed by the Indians of the region.

Toreau and Mann spent two weeks in transit to the West, traveling by rail and by steam, finally arriving by riverboat in St. Paul.  After a nine mile stage coach trip to St. Anthony they settled at the Tremont House.

In an extensive report of Thoreau’s Minnesota visit Richard Smith writes that “Thoreau and Mann would stay in the Twin City area for nearly a month, exploring not only the prairie and forest of the mid-west but also its libraries!  In Minneapolis Thoreau met the State Geologist, Dr. Charles L. Andrews, and they spent many hours together, Thoreau read local and regional histories as well as the Wisconsin and Minnesota State Agricultural Reports.”

Most notable among Thoreau’s explorations was a Grand Pleasure Excursion on the Minnesota to visit the Sioux Agency on the Minnesota River near Redwood.  Smith reports that “The local steamboat line had yearly trips up the Minnesota River in order for tourists to witness the annual payment of Government annuities to the Sioux Nation.  By luck Thoreau and Mann were in town at just the right time for this yearly adventure”

Thoreau described his Great Excursion in detail, fascinated by the Indians, the plains and the buffalo and sympathetic to the plight of the Indians who he described as “quite dissatisfied with the white man’s treatment of them” with “reason to be so.” Young Horace man wrote a detailed description of the excursion his mother.  John T. Flanagan wrote about the excursion;  his notes and Mann’s letter are on the web.

Though the ostensible intent of the trip was to cure Thoreau’s symptoms of consumption, the result was a botanical and self-fulfillment success it was a health failure.  Thoreau and Mann returned to Massachusetts with their memories and their specimens, but a very ill traveler.  Thoreau continued to fail and died in 1862.

This spring, 150 years later, historians and Thoreau lovers are re-creating much of Thoreau’s visit over the weeks to come.  A visit to the website is an essential step to understanding the background and to keeping up with details of the current events.  Just a few highlights;

Saturday, June 18, is the anchor program.  “A Grand Pleasure Excursion on the Minnesota River”.  This re-creation of Thoreau’s excursion offers a living history cruise on the Jonathan Padelford riverboat, complete with a personal visit from Thoreau himself.  Tickets for the grand excursion are just $25, available from the Bloomington Historical Society.

On June 16 Corinne H. Smith presents “A Transcendental Travelogue: When Henry Thoreau Steamed up the Minnesota River” at the New Ulm Public Library.  Smith will repeat the “Transcendental Travelogue at the Stoughton (WI)  Public Library and the Nature Center at Tekawitha Woods Forest Preserve near St. Charles IL

There’s much more to explore on the web which includes among other treasures a map where virtual travelers can track the routes that Thoreau and Mann followed as they traveled East to West, then West to East by a very different route.

A interesting local complement to the Thoreau celebration is an exhibit at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony.  Thomas A. Potter, president of the Thoreau Society, along with board member Gayle S. Moore, will present a photo exhibit and roundtable discussion of Thoreau’s work.  The exhibit opens Thursday, June 9 and will run through July 30.  On Saturday June 10 Potter will lead a roundtable discussion of Thoreau’s essay Walking.  On that same day Moore will offer a photo workshop for children.  Sunday, June 11, Potter will discuss Thoreau and Birds.

The story of Thoreau’s visit to Minnesota, though not well known, is well chronicled by  a circle of Thoreau scholars and readers.  The stories are rich and accessible via the website.   Using technology that might have baffled – and aggravated — Thoreau, the scholars are sharing the stories and the research via Twitter and Facebook.  It’s a grand story worthy of a revisit well-supported by the commitment of Minnesota and national Thoreau scholars and the many readers who enjoy his prodigious legacy of works.  All of the details are on the very fine website maintained by the Thoreau Society.