FARMINGTON — Despite carrying several maps with him on his travels through Maine, the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau expressed contempt for them in his journal.

“How little there is on an ordinary map!” he wrote. “How little, I mean, that concerns the walker and the lover of nature. Between those lines indicating roads is a plain blank space in the form of a square or triangle or polygon or segment of a circle, and there is naught to distinguish this from another area of a similar size and form.”

Moses Greenleaf’s Map of Maine from 1829 that Thoreau called a “labyrinth of errors.” David Rumsey Map Collection

And yet Thoreau – the author of “The Maine Woods” who first brought the state’s vast wilderness region to the nation’s attention – also loved maps, sometimes copying old ones and sometimes creating new surveys of his own.

It’s possible he even sketched one of Mount Katahdin back in the mid-1800s that has somehow eluded scholars ever since.

Fifty years ago, a retired Colby College professor penned a piece for the Lewiston Journal Magazine about a trip he’d made to the mountain with two colleagues back in 1912.

In that piece, biologist Webster Chester mentioned that the somewhat clueless trio needed “to find a map showing us how to get to Katahdin.”

“All that we could find was a diagram that Thoreau had made in the middle of the last century when he paid Katahdin what was to become a famous visit,” Chester wrote, which Thoreau chronicled in his “Ktaadn.” To help them find their way, he said, they “borrowed the Thoreau diagram from the Colby College library.”

That was apparently the first time anyone ever mentioned in print the existence of a Thoreau rendering of the Katahdin area.

It was enough, though, to set a retired administrator at the University of Maine Farmington on the trail of what would certainly be a valuable addition to the known works of one of America’s most beloved writers.

William Gellert of Farmington searched for a map that Henry David Thoreau may have made of Mount Katahdin in the mid-1800s. So far he hasn’t found it, but he thinks it may exist somewhere. Steve Collins photo

A LOVE OF THE WOODS

William Gellert, 72, grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where he often “prodded around the woods.”

He kept exploring the vast forest of northern New England during a 33-year career as a college administrator, including regular explorations of the area between Millinocket and Katahdin with friends and his retired father, an engineer.

They came to possess a deep knowledge of the region and its past that later became the foundation for Gellert’s book “Within Katahdin’s Realm: Log Drives and Sporting Camps.”

Gellert said he spent many hours researching, talking to old-timers and poking around among the trees and waterways of that vast region “to see what’s left of the history in the woods.”

As a retired amateur historian, Gellert has the luxury of following detours in his research whenever he feels like it.

After seeing the reference to the Thoreau map, he said, it became “a personal challenge” to dig deeper.

“If this thing exists, can I find it?” Gellert wondered.

GELLERT AND THE THOREAU MAP

For his research on the mountain, Gellert plowed through every early account he could find of anybody who bothered to write about what it was like to reach Katahdin.

An 1856 photograph of Henry David Thoreau. Benjamin D. Maxham

He found himself one day reading Chester’s 1970 account of going there in 1912, nearly six decades earlier.

By the second paragraph, Gellert was hooked. All it took was the mention of “a Thoreau diagram.”

“I was so flabbergasted when I saw that,” Gellert said, since he was familiar enough with both Thoreau and the mountain to recognize immediately that if the famed naturalist had made any sort of map of Katahdin, it had been long forgotten.

He said he first checked with the most obvious spot – the Colby College library, which Chester said had given the map to him.

Colby said, though, it had nothing of the sort.

Before long, Gellert had checked with all sorts of libraries, experts and Thoreau-related organizations. None of them knew a thing about the diagram mentioned by Chester.

COULD THOREAU HAVE MADE A MAP?

Thoreau was many things: naturalist, idealist, writer, pencil maker and more. He was also a surveyor.

The library in his native Concord, Massachusetts, has many of his surveys in its holdings, at least some of them easily accessible online.

Thoreau’s interest in maps is obvious from his own writings.

During a foray to the Northeast and Canada, Henry David Thoreau copied a handful of historic maps of the region, including this one he sketched of Champlain’s 1612 rendering of the area. Library of Congress

In his diary for 1846, for instance, he noted that he stayed in a Madawamkeag tavern during a trip to the Maine Woods.

“The last edition of (Moses) Greenleaf’s Map of Maine hung on the wall here, and, as we had no pocket map, we resolved to trace a map of the lake country: so dipping a wad of tow into the lamp, we oiled a sheet of paper on the oiled table cloth, and, in good faith, traced what we afterwards ascertained to be a labyrinth of errors, carefully following the outlines of the imaginary lakes which the map contains,” Thoreau wrote.

In short, he made his own copy of Greenleaf’s map – a copy that doesn’t appear to have survived.

Gellert said it’s not impossible to imagine that Thoreau may have made a map based on what friends told him before he went to Katahdin himself or that he drew one later for someone heading there.

But, Gellert said, the more likely explanation is that the Colby library gave Chester a copy of a published map that Thoreau used or perhaps one that came along later that was simply misidentified.

Gellert said, though, he can’t rule out the possibility that an honest-to-God “Thoreau diagram” existed. And that it might still exist.

IF THOREAU DID MAKE A KATAHDIN DIAGRAM, WHERE IS IT?

Gellert said that he checked with many institutions and did what he could to track down the purported map by Thoreau.

Though he didn’t find one, he readily admits, “I didn’t look everyplace.

Detail of Mount Katahdin on the famous 1835 map called A Plan of the Public Lands in the State of Maine, by Geo. Coffin.

A Thoreau map of Katahdin, Gellert said, would make a splash.

It would be “an important artifact,” he said, and one that would be a valuable contribution to the history of Maine – and America.

WHY BOTHER WITH HISTORY?

Gellert said he’s worried about the state of local history, with ever fewer newspapers keeping tabs on what goes on, let alone delving into the past.

The columnists who used to weigh in on such stuff are “pretty close to done these days,” Gellert said.

And there are fewer people stepping up to record what’s gone on, to interview their aging neighbors and collect the types of things that bring the history of a community to life for those who come after.

“I don’t see a lot of people interested in spending the time,” he said. “I’m concerned about it. I don’t see an easy answer.”

Gellert said he hopes he’s wrong.

“To me,” he said, “it’s important to know where you come from.”

A photograph by George Parlow captured Henry David Thoreau, not long before his death in 1862 in Concord, Mass. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

 

Early morning haze colors Mount Katahdin and its surrounding mountains in this photo taken in 2014 from a height of land along Route 11 in Patten. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald Photographer


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