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Henry David Thoreau and the Mystic Lore of Cape Cod

Updated on January 27, 2019
The Dunes of Cape Cod
The Dunes of Cape Cod | Source
Original booklet cover published by the Thoreau Lyceum in 1974
Original booklet cover published by the Thoreau Lyceum in 1974 | Source
Map of Cape Cod
Map of Cape Cod

Henry Thoreau and the Mystic Lore of Cape Cod

Henry David Thoreau made four trips to Cape Cod from his home in Concord, Massachusetts in October, 1849, June, 1850. July, 1855 and again in June, 1857. The first three trips provided the experience for his posthumously published book, Cape Cod, and the last trip was recorded in his Journal. On the 1849 trip he and his friend Ellery Channing set out for Boston to take a steamer out to Provincetown, but rough seas preventing sailing forced them to proceed to Bridgewater. From here they took a coach which followed the bay side through Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Brewster and Orleans. From this point they went on foot to Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Highland Light.

The successive trips merely served as additional material for his writing. What obviously attracted him to the Cape was the close and primal association of humans with the powerful sea. The mystic lore of the Cape brought him back to ancient times when primitive folktales first evolved. The wild state of this strip of land where dunes and sea met simulated for him the primordial conditions of ancient Greece or an older America before Europeans came. Dense mists and fogs which were present in aboriginal America were present for Thoreau. The mythical argonautic experience of sailors at sea remained very much present for nineteenth-century Cape Cod mariners.

Humanity's Complete Dependence on Whims of the Sea

This peninsula of sand and breakers exemplified primal experience in a totally natural world. Thoreau, as a transcendentalist, was deeply attracted by humanity's utter dependency on the whims of the sea--sometimes very destructive whims like our own recent hurricane Sandy. Here is where yarns and folktales continuously evolve telling of humanity and its relation to the sea. He read, listened and reflected upon the sea lore of Cape Cod.

Indian Lore of Cape Cod

Thoreau carried with him in 1849 a copy of the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections along with other reading material. He read one Native American tale about Cape Cod fog that he recorded in his voluminous "Indian Notebooks" (1845-1861): "In former times, a great many moons ago, a bird, extraordinary for its size used often to visit the south shore of Cape Cod, and carry from thence to the southward, a vast number of small children.

Maushop, who was an Indian Giant, as fame reports, resided in these parts. Enraged at the loss of many of the children, he, on a certain time, waded into the sea in pursuit of the bird till he crossed the sound and reached Nantucket. Before Maushop forded the sound, the island was unknown to the aborigines of America. Tradition says, that Maushop found the bones of the children in a heap under a huge tree. He then wishing to smoke a pipe, searched the island for tobacco; but finding none, filled his pipe with poke, a weed which the Indian sometimes used as its substitute. Ever since the above mentioned memorable event, fogs have been frequent at Nantucket and even the Cape. In allusion to this tradition when the aborigines observed a fog rising, they would say, 'there comes old Maushop's [sorrowful] smoke."*

Scandinavian Lore of Cape Cod

The legendary Scandinavian associations with Cape Cod certainly attracted Thoreau's attention as well. One such legendary association is described in his book Cape Cod: "According to old Icelandic manuscripts, Thorwald, son of Eric the Red, after sailing many days southwest from Greenland, broke his keel in the year 1004 [coming ashore on sandy shoals]; and where, according to another...Thor-finn Karsefue ...sailing past, in the year 1007, having the land 'on the right side' of them, roved ashore and found 'Strand-ir lang-ar ok sand-ar (long, narrow beaches and sand-hills)."

Thoreau played with words when he ascended Cape Cod's highest dune at Mount Ararat where he viewed shimmering heat waves writing, "But whether Thor-finn saw the mirage here or not, Thoreau, one of the same family, did." But Thoreau did not rely on Native American and Scandinavian legends alone to ponder the Cape's mystic lore. He heard mystical tales from the local residents themselves: "I have just heard of a Cape Cod captain who was expected home in the beginning of the winter from the West Indies, but was long since given up for lost, till his relations at length heard with joy, that after getting within forty miles of Cape Cod Light, he was driven back by nine successive gales to Key West...and was once again shaping his course for home. Thus he spent his winter."

Thoreau had only to look at the fierce waves washing in to be reminded of the wild horses of Neptune rushing ashore. And it was these fierce waves that drove many a ship ashore from Thor-finn's time to Thoreau's time. Indeed, the lore of Cape Cod was for Henry Thoreau a harvest-grounds for modern mythology. It is a place so totally dominated by the sea, much like tropical Key West.

* See Richard F. Fleck, The Indians of Thoreau. Albuquerque: Hummingbird Press, 1974. The above essay is an excerpt from the booklet Thoreau and the Mystic Lore of Cape Cod, 1974.


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    • juneaukid profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      6 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks for your comment, KrisL. Yes, Thoreau was quite a writer for his times.

    • KrisL profile image


      6 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks -- I never before associated Thoreau with Cape Cod - or with the general nineteenth century intellectuals' fascination with folklore and old legends: _Walden_ seems so much a book of the eternal present.

    • juneaukid profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      6 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks Dolores, so good to receive your comment!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      HI Richard - I so enjoyed this "visit" with Thoreau and Cape Cod. Those long windswept beaches, the misty fog - there is something about a beach that really gets to you, tuning you in with nature. I particularly liked the story of the captain who was storm shoved to spend his winter in Key West, an early snowbird, wintering in the Florida Keys, haha.

    • juneaukid profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      6 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you Jamie. Thoreau and Muir are among my favorites.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      6 years ago from Reno NV

      I am a huge fan of Thoreau and enjoyed this hub very much. Thank you for sharing. Jamie


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