Maine: An Encyclopedia

Thoreau, Henry David

(1817-1862) was born on July 12, 1817 and raised in Concord, Massachusetts. He was truly a “journalist,” keeping a daily journal from young adulthood to shortly before his death.

He traveled to Maine, climbed Mount Katahdin, and was an early observer of the state’s people and landscape. His book The Maine Woods is full of comments on the conditions of the time.


After leaving Massachusetts the day before, Thoreau renewed his Maine journey by setting out from Bangor on September 1, 1846 in a horse drawn buggy to travel along the Penobscot River in search of Katahdin. He passed through Old Town and by Indian Island, where he reflected on the plight of the once powerful Indian nation.

Milford, Passadumkeag, Enfield, Mattawamkeag and other villages were next. Thereafter, Thoreau and his companions began hiking an “obscure trail” along the West Branch of the Penobscot River, since there were no roads between them and Katahdin.  At times they used boats offered by people in the area.

On September 7th, Thoreau made his first climb, alone, on the mountain, beginning in the late afternoon and battling thick undergrowth. The next day he and his companions struck out for the summit, but again Thoreau alone went to the top.  Unfortunately it was shrouded in clouds, though he did catch broad views of the surrounding mountains and lakes as he descended from the “cloud factory” that was the mountain.

Environmental author Bill McGibben cited Thoreau’s reflections on his climb:

“I am reminded by my journey how exceedingly new this country still is.” “Those Maine woods differ essentially from ours (in Concord). There you are never reminded that the wilderness which you are threading is, after all, some villager’s familiar wood-lot, some widow’s thirds, from which her ancestors have sledded fuel for generations, minutely described in some old deed.”

McGibben observed, “Nowadays (1989), Katahdin, though preserved as a park, is so jammed with climbers that the authorities must limit their number; sometimes several hundred people are the summit at one time.”


Seven years later, in September of 1853, Thoreau boarded a steamboat in Boston bound for Bangor and then, by land and canoe, Chesuncook Lake.  He passed “Manhegan” Island, Whitehead at South Thomaston, the Camden Hills, and Frankfort on his way.  From Bangor he went to Greenville where he met his guide Joe Aitteon, a Native American.

They took a steamboat from Greenville, past Mount Kineo, to Northeast Carry for the portage to the West Branch of the Penobscot River, and the trip downriver to Chesuncook.  After extensive explorations of the lake, they returned as they had come, this time stopping at Indian Island where Thoreau visited with the Penobscot  Tribe’s Governor Neptune.

The Allagash and East Branch

Four years later Thoreau and a companion arrived in Bangor July 21, 1857, for a third expedition into the Maine woods.  He passed Molly Molasses on the street, commenting “As long as she lives the Penobscots may be considered extant as a tribe.”

The intended route this time was to Moosehead Lake, then paddling a canoe to Northeast Carry, then the East Branch of the Penobscot, now within Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.   On the way, Thoreau climbed Mount Kineo, marveling at its steep cliffs. Along the East Branch, he heard the “note of the white-throated sparrow” and commented “What a glorious time they must have in that wilderness, far from mankind and election day!”

By July 27th they had reached Chamberlain Lake, and shortly thereafter the Allagash River and Chamberlain Farm.

Eventually the expedition reached “Grand Lake, which the Indian called Matungamook.”  That is Grand Lake Matagamon, which  empties into the East Branch of the Penobscot River in township T6R8 WELS.  They followed the Penobscot to Old Town and took the train to Bangor, ending Thoreau’s final trip to the Maine woods.

Additional resources

Huber, J. Parker. The Wildest Country: A Guide to Thoreau’s Maine. Boston. Appalachian Mountain Club. c1981. (includes maps)

McGibben, Bill. “The End of Nature: How should we measure man’s effect on the world?” New Yorker. September 11, 1989.

Seal, Cheryl. Thoreau’s Maine Woods: Yesterday and Today. Emmaus, Pa. Yankee Books; New York. Distributed by St. Martin’s Press. c1992. ( includes photographs)

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. Boston. Tiucknor and Fields. 1864. (accessed April 9, 2012)

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods.

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