III.C. The Thoreaus:
The Thoreau household was committed to antislavery well before Henry David Thoreau spoke out on the subject. Thoreau's mother Cynthia, sisters Helen and Sophia, aunts Maria, Elizabeth, and Jane Thoreau and Louisa Dunbar, and Mrs. Joseph Ward (Prudence) and her daughter Prudence (boarders with Thoreau aunts Elizabeth, Jane, and Maria from 1833, and in John and Cynthia Thoreau's home from 1837) were all ardent abolitionists and members of the Concord Ladies' Antislavery Society. Helen and Sophia Thoreau also belonged to the Middlesex County Antislavery Society. (Helen Thoreau was secretary pro tem for the county society's June 12, 1844 meeting, held in the Universalist church in Concord.) The Thoreaus and the Wards were near neighbors and friends of Mary Merrick Brooks in the late 1830s and early 1840s.
The Thoreau women attended antislavery conventions and signed their names to petitions calling for radical measures. At the New England Antislavery Convention in Boston in May of 1844, Cynthia, Helen, and Sophia Thoreau all voted in favor of a resolution to dissolve a Union impossibly tainted by the political power of slaveholders—a measure also supported by Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Mary Merrick Brooks. In 1846, Helen and Sophia Thoreau and Mary Brooks signed a petition opposing the Mexican War. Helen Thoreau enjoyed the respect of both Frederick Douglass and Garrison. When she died of tuberculosis in 1849 at the age of thirty-six, Garrison wrote a stirring obituary for the Liberator.
Prominent abolitionists visiting Concord—Garrison, Parker Pillsbury, Loring Moody, and John Brown among them—made their way to the Thoreau home for hospitality and discussion. Moreover, the family provided lodging and aid to free blacks and to fugitive slaves (in 1851, for example, to Henry Williams of Virginia).
Henry David Thoreau's antislavery activism owed much to the commitment of the women in his family to the cause during his formative years and early maturity.
30. Silhouette of Cynthia Thoreau. Copy of original as photographed by Alfred Winslow Hosmer and included in his extra-illustrated copy of the 1896 second edition of H. S. Salt's Life of Henry David Thoreau. From Alfred W. Hosmer's "Grangerized Salt," CFPL Vault Collection.
40. Henry David Thoreau. "Resistance to Civil Government," in Aesthetic Papers. Edited by Elizabeth P. Peabody (Boston: The Editor, 1849). From E. P. Peabody Collection, CFPL Concord Authors Collection.
41. Henry David Thoreau. "Slavery in Massachusetts," in Cape Cod and Miscellanies, Volume 4 of the Manuscript Edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906).From H. D. Thoreau Collection, CFPL Concord Authors Collection.
42. Boston Police and Night Watch Conveying the Fugitive Slave, Sims, to the Vessel. Engraving from an 1851 issue of Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. From Collection of Mounted Engravings Primarily from the Estate of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, CFPL Vault Collection.