“A noble and primitive wood” | Cape Cod LIFE August 2016

Naushon Island (top left) and Goats Neck (center) are separated by Hadley Harbor. Bull Island and Uncatena Island are at top right.

Thoreau was impressed by Naushon Island’s old-growth forest

Henry David Thoreau visited Cape Cod and the Islands on at least five occasions during the mid-1800s, “wishing,” as he would write in Cape Cod, “to get a better view of the ocean.” On his December 27, 1854 trip from New Bedford to Nantucket to give a lecture, the writer “was obliged to pay the usual tribute to the sea,” and “went away with [his] head hanging over the side the whole way.” Thoreau thought his lecture, delivered to the islanders at the Nantucket Antheneum, went over well, but on the return trip the ferry became “lost in the fog off Hyannis.”

On his fifth journey to the region, in 1856, Thoreau accompanied Daniel Ricketson and his sons, Arthur and Walton, by ferry to Naushon Island of the Elizabeth Islands. Ricketson was a poet, writer, philosopher, and a man of leisure—and a Thoreau disciple. He had been inspired to initiate a friendship with the writer after reading Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854.

In June of 1856, the men exchanged weeklong visits, with Ricketson first traveling to Thoreau’s Concord and Walden Pond, and the pair then visiting several times with the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two kindred spirits left Concord together, and Thoreau would spend the following week as a guest at Ricketson’s “Brooklawn” estate in New Bedford. “I enjoyed the visit of Thoreau very much,” Ricketson wrote in his journal. “He improves, unlike most people, upon an intimate acquaintance—modest and gentle in his manner, the best read and most intelligent man I ever knew. He is also a very good naturalist. My respect for his character and talents is greater than for any man I know.” The next stop on the friends’ journey was to Naushon of the Elizabeth Islands.

In summer, when the fishing was good, Wampanoag Indians paddled their canoes, or mishoons, back and forth across Woods Hole Passage from the mainland to Naushon.  They had good reason, for they named this island Kataymuck, or “the great fishing place.” The name used today is Naushon, which refers to the “tide rips or currents” found at Woods Hole.