“A noble and primitive wood”
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.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Naushon was occasionally referred to as Governors Island, because one family member from each of the longtime owners of the island—the Winthrops and the Bowdoins—had served as governor of Massachusetts. The Winthrops’ ownership lasted 48 years, from 1682 to 1730; the Bowdoins’ reign lasted 113 years, from 1730 to 1843. In 1833 William W. Swain was appointed manager of the island by the trustees of the Bowdoin family. He was nicknamed “Governor” of Naushon, and held the position for 10 years.
Together, Swain and John M. Forbes of Milton—the husband of the former’s niece, Sarah Swain Hathaway—purchased Naushon from the Bowdoin family estate in 1843. Taking advantage of a great opportunity (see below) the men purchased the island, with its 5,000 acres, for $20,000.
During the next century and a half, many dignitaries traveled to Naushon to visit members of the Forbes family. Their stays are well documented in the Mansion House, which has a corner devoted to a presidential hat collection. The visitors included Presidents Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. In 1993 and 1994, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the island as guests of Senator John Forbes Kerry.
Well-known ornithological celebrities also made appearances over the years, including William Brewster in 1900. Occasionally a troupe of visitors would arrive on the island seasick, having traversed rough seas sailing across Buzzards Bay from New Bedford. After recovering from one such bout, Emerson wrote in his diary: “I came away saying to myself of John M. Forbes, how little this man suspects, with his sympathy for men and his respect for lettered and scientific people, that he is not likely ever to meet a man who is superior to himself.”
On Cape Cod and the Islands, the forests that Bartholomew Gosnold had seen in 1602 were gone by the 1850s. Forests were cut for fuel and house building, and used for prized ship timbers. Parts of Naushon were cleared of trees for farming.
During the early 1920s, one of the Bowdoin heirs who lived in England, James Temple Bowdoin, was in need of funds, and decided to tap into the wealth of the Naushon forest. In 1824 a wharf was built on the west side of the island, at Kettle Cove, for loading cargo-carrying vessels. Beginning in April of that year, sloops and schooners transported refuse wood, cordwood, logs, and ship timbers to and from ports from Maine to New York. Ultimately, the clear cutting was halted by a November 1, 1825 court order. By then, the woodchoppers had clear-cut a wide area of the southwest end of the island, taking upwards of 3,000 cords of wood. Red and white oak was a favored tree for valuable ship knees, and timbers. The cross-grained wood of beech trees does not dry well, so beech was not a favorite of early lumbermen. More than half of the trees on Naushon were beech, so much of the forest escaped the axe.
The clear cutting of the trees on the island also sparked a dispute of Naushon’s ownership, resulting in a court battle between the Bowdoin heirs and Bowdoin College; eventually, the island was sold to Forbes and Swain in 1843.
Thoreau visited the northeast end of Naushon in 1856, 32 years after the woodchoppers had left their mark on the southwest. After landing at Hadley Harbor, Thoreau must have been relieved to step ashore and escape to the forest for a while. On his two-hour cruise aboard the steamer Eagle’s Wing out of New Bedford, he was accompanied by a crowd, and a loud band. In a journal entry dated June 27, Thoreau writes about the Elizabeth Islands being “mostly bare except the east end of Naushon. I had some two and a half hours there. I was surprised to find such a noble and primitive wood, chiefly beech, such as the English poets celebrate, and oak, large and spreading.” He also noted the island’s “great tupelos, two or three feet in diameter.”
Ricketson also wrote about his impressions of Naushon. “On the afternoon of the 27th of June, 1856, in company with a congenial friend, I visited this island. Our objective being to see the natural beauties and productions of this comparatively unmolested realm of nature, we at once proceeded into the ancient woods, where we were soon amply rewarded by a sight of some of the noblest trees and forest ranges we had ever seen. The beeches, oaks, and other trees here grow to a large size, many of them undoubtedly of great age.”
Nearly 200 years have passed since the court order halted the tree cutting on Naushon, and the wounded area at the island’s middle and west end has healed by timeless regeneration. The one remaining and special grove of beech forest is the last living example, and final stronghold of the virgin woodlands of the past. Standing 100 feet and taller, the trees—which can live up to 400 years—remain protected in a private woodland preserve near the island’s north-central end.
Here on the secluded island of Naushon, this old growth forest grows undeterred, reaching towards the sky, each tree capable of growing five to seven times longer than a human lifetime. For many a century, stealthy moccasin-footed Native Americans visited Naushon, trodding along game trails and over the leaf-covered roots of these great trees, clinging to the dust and spirits of many generations of ancestors.
In the mid-1800s, a Concord Transcendentalist came along, “wishing to get a better view of the ocean.” Along with the view, Thoreau discovered a magnificent forest that may forever be remembered by his words: “a noble and primitive wood.”
Elwood O. Mills, Jr. is the former director of Mass. Audubon’s Ashumet Holly and Wildlife Sanctuary. From 1985 to 2004 he also led many tours of Cuttyhunk as well as winter seal cruises to the north end of Naushon Island.
Explore these beech forests of Cape Cod:
Lowell Holly Reservation
On the Upper Cape, Lowell Holly Reservation has one of the few remaining stands of American beech forest preserved by the Trustees of Reservations. In the off-season, the trails are accessed from a 10-car parking lot on South Sandwich Road in Mashpee. From Route 130 in Mashpee, take South Sandwich Road for seven-tenths of a mile, and look for the Trustees sign and parking lot on the left. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors may drive on the private dirt access road (across the street from Candlewood Lane), into the Reserve, daily, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Province Lands Beech Forest
At the very tip of the Outer Cape, a beech forest in Provincetown is protected in the Province Lands by the Cape Cod National Seashore. This is a popular spot for bird watching during spring migration in May. Visitors can access the hiking trails, picnic area, and the bike path from the large parking area. Dogs are allowed on park beaches and in the parking area, but not on marked trails. Restrooms are open from May through Columbus Day. From Route 6 in Provincetown, take Race Point Road for four-tenths of a mile; the parking entrance is on the left.