One of the decisions we made early in the process of planning the book Women of Granite was that we would not include women whose primary “claim to fame” was her relationship with a famous man. It was a perfectly good criteria, not one I objected to then or now. But it points, obliquely, to one very real fact about our roles as women: as mothers and as wives, we may make our most lasting contributions to the world by the influence we have on our children and the support we provide to both spouses and children as they go out into the world. In an earlier day when women were restricted in their professional lives, this role was of even greater significance – and so we have profiled people like Dolly Madison, for example.
One such woman was Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, mother of Henry David Thoreau, he of Walden fame. Cynthia was a New Hampshire girl, born in Keene in 1787. I can claim her as a relative (my second cousin, 7 times removed) so I might call her “Aunt Cynthia”. I honor her today not simply for her own life’s work but also in honor of the many women who made great things possible by just doing the tasks of their ordinary lives. Many of these lived and died and disappeared, even their names lost to history. Yet they, too, are part of us.
Cynthia Dunbar’s father, the Rev. Asa Dunbar, died when Cynthia was just a month old. Her mother Mary managed alone for quite some time (in 1795 she took her three daughters by sloop to Frenchman’s Bay in Maine to visit her brother). In 1798, Cynthia’s mother married again and the family moved to the Capt. Jonas Minott farm in Concord, Mass. Concord is familiar territory as I have spent a lot of time researching Louisa May Alcott, a more famous Concord girl. The Thoreau family moved to Concord shortly thereafter, so Cynthia Dunbar and John Thoreau probably knew each other as they were growing up. They married in 1812, she already 4 months pregnant.
Like Bronson and Abba Alcott, the Thoreau family moved around quite a bit in the early years of their marriage, mostly for financial reasons. Cynthia had four children in seven years, David Henry being the third. During those same seven years she moved house at least four times and for a while ran a dry goods store in Chelmsford while John worked as a sign painter. All the while keeping house and cooking meals for a growing family. Young David recalled details such as a cow coming into the entryway of the house to get at some pumpkin, and himself being bowled over by a hen and cutting his foot. And I think MY life is a bit stressful?
The family finally arrived back in Concord to stay in 1823 but renting a number of places before they were able to build a home in 1844 and then, finally purchase a larger home in 1850. John eventually became a manufacturer of pencils, utilizing graphite that Cynthia’s brother Charles had discovered up in Bristol, NH. The firm of Dunbar and Stow became known for a quality product.
Through all this, Cynthia and John built strong family ties among their children. They were readers who valued education, taught their children to play instruments, and encouraged their interests in the natural world. John was quiet and introverted and taught his children to observe the details of the world around them. Cynthia was outspoken, opinionated and sociable. She was known as a good homemaker and hostess. In addition to taking in boarders for income, she often brought the less-fortunate into her home for meals. She was active in the Concord Ladies Anti-slavery Society and made her Concord home a stop on the Underground Railroad.
We can readily see her influence on young David Henry before he entered Harvard in 1833. His older siblings, both teachers, contributed toward his tuition payments. We don’t know why he switched the order of his names upon graduation, but I know from research of others in the era that it was certainly not uncommon. After returning to Concord he lived for a while at home, then with the Emersons for a while, out in his cabin at Walden, of course, but eventually returning to his mother’s house, where he died in 1862. His accomplishments are well known to history.
Cynthia outlived all her children but the youngest, Sophia, dying in 1872 just two months short of her 85th birthday. Her elder son, John Jr., died horribly of lockjaw (tetanus) after “a slight cut of his thumb” at only 27. Henry came home to die in 1862. The next year Cynthia fell down the stairs and shattered her right arm. After some months in bed she did regain her ability to walk, but never the use of her arm. As her eyesight was failing she could no longer read much either, yet her daughter Sophia (another unsung hero, who worked to get Henry's writing collect and published after his death, and cared for her mother throughout her life) reported “notwithstanding her infirmities, she is ever cheerful.” In 1871 Sophia wrote that her mother was “greatly blessed in retaining with rare vigor, all her faculties.” And when Cynthia died a year later, Sophia observed “Dear mother was in her bed three weeks. She retained full possession of all her faculties to the last. The vigor & activity of her mind was truly wonderful. Her bodily infirmities she bore as she had done for many years, & the Lord granted a gentle exit. A rare beauty came to her in death, I wish you could have seen her as she lay like a queen, bedecked with costly flowers, the tokens of friendship & respect....”
And so, hail to you, Aunt Cynthia, and the countless others like you, whose lives spin out in days of giving, living and loving. Women of Worth!