A cabin in the middle of the woods sitting in front of a lake.

Did Henry David Thoreau build the cabin he lived in at Walden Pond? How much did it cost him? What famous philosopher owned the land?

We often focus on the philosophical reasons why Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live and think little about the logistical aspects of such a move. Before he could make Walden his home, he had to turn a patch of woods into a cabin.

Read more to learn about Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.

Henry David Thoreau’s Cabin

Henry David Thoreau’s cabin was built a mile and a half south of Concord, Massachusetts, near Walden Pond. He explains that he chose a spot situated in the middle of a forest of young pitch pines and hickories. He felled pines, salvaged building materials, dug a cellar, and (with the help of friends) built a 10-by-15-foot cabin. He furnished the cabin simply, with a bed, a desk, a table, three chairs, and a few small household items. 

(Shortform note: The passages of Walden where Thoreau lists the materials he used to build his cabin have been compared to similar lists in Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn. Such lists seem to highlight their writers’ childlike sense of possibility. One writer notes that Thoreau’s choice to build his cabin within walking distance of home might sound a bit reminiscent of a child going camping in his family’s backyard. Perhaps that’s not an inaccurate comparison: It’s rumored that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry, and scholars say he often ate dinner at her house. He also continued to help run his family’s pencil factory during his time at Walden.)

Thoreau adds up all of the expenses associated with building and outfitting the cabin and finds that it cost him $28.12. That’s less than the $30 it cost at the time to rent a room for a year in nearby Cambridge. (Shortform note: $30 in 1845 is equivalent to about $1,200 in 2023. Thoreau’s list of costs parodies similar lists found in the house pattern books popular at the time.) 

Thoreau writes that he considered the construction costs a good investment because a well-built cabin provides shelter for many years. On July 4, 1845, he began living full time in the cabin, even though it wasn’t finished yet. He continued to work on it after he moved to Walden, and he finished building the chimney and plastering the walls before winter.

(Shortform note: The land where Thoreau’s cabin stood belonged to his mentor, philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who bought it spontaneously. It wasn’t valuable—Thoreau writes that each acre cost $8.08 (about $327 in 2023)—because its soil was infertile. For that reason, it had been some of the only land offered to formerly enslaved people decades earlier. By the time Thoreau arrived, a village that scholars call “Black Walden” had come and gone: Formerly enslaved people built a settlement, but struggled to survive. In Black Walden, Elise Virginia Lemire writes that the residents were only as free as society allowed them to be. They were punished for seeking a self-sufficiency more arduous than the kind Thoreau later pursued.)

Henry David Thoreau’s Cabin at Walden Pond: A Forest Refuge

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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