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Thoreau in Minnesota

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In a famous passage in Walden, Henry David Thoreau encourages his readers to reject the beaten path and march to the drum they hear. That may explain why, in May of 186l, Thoreau rejected his doctor's advice and traveled to Minnesota to cure his cold.

The cold had turned to chronic bronchitis in 186l. His doctor ordered him to "clear out" of Concord and go to some healthier climate. The doctor suggested the West Indies. "Too hot and muggy, he said, and made plans instead to head for Chicago, and then to the Mississippi River and from there to St. Paul, Minnesota for a three-month stay.

By June 26, Thoreau had arrived in Red Wing, Minnesota, at the head of Lake Pepin. He was impressed by the entire Mississippi above Rock Island. "Too much can hardly be said of its grandeur," he wrote in a letter home. He was impressed by Barn Bluff rising 450 feet above Red Wing, and by the huge log rafts floating downriver to sawmills.

As for Minnesotans, however, they seemed to be more cold than his friends back in Massachusetts. They appeared indifferent to the outcome of the Civil War.

Thoreau had little to say about St. Paul. What most impressed him was a steamboat trip up the Minnesota River three hundred miles to the Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood Falls: an adventure unlike any Thoreau had ever experienced. The river was so shallow and twisted and turned so much that the boat constantly got stuck. Thoreau and others often had to pull the boat free by rope tied to a tree up ahead.

At Redwood Falls, Thoreau visited Chief Little Crow and watched the Sioux perform dances for his entertainment.

This strenuous trip up the Minnesota River improved Thoreau's health, and he returned to Concord in July, almost well. But not quite. Thoreau's trip to Minnesota was his last voyage. He grew worse that winter, and on May 6th, 1862, he died. Had Thoreau stayed in Minnesota, things would have been no better. In August, the Chief Little Crow who had entertained Thoreau led the Minnesota Sioux uprising in which a thousand settlers were massacred.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.