Henry David Thoreau, the famed naturalist and writer was the son of John Thoreau Jr. and Cynthia Dunbar. Cynthia, the daughter of Asa & Mary (Jones) Dunbar, was born 22 May 1787 in Keene, Cheshire County, New Hampshire.
Cynthia Dunbar grew up amid the lovely green hills of the Monadnock region of New Hampshire. She met and married John Thoreau in 1812, and was living in Concord, Massachusetts at the time of their son’s (Henry David Thoreau) birth in 1817.
Cynthia’s father Asa Dunbar, son of Samuel Dunbar of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and brother of Elijah Dunbar, was born in 1745, and graduated from Harvard College in 1767. He preached for awhile in Bedford MA, and Salem MA but was “dismissed” at his own request on account of ill health in 1779. He read law with Joshua Abbott of Amherst MA, and settled in Keene as an attorney in 1783. He was prominent in his community, helping to find land for Keene’s second meeting house. He was a charter member and first master of the Masonic Lodge, Rising Sun Lodge No. 4, at Keene in 1784 (note this lodge was disbanded in 1805. A second Rising Sun Lodge was chartered in Nashua NH in 1822) . He had recently been elected as town clerk, and selectman of Keene the year he died (in 1787).
Cynthia’s mother was Mary Jones, only daughter of a celebrated Loyalist of the American Revolution, Colonel Elisha Jones of Weston MA. Of Mary’s 12 brothers, “eight were banished from the American colonies and had their properties confiscated for their pro-English activities.” There were several family stories about her “sneaking” files to her imprisoned brothers in order to help them escape. After her husband Asa’s death in 1787, Mrs. Mary Dunbar continued to live in Keene, keeping a tavern on Main Street. She married 2nd) 1798 to Captain Joseph Minot of Concord MA. She died in 1830 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord MA.
Cynthia’s siblings were: Polly, born in Salem MA 1773; William born in Weston MA 1776; Charles born in Harvard MA 1780; Sophia, born in Harvard MA 1781; and Louisa, born in Keene NH 1785. Dunbar Street in Keene, New Hampshire is named after this family.
The inspiration for this article is Bill Ives of “Ives Family History Blog,” who is also a distant cousin to Henry David Thoreau, through the Dunbar line.
1. History of Keene NH
2. Necrology of Harvard Graduates: NEHGS Register 16:364
3. History of Essex County, Massachusetts
4. The Life of Henry David Thoreau by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn
5. Photograph of Henry David Thoreau from American Memory, Library of Congress, c. 1879; Taken by George F. Parlow (1845-1905); Digital ID: cph 3a02153