Quote Capture: Frederick Law Olmsted

Before Olmsted designed Central Park or became America's first landscape architect.


Twelve years after Texas statehood, Frederick Law Olmsted set out by train, boat (at times makeshift), horse, and mule from Baltimore to explore the Texas regions. Tasked with recording his observations, his first-hand account reads, to me, like an anthropologist documenting the cultural landscape. Olmsted never shied away from talking with people along the way, no matter their appearance or presence of mind, ethnicity, or position on slavery. Wherever possible, he and his riding partner would travel for a day hoping to bed down at the next available homestead, and if no available shelter, camp. Bed surfing gave him the opportunity to record more data, such as types of dwellings, what they grew, cooked, and prioritized. Daytime travel provided more data: soil quality, forest density and species, waterways, climate, and townscapes. Throughout his journey, surprisingly, calamity did not overtake them, from a chaparral fire (including an admission of accidentally starting it) to a very delicate ride-along conversation with Native Americans, deciding if this character with funny looking mule packs should be taken down. Danger seemed very real, in frontier towns and Mexico.


Olmsted’s route is meticulously recorded, categorized by regions: Eastern Texas, Western Texas, Coastal, “Over the Frontier,” and back along the Eastern Coast before closing in New Orleans. He finds both unique and mundane landscapes for each region, but I did not expect the “frontier” to snap me back to my childhood. I realized that I had never consciously sought the dictionary meaning for “frontier;” it was the place I went as a child, Frontier Village in San Jose, California, that told me everything I needed to know from those apparent Wild West days. It was fun, adventurous, and dirty. My frontier was contained and entertaining, and as a Californian living in a congested area, I really have not given the frontier much thought ever since. For Olmsted, the frontier meant assessing an area mostly unsettled, between Castroville and the Rio Grande except for two German colonists’ villages followed by “defenseless” Fort Inge and “badly placed, in a military point of view,” Fort Duncan. “Here, we might lose our scalps…” (p. 273). This is embarrassing to admit that I had not thought about the frontier being contained within a state but vastly unknown, lawless despite attempts otherwise, bordering our southern neighbor who still had a significant presence and synergism in the area. Time to rethink my understanding of the frontier in the West.


Time-Life Books included an insert summarizing the book, prefacing Olmsted as,

A Connecticut Yankee by birth and a New Yorker by choice, he was an antislavery partisan. But neither in these pages nor in his other writings does he ever sound the shrill tone of the more violent abolitionist. He believed quite simply that a free economy is more efficient, profitable and beneficent than a slave economy.

Throughout this journey, Olmsted observes a dysfunctional relationship between slave and slave owner…not just for what we observe today, but contemporaneously witnessing what the losses of humanity and compassion inflict upon the soul. “…there is that throughout the South, in the tone of these fine fellows, these otherwise true gentlemen, which is very repugnant – a devilish, undisguised, and recognized contempt for all humbler classes. It springs from their relations with slaves, “poor whites,” and tradespeople, and is simply incurable.” p.18


While I captured several quotes from Olmsted’s Journey Through Texas, my purpose here is to share anything relevant to California, landscape design, designer, or any other whim that floats through my brain. For now, I will leave you with this:


A California cattle-train, we afterwards saw, consisted of four hundred head of oxen, generally in fine, moderately fat condition. There were twenty-five men to guard and drive them. Only a few of these, old frontier men and drovers, who had before been over the road, and could act as guides, were paid wages. The remainder were young men who wished to emigrate to California and who were glad to have their expenses paid to have their services by the proprietors of the drove. They were all mounted on mules, and supplied with the short government rifle and Colt’s repeaters. Two large wagons and a card, loaded with stores, cooking utensils, and ammunition, followed the herd; and another wagon was in company, belonging to a French family, which was very comfortably fitted up for the six months’ residence and conveyance of a woman and several children. p.274

And...


A Texan driver, we were informed, the previous year made $100,000 by purchasing sheep in Mexico at $1 a head, and selling them in California at $20 a head. The exportation of sheep from Mexico is, at present, by law, contraband. p. 274-275


And my earliest found reference to white trash:


And in social relations, [German abolitionists] are sensitive to the overbearing propensities of a proprietary who are accustomed to regard all neighbors out of their own class as White Trash. P. 439


Frederick Law Olmsted, Olmsted's Texas Journey (1981 reprint from 1857 first edition). Classics of the Old West, Time-Life Books, New York.

Original: A Journey through Texas; or, a Saddle-trip on the Southwestern Frontier: with a Statistical Appendix (1857). Dix, Edwards & Company, London.

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