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Frederick Law Olmsted, 1822-1903
A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy
New York; London: Dix and Edwards; Sampson Low, Son & Co., 1856.

Summary

Frederick Law Olmsted (26 April 1822-23 August 1903), renowned landscape architect and antebellum travel writer, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a comfortable middle class family. As a boy, Olmsted was educated by ministers and at private academies before a bout of sumac poisoning weakened his eyes and prevented him from pursuing higher education at Yale. Olmsted settled into life as a gentleman farmer and despite his infirmity continued to read tracts on scientific agriculture and landscape appreciation. Olmsted began his career as a travel writer in 1852 with his account of a series of tours of the public parks of Europe.

Beginning in that same year, Olmsted began his travels in the American South. Olmsted wrote dispatches to the New York Times and then wrote three volumes, of which A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy was the first, containing descriptions and analyses of his findings. He discusses North Carolina in Chapter Five. Olmsted's entry in the American National Biography argues that the writings in this volume "comprise the most extensive and detailed description of the society of the antebellum South by a contemporary observer."

In Journey, Olmsted comments on the land, the people, agriculture, industry, and slavery. He frequently notes the inadequacy of roads and travel accommodations in the region, and laments the waste of valuable product due to the lack of means and routes. He is generally pleased with Raleigh, and comments on the beauty of the architecture and the evergreens. His travels also take him to turpentine and rosin works. He provides detailed descriptions of the turpentine forests and examines the naval stores, tobacco, and tar industries. He casts an especially critical eye on the institution of slavery. Like North Carolina antislavery advocates Hinton Rowan Helper and Daniel Reaves Goodloe, Olmsted concluded that slavery retarded the economic and social progress of the South. He was especially troubled by the lack of urbanization and manufacturing and agricultural diversity and sophistication. Goodloe later assisted Olmsted in publishing a two-volume compilation of his southern travelogues and antislavery sentiments titled The Cotton Kingdom, which appeared in 1861.

Modern readers will notice that Olmsted, like Helper and Goodloe, has little sympathy for individual African Americans. Olmsted's portrayal of the enslaved peoples he encounters is steeped in racist rhetoric. Nonetheless, though he may not have lent much credence to the abolitionist cause, Olmsted's writings did have considerable influence on the development of the free soil doctrines of the Republican Party, which sought to prevent the extension of slavery into the West. Olmsted became an active sponsor of the free soil forces in Kansas.

After the late 1850s, Olmsted continued to publish, but he became increasingly interested in urban reform through the promotion of natural areas in the heart of major cities. Olmsted did not ignore the South. During the Civil War, he was an executive with the United States Sanitary Commission and an active lobbyist on behalf of emancipation and the establishment of freedmen's colonies. From the later 1860s through the 1890s, however, Olmsted focused his energies on planning large-scale parks in Brooklyn (Prospect Park), Manhattan (Central Park), Chicago (Washington and Jackson Parks), and other northern urban areas. He was also an innovator in the design of residential suburbs, which were intended to promote middle-class domestic tranquility.

Olmsted's last major project was to assist in the construction of George W. Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in Western North Carolina. Olmsted was instrumental in convincing Vanderbilt to undertake the first major demonstration of scientific forestry in the country and to begin planting the world's largest arboretum.

Works Consulted: Beveridge, Charles, "Frederick Law Olmsted," American National Biography, eds., John Garraty and Mark Carnes, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Michael Sistrom

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