Fun With Frederick Law Olmstead in the Slave States

Everyone knows Frederick Law Olmstead as the designer of Central Park in New York City, and of many, many beautfiul parks all over the place. I used to take a walk every day in a lovely little park he designed in Concord, New Hampshire.

But he was also a travel writer, and he traveled extensively in the South in the 1850s, so his writings are a valuable historical source. These personal observations present a lively picture of what life was like there.

I can’t begin to describe all the insight he provides about slavery. He stays with planters who have freed all their slaves and are doing better than their slave-owning neighbors. He talks to one guy who has kept in touch with the slaves he has freed and sent to Africa or to the North.

He helps them purchase freedom for their family and friends. He tells Olmstead about going to Philadelphia and running into one of his former slaves ten years later:

“She recognized him immediately, recalled herself to his recollection, manifested the greatest joy at seeing him, and asked him to come to her house, which he found a handsome three-story building, furnished really with elegance; and she pointed out to him, from the window, three houses in the vicinity that she owned and rented.

“She showed great anxiety to have her children well educated, and was employing the best instructors for them which she could procure in Philadelphia.”

Now there’s a wonderful story. Other stories we get from Olmstead are not so pleasant. He uses census data to document what everyone knew or ought to have known, that the eastern slave states were ‘exporting’ about 20,000 slaves per year to the cotton plantations in Alabama and Mississippi. They were a giant human breeding farm, disgusting as it may sound.

The intention was to break up families. Olmstead tells the story of a New York man traveling through Virginia:

A man entered the car in which he was seated, leading a negro girl, whose manner and expression of face indicated dread and grief. Thinking she was a criminal, he asked the man what she had done.

“Done? Nothing.”

“What are you going to do with her?”

“I’m taking her down to Richmond, to be sold.”

“Does she belong to you?”

“No, she belongs to _____; he raised her.”

“Why does he sell her — has she done anything wrong?”

“Done anything? No, she’s no fault, I reckon.”

“Then, what does he want to sell her for?”

“Sell her for! Why shouldn’t he sell her? He sells one or two every year; wants the money for ’em, I reckon.”

Olmstead reports that nearly everyone he talked to had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although it was banned in the South, because they all cited parts of it that were wrong.

I think Harriet Beecher Stowe would get some satisfaction from that. She rocked their bleepin’ world. They hated her guts but they read her book. They had to. It was a worldwide best-seller about them.

But then I have to add something that surprised me — tho I guess it shouldn’t have — namely that many of the earliest and most effective organizers of the Underground Railroad were former slave owners from the South.

And all these historical conclusions aside, it’s fun to ramble around with a good writer like Frederick Law Olmstead.