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Olmsted cast New Eyes on the Old South

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was in the front rank of this country’s landscape architects, and many consider him the best. But he was other things, as well – farmer, journalist, public works administrator – and he approached all his work with the same vision, clarity, and attention to detail. The result was a visual and verbal legacy that reaches from the antebellum period through the Civil War and on past Reconstruction.

If you want to know what happened in the 19th-century South, any number of dry chronicles can meet that need. If you want to know what it was like to be in the 19th-century South, sample Olmsted. He was inquisitive. He was lucid. And he was there, bumping along the region’s stage roads, riding its riverboats, chatting up the natives, eating the local fare, and working his way through the various dialects of “the Southern tongue.”

Citing Olmsted often ignites inconclusive debate about his empathy for slaves. That’s due, in part, to the fact that Olmsted sometimes appropriated the language of the plantation. Mainly, though, it’s because Olmsted, self-made efficiency expert, devoted more attention to the economic folly of slavery than to the plight of those whose labor sustained it.

For the moment, leave it at this. Olmsted’s critics have a point: He was approximately as racist as Abraham Lincoln. And just as staunch a foe of slavery and supporter of the Union.

In 1861 Olmsted and North Carolina abolitionist editor Daniel Goodloe released The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States. The book was a compendium of three earlier travelogues that originally appeared in The New-York Daily Times, which had sent Olmsted south as a special correspondent.

Olmsted refined his observation that the South’s obsession with cotton had driven it to neglect almost everything else. Such inefficiency, he wrote, took a toll on the region’s soil, its quality of life and its economic independence. It suppressed not only slaves, he reported, but the hopes and prospects of all races and every class except for a few thousand politically powerful planters. If cotton was king it was a petty tyrant, not a towering giant on whom “No power on earth dares to make war,” as a South Carolina politician had recklessly warned.

It isn’t necessary to maintain a tunnel-vision focus on slavery to appreciate The Cotton Kingdom. The indictment is there, in Census data and both the willing and the unwitting testimony of slaveholders and secessionists. But books are for reading, and Olmsted’s is valuable for the clarity of its thinking and its writing — and for his dry humor, be it a throwaway reference to two roadhouse residents as “inmates” or his deadpan account of a protracted conflict with hotel management and staff who simply would not understand that, yes, he wanted both a fire for his fireplace and a lamp by which to write.

A Carolina sampler: His welcome to North Carolina involved balky teams, a slow, rough ride over awful roads, a stage rollover, abandonment by the driver short of his destination at dusk, and sharing a bed with a stranger in a too-small room.

Olmsted took such inconveniences in stride – at times literally so, leaving a stricken coach to walk on ahead, size up the view, and pump planters and farmers for information. He found a roadside rest stop uninviting in its construction, amenities and residents, one of them an expressionless young woman who spat tobacco juice into a fireplace at one-minute intervals:

     The furniture of the house was more scanty and rude than I ever saw before in any house, with women living in it, in the United States. Yet these people were not so poor that they had a negro woman cutting and bringing wood for their fire.

He enjoyed several days in Raleigh, whose layout, architecture and accommodations pleased him although the landscaper in him couldn’t resist a dig at the “State-house”:

     It stands on an elevated position, near the centre of the city, in a square field, which is shaded by some tall old oaks, and could easily be made into an appropriate and beautiful little park; but which … remains in a rude state of undressed nature, and is used as a hog-pasture.

Below Raleigh, Olmsted was struck by the beauty and utility of seemingly endless pine forests – and by the poverty of their inhabitants:

     I do not think I passed, in ten miles, more than half a dozen homesteads, and of these but one was at all above the character of a hut or cabin.

Between Raleigh and Fayetteville, during one of his out-of-stagecoach experiences, Olmsted arrived first. He stayed overnight at a stage house that offered a cheerier welcome than the rest stop:

     As soon as I was warm, I was taken out to supper: seven preparations of swine’s flesh, two of maize, wheat cakes, broiled quails, cold roast turkey, coffee, and tea.

He was surprised to be given a private bedroom with a stuffed easy-chair and some hot water for his tired feet. For all of it he was charged only a dollar – in contrast to his two-dollar stage fare for “riding five miles and walking twenty-one.”

On a farm near Fayetteville, Olmsted noticed dead grass half-covering land well suited to making hay. There was no better land for hay, its owner agreed, but he “had as much as his hands could do of other work at the period of the year when it should have been made.” So, instead, the man had imported 120 bales of Northern hay at an inflated price while his work force was deployed to the cotton fields.

Olmsted found the nearby turpentine forest inhabited by two groups: squatters – “people without habitual, definite occupation or reliable means of livelihood” – typically housed in rough, drafty shelters “having no more furniture or pretension to comfort than a criminal in the cell of a prison;” and turpentine farmers whose cabins were only marginally better and whose cultivated areas, though larger, yielded “no better crops than the poorer class.” The big difference? The farmers owned property, meaning slaves, that had a market value, and so were not under constant threat of starvation.

Noted from a stern-wheeler headed down the Cape Fear to Wilmington:

     The greater part, even of these once rich low lands, that had been in cultivation, were now “turned out,” and covered either with pines or broom-sedge and brushwood.

Farther down, and once again loosely associated with a stagecoach, Olmsted recorded a wildlife inventory:

     Large black buzzards were constantly in sight, sailing slowly, high above the treetops. Flocks of larks, quails and robins were common, as were also doves, swiftly flying in small companies. The red-headed woodpecker could at any time be heard hammering the old tree-trunks, and would sometimes show himself, after his rat-tat, cocking his head archly, and listening to hear if the worm moved under the bark. The drivers told me that they had on previous days, as they went over the road, seen deer, turkeys, and wild hogs.

If you have rested your eyes on Central Park’s 800 acres of Manhattan greenscape, gawked at Niagara Falls or roamed the grounds at Biltmore estate in the Carolina highlands, you’ve felt Olmsted’s influence. Millions have visited Olmsted projects or collaborations in a slew of American states and a couple of Canadian provinces. But some of his best work lies within easy reach, between the covers of his books. There, his interests converged to provide a remarkably clear look into his troubled time and our own past.


The Cotton Kingdom, originally published in London and New York, has been widely reissued in print and digital formats.

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