A Sojourn to Texas with Frederick Law Olmsted – Part I
Posted on October 23, 2015
Excerpts from Journey through Texas, or a Saddle-trip on the Southwestern Frontier
With the news of Leonardo DiCaprio playing the “Devil” in the upcoming movie the Devil in the White City, I recalled a journey by one of his co-characters, Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the architects of the famed White City of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
In 1852, the Editor of the New-York Daily News (soon to be the New York Times) asked a young Olmsted to make a series of journeys through the South to make close observation of the land and of the practice of slavery. At the time, Frederick was but a mere 30 years old. Old. Although Frederick would go on to design some of America’s most iconic landscapes, such as New York’s Central Park, he had already at this young age become a noted “experimental farmer”, as well as for his writings, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. These new travels would result in two books; the Journey to the Seaboard Slave States, and the other, A Journey through Texas, or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier.
In November of 1853 Frederick set out for Texas with his dashing, yet sickly brother and best friend, John Olmsted. John, after editing Frederick’s articles for the paper from 700 pages to an abbreviated 500 page book, would be dead a mere three years later.
Frederick and his brother travelled through Ohio, down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then by steamboat up the Red River to Natchitoches, Louisiana. As they approached Texas along the road they met families from Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas through piney woods and fallow fields with abandoned cabins. When they asked where everyone had gone, the universal reply was, “Gone to Texas.”
As the brothers traveled through the country that had only become a state a few years earlier, the observations turned from slavery to the landscape (slavery was a custom brought to Texas by the immigrants from the eastern states.) Texas was an odd and foreign land, where Frederick honed his skills of observation of the landscape and the prose that described land and it’s people, who Frederick considered uncouth, uneducated and unkindly.
Leaving Austin for the western reaches of Texas upon their approach to San Antonio the brothers found in the village of Neu-Braunfels an all-together different scene-
“I never in my life, except, perhaps, in awakening from a dream, met with such a sudden and complete transfer of associations. Instead of the loose boarded or hewn log walls with crevices stuffed with rags or daubed with mortar, which we have been accustomed to see during the last month… instead four bare, cheerless sides of whitewash plaster, which we have found only twice or thrice only in a more aristocratic American residences, we were- in short, we were in Germany. There was nothing wanting; there was nothing too much, for…the pedestrian who has tramped through the Rhine land will ever gratefully remember. ”
“We spent an hour in conversation with the Gentlemen who were in the room. They were all educated, cultivated, well-bred, respectful, kind, and affable men. All were natives of Germany…It was so very agreeable to meet such men again… we were unwilling to immediately continue our journey.”
After a rough long journey the two men saw the crowded inn must be full and anticipated another night of sleeping on the floor or the “cock-loft”, but were shown to a cottage in the rear yard,
“A little room with blue walls, and oak furniture; two beds, one of them would be for each of us— the first time we had been offered sleeping alone in Texas; two large windows with curtains, and evergreen roses trained over them outside- not a pane broken- the first sleeping room we have had in Texas where this was the case; a sofa; a bureau, on which were a complete set of conversational Lexicon; a statuette in porcelain; plants in pots; a brass study lamp; a large basin for washing, and a couple of towels of thick stuff, full a yard and a quarter long. O, yes, it will do for us admirably; we will spend the night.”