A Journey through Texas, or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier

A Journey through Texas, or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier

A Journey through Texas, or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier

A Journey through Texas, or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier

Synopsis

Before he became America's foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was by turns a surveyor, merchant seaman, farmer, magazine publisher, and traveling newspaper correspondent. In 1856-57 he took a saddle trip through Texas to see the country and report on its lands and peoples. His description of the Lone Star State on the eve of the Civil War remains one of the best accounts of the American West ever published. Unvarnished by sentiment or myth making, based on firsthand observations, and backed with statistical research, Olmsted's narrative captures the manners, foods, entertainments, and conversations of the Texans, as well as their housing, agriculture, business, exotic animals, changeable weather, and the pervasive influence of slavery. Back and forth from the Sabine to the Rio Grande, through San Augustine, Nacogdoches, San Marcos, San Antonio, Neu-Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Lavaca, Indianola, Goliad, Castroville, La Grange, Houston, Harrisburg, and Beaumont, Olmsted rode and questioned and listened and reported. Texas was then already a multiethnic and multiracial state, where Americans, Germans, Mexicans, Africans, and Indians of numerous tribes mixed uneasily. Olmsted interviewed planters, scouts, innkeepers, bartenders, housewives, drovers, loafers, Indian chiefs, priests, runaway slaves, and emigrants and refugees from every part of the known world-most of whom had "gone to Texas" looking for a fresh start. He also observed the breathtaking arrival of spring on the prairie and the starry nights that seemed to prove the truth of the German saying "The sky seems nearer in Texas."

Excerpt

Witold Rybczynski

Frederick Law Olmsted was thirty years old when Henry J. Raymond, the editor of the fledgling New-York Daily Times (soon to be renamed the New-York Times) offered him a writing assignment. Raymond was looking for a special correspondent to travel through the southern states and write a series of reports for the paper about the material conditions of everyday rural life, focusing in particular on the effects of slavery. It was 1852. the country was roiled by the question of whether slavery should be allowed to spread to new territories and states. Following an historic debate in the Senate, California had been admitted to the Union as a free state, slavery had been abolished in the District of Columbia, and Utah and New Mexico were organized as territories without restrictions on the institution. in addition, the Fugitive Slave Law had made the federal government complicit in apprehending and arresting runaway slaves. This compromise pleased no one. in the North, abolitionists railed against the expansion of slavery; in the South, there were rumbles of secession. That year, Harriett Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold more than one million copies in twelve months.

It is obvious why Raymond wanted to run a series of firsthand background reports on how slavery affected Southern life, but why did he offer the assignment to someone who had never been a reporter? Olmsted had had a checkered though not uninteresting career. the son of a well-to-do Hartford . . .

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