Olmsted, Frederick Law (1822–1902)


By: Lewis W. Newton

Revised by: Randolph B. "Mike" Campbell

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: December 17, 2021


Frederick Law Olmsted, noted author of travel books, critic of the antebellum South, and famous landscape architect, son of John and Charlotte Law (Hull) Olmsted, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 26, 1822. Prevented by an eye infection from entering college, he studied surveying for two years and attended scientific lectures at Yale. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, he worked for a time with an importing firm in New York, engaged for several years in scientific agriculture on a Staten Island farm, and traveled extensively in New England, Canada, China, and Europe. He published his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England in 1852. Interested in the slave economy of the South and commissioned to write articles for the New York Times, Olmsted made extensive tours throughout the region from 1852 to 1857. In 1853-1854, with his brother John, he made a celebrated trip across Texas. His route took him from Natchitoches, Louisiana, across East Texas to Austin, then south through San Marcos and New Braunfels to San Antonio. Following a side trip to Boerne and Sisterdale, the brothers made their way to the coast at Indianola, returned to San Antonio, and then traveled to Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande, where they made a brief foray into Mexico. Retracing their steps to San Antonio, they headed east through LaGrange, Houston, and Beaumont and left Texas at Turner’s Ferry on the Sabine River.

During the trip, Olmsted wrote letters that commented on all phases of town and country life in Texas, fifteen of which were published in the New York Daily Times. Three years after the trip the letters served as the framework for a book, written as much by his brother John as by Olmsted himself, entitled A Journey through Texas; Or, A Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier: With a Statistical Appendix. The first printing (2500 copies) of the book nearly sold out within one month of publication and eventually became a major source for historians of Texas and slavery.

Olmsted was a fervent opponent of slavery, and his journey through Texas confirmed his deep-seated antipathy to forced servitude and to the South in general. He viewed East Texas as a land of ignorant and lazy Whites ruined economically and socially by the presence of slavery. In sharp contrast, he found the German communities so admirable that he and his brother considered settling permanently in the region. However, once he returned home Olmsted had no further important interaction with Texas. In 1861, portions of his Journey through Texas were combined with parts of two of his other southern travel books in a condensed publication entitled The Cotton Kingdom. The book, published in the fall of 1861, six months after the Civil War began, helped to galvanize antislavery sentiment in the North.

In the late 1850s Olmsted embarked on a career as a landscape architect that brought him far greater fame than any of his books. According to a biographer’s summary: “Over a period of thirty-seven years he and his partners designed twenty major urban parks [including Central Park in New York City], more than one hundred other public recreation grounds, did planning for fifty-five academic campuses and residential institutions [including Stanford University], and designed … the grounds of some two hundred private estates.”

In 1859, Olmsted married Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, the widow of his brother John who died in 1857. The marriage made him the step-father of the three children who had been born to John and Mary Olmsted, and he and Mary became the parents of three more children, including Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

Olmsted lived in New York until the late 1890s when his mind began to fail, forcing him to spend his last years in a hospital. He died in Brookline, Massachusetts, on August 28, 1903, and was buried in the Old North Cemetery at Hartford, Connecticut.

Broadus Mitchell, Frederick Law Olmsted: A Critic of the Old South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1924; rpt., New York: Russell & Russell, 1968). Frederick Law Olmsted, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, ed. Charles Capen McLaughlin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977-). Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas; Or A Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, Randolph B. Campbell, ed., (Dallas, DeGolyer Library& William P. Clements Center for Southwestern Studies, Southern Methodist University, 2004). Laura Wood Roper, "Frederick Law Olmsted and the West Texas Free-Soil Movement," American Historical Review 56 (October 1950). Laura Wood Roper, FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). Elizabeth Stevenson, Park Maker: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted (New York: Macmillan, 1977).

Categories:
  • Architecture
  • Architects
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, and Travel

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lewis W. Newton Revised by Randolph B. "Mike" Campbell, “Olmsted, Frederick Law,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/olmsted-frederick-law.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

1952
December 17, 2021