Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Olmsted's Texas

Review of:
A Journey through Texas; or, a Winter of Saddle and Camp in the Border Country of the United States and Mexico. (Frederick Law Olmsted, 1857)

We noticed, some weeks since, Mr. Olmsted's Journey in the Slave States; and we feel great pleasure in meeting him again as the author of A Journey through Texas. As far as we can judge from his style, both of thought and of writing, it would be difficult to find a more reasonable, trustworthy, or intelligent witness upon some of the most remarkable questions of the ‘day.  As an argument against slavery, his book seems to us worth any number of Uncle Tom's Cabins; for he writes upon the subject without noise or passion, and contents himself with stating in a simple manner what he has observed, and what conclusions he has founded upon his observations. He is, moreover, a man of large and statesmanlike views. He wishes well, not only to the prosperity of the North, but to that of the South also, and deprecates in the strongest manner measures which, in his opinion, would endanger the Union or the preservation of the peace in the Slave States. A “Letter to a Southern Friend,” which is prefixed to the volume by way of preface, seems to us a model of clear temperate argument on the subject, illustrating the economical side y the question in a very forcible, and, to us at least, novel manner. From a great number of curious statements upon this subject, we would select for special notice his assertion that slavery, sooner or later, inevitably involves slave proprietors in debt; because, in order to avoid slave rebellions, and doubtless also to extend political influence, it is the policy of the South to enlarge the area of Slave territory far beyond the requirements of any commercial or agricultural purpose, and in order to have the means of carrying out this ruinous system, it is necessary to be always borrowing and never paying. One of the results of this state of things is, that the white population leave the Slave for the Free States to such an extent that there have been six times as many immigrants from the South to the North as from the North to the South.

The body of Mr. Olmsted's book consists of notes of a journey from Baltimore, by way of the Ohio and Mississippi, to New Orleans, and thence on horseback through various parts of Texas. It consumed the winter of 1855 and the early part of 1856. Texas is the south-east corner of the United States, and includes a territory of 274,362 square miles, which is larger than England and France put together, or than the aggregate of Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and all New England. Under the Resolution of Annexation, it is at no distant time to be divided into as many as five distinct States, the boundaries and names of which are not as yet settled. The population at present amounts to upwards of 409,000 souls, of whom more than a quarter are slaves. The additional political influence which the accession of so large a number of Slave States will give to the South, throws a curious light on the real motives which have actuated the slavery party, in pushing so warmly the various measures of annexation. It proves that the real object of those measures, which have often produced so much surprise in this country, was the extension of slavery. The Slave States are well aware that they are inferior to the Free States, in wealth, in population, and in energy. They can therefore only hope to maintain the superiority which their superior political experience has put into their hands, by increasing, at the expense of any amount of unjust aggression, the number of the south of the line of the Missouri Compromise.

Mr. Olmsted's description of his journey is very entertaining, but it is made up entirely of memoranda, of characteristic incidents and conversations, which are printed in separate sections, and with no other arrangement than that which is given to them by the order of time. The great leading features of his observations, however, stand out distinctly enough, and we will attempt to indicate their nature. The white population of that part of Texas through which Mr. Olmsted travelled is in a condition which cannot be considered in any way satisfactory. The American settlers are almost universally cotton planters, depending entirely upon black labour for the raising of their crops. The climate is perfectly well adapted for free labourers; but where free and slave labour come into competition, the white men are sure to sink, sooner or later, to that degraded condition which is emphatically described by the expressive phrase “white trash." The consequence of this is, that a plantation is inhabited almost exclusively by the white owner and the black servants, and the results of this mode of settling anew country, are exceedingly curious and characteristic. The slaves are lazy, careless, and totally destitute of any interest in their occupation. The white man sinks to their level, being distinguished from them only by a sort of barbaric superiority.  He loses all the tastes and all the wants of civilized life.  He dwells in a miserable log house, in which the wind whistles through innumerable holes and crevices. He lives upon “pones,” or cakes made of the meal of Indian corn, stirred with water and salt, and baked in a kettle covered with coals. The only addition to this is pork, fresh or salt, and a certain quantity of sweet potatoes. Wheat bread Mr. Olmsted met with only twice throughout his journey. Life passes away with most of these people in a monotonous, semi-barbarous prosperity.  Mr. Olmsted fell in with one man who had the opportunity of being a planter, but “he did not fancy it, it was too much trouble. He was not going to slave himself, looking after niggers.” So he lived idly, working about a month in the year, and lounging about unemployed for the other eleven. “When he felt like it,” he got on his horse and looked after his cattle, but that was only amusement. He raised a little corn, and lived in a rough log house, which was so cold that his wife cooked the dinner in her bonnet and shawl, and Mr. Olmsted's thermometer, which was kept during the night in saddle-bags used as a pillow, stood at 25° in the morning. Wherever slavery existed, comfort seemed to be unknown, and labour to be despised.

The relation of the white to the black population is what might be expected. Mr. Olmsted and his fellow-travellers were constantly asked by persons whom they happened to meet whether they had seen runaway slaves. Mexico is to the slaves of Texas what Canada is to those of the more northerly Slave States. The prairies are continually traversed by runaways, whose apprehension brings two hundred dollars a-head to their captors. A certain number of persons earn a sort of livelihood by hunting them, and eke it out by robbing travellers. Some of Mr. Olmsted's stories on this head are very curious. Under press of weather one night, at a rough sort of inn, he had much talk with a man out nigger-hunting. He had bought “a first-rate nigger—a real black nigger"—cheap, because he had a trick of running away of which his old master could not break him. He had run away, and his master was in pursuit. “Night before last,” he said, “I engaged with a man who's got some first-rate nigger dogs to meet me here to-night,” but the cold kept him away. The nigger, he added, had a double-barrelled one of the guests who was inclined to speculate in niggercatching, asked if he was likely to use it. The master thought he would. “He was as humble a nigger when at work as ever he had seen; but he was a mighty resolute nigger—there was no man had more resolution.” Still the speculator asked, might not he get the gun away from him if he “talked to him simple,” and “finally asked him what he had got for a gun, and to let him look at it.” The owner thought not—“he was a nigger of sense— as much sense as a white man—not one of your kinkey-headed niggers.” The effect of slavery on education is illustrated by various stories. A planter had a son of eight years old, who caught his father's tone with precocious fidelity:—
“We heard him whipping his puppy behind the house, and swearing between the blows, his father and mother being at hand. His tone was an evident imitation of his father's mode of dealing with his slaves, “I’ve got an account to settle with you; I’ve let you go about long enough; I'll teach you who's your master; there, go now, God damn you, but I hav'n't got through with you yet.” “You stop that cursing,” said his father, at length; “it is not right for little boys to curse.” “What do you do when you get mad?” replied the boy; “reckon you cuss some; so now you'd better shut up.”
Slavery is not the only brutralizing element in Texan life. The original settlers who brought about the annexation were a very rough, ill-conditioned set. “G. T. T. (gone to Texas) was the slang appendage,” a few years back, “to every man's name who had disappeared before the discovery of some rascality.” A writer who gave an account of Texan society in 1831, says:— “It is nothing uncommon of us to inquire of a man why he ran away from the States; but few people feel insulted by such a question. They generally answer, for some crime or other which they have committed.” On their arrival in Texas, the G.T.T.'s told such enormous lies as to the prospects and possessions which they had left behind them, that one old man, by way of rebuke, once told a party of them how he had gone on telling the same story about the property he had left behind him so often that he at last came to believe it; and he added that he actually set out to look for it, stopping only because he reflected, on arriving at the limits of the States, that after all he had no property, and that if he entered the States' territory in search of it, he should be hanged.

The most curious part of Mr. Olmsted's book is that which refers to the German settlements in Texas. They have a numerous, and a very prosperous population. Slavery is unknown amongst them, and their villages are models of comfort and cleanliness. A great number of the exiles of 1848 settled here, and the consequence is that the tone of education amongst them is remarkably high. Mr. Olmsted is a great admirer of their general character, and he says that nothing can be more curious than the absolute freedom, not only of political condition, but of mind, which exists amongst them. No doubt, a society of gentlemen turned farmers and hunters must be an exceptional and temporary phenomenon; but it is pleasant to learn that after such a storm, so many persons have run into so safe and commodious a harbour.

Mr. Olmsted prolonged his journey into Mexico, but he did not go far into the country. His accounts of it do not differ materially from those which we have seen by other authors. He confirms Mr. Ruxton's account of the manner in which the whites allow the Indians to domineer over them. He has no love at all for the Indians, and can see nothing either admirable or picturesque about them. We will conclude with one of his stories, which is too good to be omitted —
“Why do people who write books,” said his guide, “always make Indians talk in that hifaluting way they do? Indians don't talk so; and when folks talk that way to them, they don't understand it. They don't like it neither. I went up with Lieutenant —, when he tried to make a treaty with the northern Apaches. He had been talking up in the clouds—all nonsense—for half an hour, and I was trying to translate it just as foolish as he said it. An old Indian jumped up, and stopped me. ‘ What does your chief talk to us in this way for? We ain't babies—we are fighting men: if he has got anything to tell us, we will hear it; but we didn't come here to be amused—we came to be made drunk, and to get some brandy and tobacco.’”
Saturday Review, Feb 21, 1857.

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