Who is he? | Commentary | Conditions | the Law of Slavery | Rural Scenes

pine forests | old fields | forest

The context of both Humboldt's ideas quoted in Olmsted and the passage below is found on the site -- A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, 1853-1854.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. [1822-1903] was a writer, farmer from Staten Island, New York, landscaper, and served as commissioner to the Union Army for managing the U.S. Sanitary Commission. He was the co-architect with Calvert Vaux of Central Park, New York, and recommended to President Lincoln that the Yosemite Valley on the Mariposa Rancho in California be protected as a national treasure.

"...the author had, at the outset of his journey, a determination to see things for himself, as far as possible, and to see them carefully and fairly, but cheerfully and kindly. It was his disposition, also, to search for the causes and extenuating circumstances, past and present, of those phenomena which are commonly reported to the prejudice of the slaveholding community; and especially of those features which are manifestly most to be regretted in the actual condition of the older Slave States.

He protests that he has been influenced by no partisan bias; none, at least, in the smallest degree unfriendly to fair investigation, and honest reporting. At the same time, he avows himself a democrat; not in the technical and partisan, but in the primary and essential sense of that term. As a democrat he went to study the South--its institutions, and its people; more than ever a democrat, he has returned from this labor, and written the pages which follow."


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The laws to protect the masters against the slaves, were of a severity that no necessity could justify; while there was scarcely a semblance of law to guard the slaves against the inhumanity of the whites. Slaves, endeavoring to flee from the cruelties to which they were generally subjected,*

* Hewitt, i., 120; ii., 96.

were permitted to be shot, and were required, when recaptured alive, on pain of heavy penalties upon their owners, to be mutilated in a manner too bad to mention. If they died in consequence, their owners were entitled to compensation for their loss, from the colonial treasury. Slaves, committing burglary, were punished by being slowly burned to death.**

** Hildreth.

I begin to suspect that the great trouble and anxiety of Southern gentlemen is:--How, without quite destroying the capabilities

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of the negro for any work at all, to prevent him from learning to take care of himself.

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pine forests | old fields | forest

MapPETERSBURG, Dec. 28.--It was early in a fine, mild, bright morning, like the pleasantest we ever have in March, that I alighted, from a train of cars, at a country station. Besides the shanty that stood for a station-house, there was a small, comfortable farm-house on the right, and a country store on the left, and around them, perhaps, fifty acres of cleared land, now much flooded with muddy water;--all environed by thick woods.

A few negro children, staring as fixedly and posed as lifelessly as if they were really figures "carved in ebony," stood, lay, and lounged on the sunny side of the ranks of locomotive-firewood; a white man, smoking a cigar, looked out of the door of the store, and another, chewing tobacco, leaned against a gate-post in front of the farm-house; I advanced to the latter, and asked him if I could hire a horse in the neighborhood.

"How d'ye do, sir?" he replied; "I have some horses--none on 'em very good ones, though--rather hard riders; reckon, perhaps, they wouldn't suit you very well."

"Thank you; do you think I could find anything better about here?"

"Colonel Gillin, over here to the store, 's got a right nice saddle-horse, if he'll let you take her. I'll go over there with you, and see if he will. . . . Mornin', Colonel;--here's a gentleman that wants to go to Thomas W.'s: couldn't you let him have your saddle-horse?"

"How do you do, sir; I suppose you'd come back to-night?"

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"That's my intention, but I might be detained till to-morrow, unless it would be inconvenient to you to spare your horse."

"Well, yes, sir, I reckon you can have her;--Tom!--Tom!--Tom! Now, has that devilish nigger gone again! Tom! Oh, Tom! saddle the filly for this gentleman.--Have you ever been to Mr. W.'s, sir?"

"No, I have not."

"It isn't a very easy place for strangers to go to from here; but I reckon I can direct you, so you'll have no difficulty.

He accordingly began to direct me; but, the way appeared so difficult to find, I asked him to let me make a written memorandum, and, from this memorandum, I now repeat the directions he gave me.

"You take this road here--you'll see where it's most traveled, and it's easy enough to keep on it for about a mile; then there's a fork, and you take the right; pretty soon, you'll cross a creek and turn to the right--the creek's been up a good deal lately, and there's some big trees fallen along there, and, if they ha'n't got them out of the way, you may have some difficulty in finding where the road is; but you keep bearing off to the right, where it's the most open (i. e., the wood), and you'll see it again pretty soon. Then. you go on, keeping along in the road--you'll see where folks have traveled before--for maybe quarter of a mile, and you'll find a cross-road; you must take that to the left; pretty soon you'll pass two cabins; one of 'em's old and all fallen in, the other one's new, and there's a white man lives into it: you can't mistake it. About a hundred yards beyond it, there's a fork, and you take the left--it turns square off, and it's fenced for a good bit; keep along by the fence, and you can't miss it. It's right straight beyond that till you come to a school-house,

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there's a gate opposite to it, and off there there's a big house--but I don't reckon you'll see it neither, for the woods. But somewhere, about three hundred yards beyond the school-house, you'll find a little road running off to the left through an old field; you take that and keep along in it, and in less than half a mile you'll find a path going square off to the right; you take that, and keep on it till you pass a little cabin in the woods; aint nobody lives there now: then it turns to the left, and when you come to a fence and gate, you'll see a house there, that's Mr. George Rivers' plantation--it breaks in two, and you take the right, and when you come to the end of the fence, turn the corner--don't keep on, but turn there. Then it's straight, till you come to the creek again--there's a bridge there; don't go over the bridge, but turn to the left and keep along nigh the creek, and pretty soon you'll see a meeting-house in the woods; you go to that, and you'll see a path bearing off to the right--it looks as if it was going right away from the creek, but you take it, and pretty soon it'll bring you to a saw-mill on the creek, up higher a piece; you just cross the creek there, and you'll find some people at the mill, and they'll put you right straight on the road to Mr. W.'s."

"How far is it all, sir?"

"I reckon it's about two hours' ride, when the roads are good, to the saw-mill. Mr. W.'s gate is only a mile or so beyond that, and then you've got another mile, or better, after you get to the gate, but you'll see some nigger-quarters--the niggers belong to Mr. W., and I reckon ther'll be some of 'em round, and they'll show you just where to go."

After reading over my memorandum, and finding it correct, and agreeing with him that I should pay two dollars a day for

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the mare, we walked out, and found her saddled and waiting for me.

I remarked that she was very good-looking.

"Yes, sir; she a'nt a bad filly; out of a mare that came of Lady Rackett by old Lord-knows-who, the best horse we ever had in this part of the country: I expect you have heard of him. Oh! she's maybe a little playful, but you'll find her a pleasant riding-horse."

The filly was just so pleasantly playful, and full of well-bred life, as to create a youful, healthy, sympathetic, frolicsome heedlessness in her rider--walking rapidly, and with a sometimes irresistible inclination to dance and bound; making believe, she was frightened at all the burnt stumps, and flashes of sun-light on the ice, and, every time a hog lifted himself up before her, starting back in the most ridiculous manner, as if she had never seen a hog before; bounding over the fallen trees as easily as a lifeboat over a billow; and all the time gracefully playing tricks with her feet, and her ears, and her tail, and evidently enjoying herself just like any child in a half-holiday ramble through the woods, yet never failing to answer to every motion of my hand or my knees, as if she were a part of myself. In fact, there soon came to be a real good understanding, if not even something like a merging of identity, between Jane and me (the filly's name was Jane Gillin); if her feet were not in the stirrups, I am sure I had all the sensation of tripping it on the ground with mine, half the time, and we both entered into each other's feelings, and moved, and were moved, together, in a way which a two hours' lecture, by a professor of psychology, would be insufficient, satisfactorily, to explain to people who never--but all that's of no consequence, except that, of course, we soon lost our way.

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We were walking along slowly, quietly, musingly--I was fondling her with my hand under her mane, when it suddenly came into my mind: "why Jane! it's a long time since I've thought anything about the road--I wonder where we've got to." We stopped and tried to work up our dead-reckoning.

First, we picked our way from the store down to the brook, through a deeply corrugated clay-road; then there was the swamp, with the fallen trees and thick underwood, beaten down and barked in the miry parts by wagons, making a road for themselves, no traces of which could we find in the harder, pebbly ground. At length when we came on to drier land, and among pine trees, we discovered a clear way cut through them, and a distinct road before us again; and this brought us soon to an old clearing, just beginning to be grown over with pines, in which was the old cabin of rotten logs, one or two of them falling out of rank on the door-side, and the whole concern having a dangerous lurch to one corner, as if too much whisky had been drank in it: then a more recent clearing, with a fenced field and another cabin, the residence of that white man we were told of probably. No white people, however, were to be seen, but two negroes sat in the mouth of a wigwam, husking maize, and a couple of hungry hounds came bounding over the zig-zag, gateless fence, as if they had agreed with each other that they would wait no longer for the return of their master, but would straightway pull down the first traveler that passed, and have something to eat before they were quite famished. They stopped short, however, when they had got within a good cart-whip's length of us, and contented themselves with dolefully youping as long as we continued in sight. We turned the corner, following some slight traces of a road, and shortly afterwards met a curious

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vehicular establishment, probably belonging to the master of the hounds. It consisted of an axle-tree and wheels, and a pair of shafts made of unbarked saplings, in which was harnessed, by attachments of raw-hide and rope, a single small black ox. There was a bit, made of telegraph-wire, in his mouth, by which he was guided, through the mediation of a pair of much knotted rope-reins, by a white man--a dignified sovereign, wearing a brimless crown--who sat upon a two-bushel sack, (of meal, I trust, for the hounds' sake,) balanced upon the axle-tree, and who saluted me with a frank "How are you?" as we came opposite each other.

Soon after this, we reached a small grove of much older and larger pines than we had seen before, with long and horizontally stretching branches, and duller and thinner foliage. In the middle of it was another log-cabin, with a door in one of the gable-ends, a stove-pipe, half-rusted away, protruding from the other, and, in the middle of one of the sides, a small square port-hole, closed by a wooden shutter. This must have been the school-house, but there were no children then about it, and no appearance of there having been any lately. Near it was a long string of fence and a gate and lane, which gave entrance, probably, to a large plantation, though there was no cultivated land within sight of the road.

I could remember hardly anything after this, except a continuation of pine trees, big, little, and medium in size, and hogs, and a black, crooked, burnt sapling, that we had made believe was a snake springing at us and had jumped away from, and then we had gone on at a trot--it must have been some time ago, that--and then I was paying attentions to Jane, and finally my thoughts had gone wool-gathering, and we must have traveled

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some miles out of our way and--"never mind," said Jane, lifting her head, and turning in the direction we had been going, "I don't think it's any great matter if we are lost; such a fine day--so long since I've been out; if you don't care, I'd just as lief be lost as not; let's go on and see what we shall come to."

"Very well, my dear, you know the country better than I do; go where you like; if you'll risk your dinner, I'm quite ready to go anywhere in your company. It's quite certain we have not passed any meeting-house, or creek, or saw-mill, or negro-quarters, and, as we have been two hours on the road, it's evident we are not going straight to Mr. W.'s.; I'll try at least to take note of what we do pass after this," and I stood up in the stirrups as we walked on, to see what the country around us was.

"Old fields"--a coarse, yellow, sandy soil, bearing scarce anything but pine trees and broom-sedge. In some places, for acres, the pines would not be above five feet high--that was land that had been in cultivation, used up and "turned out," not more than six or eight years before; then there were patches of every age; sometimes the trees were a hundred feet high. At long intervals, there were fields in which the pine was just beginning to spring in beautiful green plumes from the ground, and was yet hardly noticeable among the dead brown grass and sassafras bushes and blackberry-vines, which nature first sends to hide the nakedness of the impoverished earth.

Of living creatures, for miles, not one was to be seen (not even a crow or a snow-bird), except hogs. These--long, lank, bony, snake-headed, hairy, wild beasts--would come dashing across our path, in packs of from three to a dozen, with short, hasty grunts, almost always at a gallop, and looking neither to right nor left, as if they were in pursuit of a fox, and were

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quite certain to catch him in the next hundred yards; or droves of little pigs would rise up suddenly in the sedge, and scamper off squealing into cover, while their heroic mothers would turn around and make a stand, looking fiercely at us, as if they were quite ready to fight if we advanced any further, but always breaking, as we came near, with a loud boosch!

Once I saw a house, across a large, new old-field, but it was far off, and there was no distinct path leading towards it out of the wagon-track we were following; so we did not go to it, but continued walking steadily on through the old-fields and pine woods for more than an hour longer.

We then arrived at a grove of tall oak trees, in the midst of which ran a brook, giving motion to a small grist-mill. Back of the mill were two log cabins, and near these a number of negroes, in holiday clothes, were standing in groups among the trees. When we stopped one of them came towards us. He wore a battered old hat, of the cylindrical fashion, stiffly starched shirt-collar, cutting his ears, a red cravat, and an old black dress coat, thread-bare and a little ragged, but adorned with new brass buttons. He knew Mr. Thomas W., certainly he did; and he reckoned I had come about four miles (he did not know but it might be eight, if I thought so) off the road I had been directed to follow. But that was of no consequence, because he could show me where to go by a straight road--a cross cut--from here, that would make it just as quick for me as if I had gone the way I had intended.

"How far is it from here?" I asked.

"Oh, 'taint far, sar."

"How far do you think?"

"Well, massa, I spec--I spec--(looking at my horse) I spec,

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massa, ef you goes de way, sar, dat I shows you, sar, I reckon it 'll take you--"

"How far is it--how many miles?"

"How many miles, sar? ha! masser, I don 'zactly reckon I ken tell ou--not 'cisely, sar--how many miles it is, not 'zactly, 'cisely, sar."

"How is that--you don't what?"

"I don't 'zactly reckon I can give you de drection excise about de miles, sar."

"Oh! but how many miles do you think it is; is it two miles?"

"Yes, sar; as de roads is now, I tink it is just about two miles. Dey's long ones, dough, I reckon."

"Long ones? you think it's more than two miles, don't you, then?"

"Yes, sar, I reckon its four or five miles."

"Four or five! four or five long ones or short ones do you mean?"

"I don 'zactly know, sar, wedder dey is short ones or long ones, sar, but I reckon you find em middlin' long; I spec you'll be about two hours 'fore you be done gone all de way to mass W.'s."

He walked on with us a few rods upon a narrow path, until we came to a crossing of the stream; pointing to where it continued on the other side, he assured me that it went right straight to Mr. W.'s plantation. "You juss keep de straight road, master," he repeated several times, "and it'll take you right dar, sar."

He had been grinning and bowing, and constantly touching his hat, or holding it in his hand during our conversation, which

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I understood to mean, that he would thank me for a dime. I gave it to him, upon which he repeated his contortions and his form of direction--"keep de straight road." I rode through the brook, and he called out again--"you keep dat road right straight and it'll take you right straight dar." I rode up the bank and entered the oak wood, and still again heard him enjoining me to "keep dat road right straight."

Within less than quarter of a mile, there was a fork in the road to the left, which seemed a good deal more traveled than the straight one; nevertheless I kept the latter, and was soon well satisfied that I had done so. It presently led me up a slope out of the oak woods into a dark evergreen forest; and though it was a mere bridle-path, it must have existed, I thought, before the trees began to grow, for it was free of stumps, and smooth and clean as a garden walk, and the pines grew thickly up, about four feet apart, on each side of it, their branches meeting, just clear of my head, and making a dense shade. There was an agreeable, slightly balsamic odor in the air; the path was covered with a deep, elastic mat of pine leaves, so that our footstep could hardly be heard; and for a time we greatly enjoyed going along at a lazy, pacing walk of Jane's. It was noon-day, and had been rather warmer than was quite agreeable on the open road, and I took my hat off, and let the living pine leaves brush my hair. But, after a while, I felt slightly chilly; and when Jane, at the same time, gave a little sympathizing caper, I bent my head down, that the limbs might not hit me, until it nearly rested on her neck, dropped my hands and pressed my knees tightly against her. Away we bounded!

What a glorious gallop Jane had inherited from her noble grandfather!

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Out of the cool, dark-green alley, at last, and soon with a more cautious step, down a step, stony declivity, set with deciduous trees--beech, ash, oak, gum--"gum," beloved of the "minstrels." A brawling shallow brook at the bottom, into which our path descended, though on the opposite shore was a steep high bank, faced by an impenetrable brake of bush and briar.

Have we been following a path only leading to a wateringplace, then? I see no continuance of it. Jane does not hesitate at all; but, as if it was the commonest thing here to take advantage of nature's engineering in this way, walking into the water, turns her head up stream.

For more than a mile we continued following up the brook, which was all the time walled in by insurmountable banks, overhung by large trees. Sometimes it swept strongly through a deep channel, contracted by boulders; sometimes purled and tinkled over a pebbly slope; and sometimes stood in broad, silent pools, around the edges of which remained a skirt of ice, held there by bushes and long, broken water-grasses. Across the end of one of these, barring our way, a dead trunk had lately fallen. Jane walked up to it and turned her head to the right. "No," said I, "let's go over." She turned, and made a step left--"No! over," said I, drawing her back, and touching her with my heels.

Over we went, landing with such a concussion that I was nearly thrown off. I fell forward upon Jane's neck; she threw up her head, spurning my involuntary embrace; and then, with swollen nostrils and flashing eyes, walked on rapidly.

"Hope you are satisfied," said she, as I pulled my coat down; "if not, you had better spur me again."

"Why, my dear girl, what's the matter? It was nothing but leather--calf-skin--that I touched you with. I have no spurs--don't

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you see?" for she was turning her head to bite my foot "Now, don't be foolish."

"Well, well," said she, "I'm a good tempered girl, if I am blood; let's stop and drink."

After this, we soon came to pine woods again. Jane was now for leaving the brook. I let her have her own way, and she soon found a beaten track in the woods. It certainly was not the "straight road" we had been directed to follow; but its course was less crooked than that of the brook, and after some time it led us out into a more open country, with young pines and inclosed fields. Eventually we came to a gate and lane, which we followed till we came to another cross-lane, leading straight to a farm-house.

As soon as we turned into the cross-lane, half-a-dozen little negro boys and girls were seen running towards the house, to give alarm. We passed a stable, with a cattle-pen by its side, opposite which was a vegetable garden, enclosed with split palings; then across a running stream of water; then by a small cabin on the right; and a corn-crib and large pen, with a number of fatting hogs in it, on the left; then into a large, irregular yard, in the midst of which was the farm-house, before which were now collected three white children, six black ones, two negro women, and an old lady with spectacles.

"How dy do, sir?" said the old lady, as we reined up, bowed, and lifted our hat, and put our black foot foremost.

"Thank you, madam, quite well; but I have lost my way to Mr. Thomas W.'s, and will trouble you to tell me how to go from here to get to his house."

By this time a black man came cautiously walking in from the field back of the house, bringing an axe; a woman, who had

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been washing clothes in the brook, left her work and came up on the other side, and two more girls climbed up on to a heap of logs that had been thrown upon the ground, near the porch, for fuel.



The swine were making a great noise in their pen, as if feeding-time had come; and a flock of turkeys were gobbling so incessantly and loudly that I was not heard. The old lady ordered the turkeys to be driven away, but nobody stirred to do it, and I rode nearer and repeated my request. No better success. "Can't you shew away them turkeys?" she asked again; but nobody "shewed."

A third time I endeavored to make myself understood.

"Will you please direct me how to go to Mr. W.'s?"
"No, sir--not here."

"Excuse me--I asked if you would direct me to Mr. W.'s."

"If some of you niggers don't shew them turkeys, I'll have you all whipped as soon as your mass John comes home," exclaimed the old lady, now quite excited. The man with the

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axe, without moving towards them at all, picked up a billet of wood and threw it at the biggest cock-turkey, who immediately collapsed; and the whole flock scattered, chased by the two girls who had been on the log-heap.

"An't dat Colonel Gillen's mare, master?" asked the black man, coming up on my left.

"You want to go to Thomas W.'s?" asked the old lady.

"Yes, madam."

"It's a good many years since I have been to Thomas W.'s, and I reckon I can't tell you how to go there now."

"If master'll go over to Missy Abler's, I reckon dey ken tell 'em dah, sar."

"And how shall I go to Mrs. Abler's?"

"You want to go to Missy Abler's; you take dat path right over 'yond dem bars, dar, by de hog-pen, dat runs along by dat fence into de woods, and dat'll take you right straight dar."

"Is you come from Colonel Gillin's, massa?" asked the washwoman.


"Did you see a black man dar, day calls Tom, sar?"


"Tom's my husband, massa; if you's gwine back dah, wish you'd tell um, ef you please, sar, dat I wants to see himparticklar; will ou, massa?"


"Tank you, massa."

I bowed to the old lady, and, in turning to ride off, saw two other negro boys who had come out of the woods, and were now leaning over the fence, and staring at us, as if I was a giant and Jane was a dragoness.

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We trotted away, found the path, and in course of a mile had our choice of at least twenty forks to go "straight to Mrs. Abler's." At length, cleared land again, fences, stubble-fields and a lane, that took us to a little cabin, which fronted, much to my surprise, upon a broad and well-traveled road. Over the door of the cabin was a sign, done in black, upon a hogshead stave, showing that it was a "GROSERY," which, in Virginia, means the same thing as in Ireland--a dram-shop. ( a bar, tavern or like place wher alcohol is served and sold )

I hung the bridle over a rack before the door, and walked in. At one end of the interior was a range of shelves, on which were two decanters, some dirty tumblers, a box of crackers, a canister, and several packages in paper; under the shelves were a table and a barrel. At the other end of the room was a fire-place; near this, a chest, and another range of shelves, on which stood plates and cooking utensils: between these and the grocery end were a bed and a spinning-wheel. Near the spinning-wheel sat a tall, bony, sickly, sullen young woman, nursing a languishing infant. The faculty would not have discouraged either of them from trying hydropathic practice. In a corner of the fire-place sat a man, smoking a pipe. He rose, as I entered, walked across to the grocery-shelves, turned a chair round at the table, and asked me to take a seat. I excused myself, and requested him to direct me to Mr. W.'s. He had heard of such a man living somewhere about there, but he did not know where. He repeated this, with an oath, when I declined to "take" anything, and added, that he had not lived here long, and he was sorry he had ever come here. It was the worst job, for himself, ever he did, when he came here, though all he wanted was to just get a living.

I rode on till I came to another house, a very pleasant little

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house, with a steep, gabled roof, curving at the bottom, and extending over a little gallery, which was entered, by steps, from the road; back of it were stables and negro-cabins, and by its side was a small garden, and beyond that a peach-orchard. As I approached it, a well-dressed young man, with an intelligent and pleasant face, came out into the gallery. I asked him if he could direct me to Mr. W.'s. "Thomas W.'s?" he inquired.

"Yes, sir."

pine forests | old fields | forest


book pagesFrederick Law Olmsted Sr., A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, 1853-1854.


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