Library of Congress Exhibit Charts Olmsted History   

This guest post is by Barbara Bair, a historian in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, and specialist for the division’s Olmsted collections.

This month the Library of Congress joins other organizations and park conservancies around the country in recognizing the 200th anniversary of the birth on April 26 of journalist, writer, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903).  In this bicentennial year, Olmsted scholars and enthusiasts have created webinars, published new works, and sponsored meetings to analyze the Olmsted legacy, its relation to democracy, and his concept of “parks for all the people.”

To highlight the Olmsted anniversary, the Library of Congress is featuring an Olmsted Bicentennial exhibit, currently on view in the Thomas Jefferson Building through June 4, 2022.  The Olmsted Bicentennial exhibit features select Olmsted publications from the Library’s book collections, primary source materials from the Manuscript Division’s Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, and visuals from the Prints and Photographs Division, in combination with reproductions of photographs and drawings from the National Park Service Frederick Law Olmsted Historic Site Olmsted Archives.

The exhibit charts Olmsted from his youth in Connecticut, a trip to China as a young man in the mercantile business, and his work as a travel writer in England and observer of the American South. It documents his design and administrative work for Central Park with architect Calvert Vaux and his service with the U.S. Sanitary Commission early in the American Civil War. It continues with his time in California, his influential proposal for what eventually became Yosemite National Park, and his rise as a philosopher of the public parks movement and designer of the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. The exhibit concludes with a look at Olmsted parks as they are used and reinterpreted in diverse ways today.

Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut. In his autobiographical writing, he speaks of being schooled beside trees and streams, and taking rides with his father through the countryside. Backed by his businessman father’s financial support, he established a farm on Staten Island, New York, and acquired an experiential education through apprenticeships and travel. Olmsted worked in the publishing and periodical press world of New York City and acquired expertise in civil engineering, horticulture, and park, agency, and estate administration, before turning to landscape architecture as an ongoing career.

A portion of Olmsted's The Cotton Kingdom displayed featuring a partial image of a map capturing the cotton growing region of the upper and lower South along the East Coast

The Cotton Kingdom, based on Olmsted’s account of travel and observations in the 1850s, published in condensed form in two volumes in 1861, with fold-out map. General Collections, Library of Congress.

In the 1850s, social and racial justice issues, including questions of slavery and its expansion, permeated the highly charged decade leading up to the American Civil War. These tensions formed the backdrop for Olmsted’s investigative “eye witness” reporting on the enslaved labor regimes of the American South. In his travel by horseback, train, and stagecoach, he interviewed or witnessed a broad variety of individuals, from enslaved field workers to enslavers, slave traders, and overseers, and non-slaveholding farmers. In a series of articles, he created what to modern readers is a compendium of pre-war American racism, but which was greeted at the time as an eye-opening look for northerners into the realities of the sociology and, to Olmsted’s mind, the failed agricultural economy of the South. With the rise of the Republican Party, Olmsted embraced Free Soil politics. He favored conciliatory gradualism to bring about an eventual end to slavery and limitations on the spread of slavery in western territories. He championed free labor and supported small-scale and mixed-crop farming and immigrant homesteading opportunities, including for German settlers in Texas.

In 1860-1861, as Secession took place and the war began, Olmsted was appalled by disunion. He supported Lincoln and the Union cause and influenced opinion in England against ideas of British support for the Confederacy. He left his administrative position at Central Park and came to Washington, D.C., as general secretary with the U.S. Sanitary Commission. He noted in letters to his wife Mary Perkins Olmsted the severity of battlefield experience suffered by the common soldier and described his work developing a system of hospital ships to transport ill and wounded members of the Union Army.

Application for work in central park for Patrick Roach, in typescript and pen circa 1860

Application for Work, Central Park, 1860.  Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, Central Park Subject File, Box 39, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 

Olmsted spent the latter part of the Civil War living in California as the manager of a gold mining estate in the Sierra foothills. He wrote to his wife and father about his awestruck first look at the giant Mariposa Trees grove, and he researched investment opportunities in the Golden State. He was excited to be asked to design cemetery grounds in the Bay Area, and he argued for sustainable plantings, and the creation of sacred wooded spaces of solace and areas of mourning for families of the dead, including those who had been lost in the war.

In 1864 Olmsted was named as a commissioner by the governor of California to plan governmental regulation and oversight of the Yosemite Valley. In his written plan, he presented ideas that evolved into the 1890 creation of Yosemite National Park. In his proposal for the park, he praised new postwar ideas of government protection for common good. But he also wrote of hierarchies of civilization and discounted the long occupancy for centuries of the region by several California Indian tribes and bands, including the Miwok, and ignored the genocidal violence they had experienced under governmental and military policies favoring white settlement, commercial enterprises, and resource extraction in the area. In advocating public land conservation by federal and state governments with other Anglo-American planners working in concert to curb commercial and private development, he did not recognize the long Native American management of grasslands and woodlands through controlled burns; the deep existing Indigenous knowledge of native plants, flora, and fauna; or Native rights to residency in the valley.  Today the National Park Service presents a more inclusive historical reinterpretation and encourages diverse use of the park.

A stereograph of Yosemite Valley from the Mariposa Trail with an evergreen tree in the foreground to the left and mountains in the background. Photograph by Cartlon Watkins.

Stereograph, Yosemite Valley from the Mariposa Trail, circa 1871-1878. Carlton Watkins, photographer. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

Work for the Olmsted firm and in the arena of national parks was carried on after Olmsted’s 1903 death by a new generation, including Olmsted’s step-son John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) and son Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957).  Together the Olmsted brothers oversaw a staff of landscape designers who worked for the family firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, and helped establish the modern fields of cultural landscape architecture and urban planning.

Related Resources

You can find more information about the Library’s exhibit and Olmsted events and webinars sponsored by many organizations around the nation during this bicentennial year by visiting the Olmsted 200 consortium web site maintained by the National Association for Olmsted Parks.  For additional scholarly resources, see the Related Resources bibliography accompanying the Library’s Frederick Law Olmsted Papers digital collection. Other Olmsted primary documents are available as part of the Olmsted Associates Records.

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