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Olmsted and the Gaines Ferry

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

An 1840s map of western Louisiana showing the road that Fredrick Law Olmsted took into Texas and across Gaines Ferry (LOC).

In the late 1840s, American renaissance man Frederick Law Olmsted took it upon himself to explore Texas and proceeded to write all about the travels and trials along the way.

His subsequent journal, published in 1856 as "A Journey through Texas," was often lacking in flattering descriptions about what he witnessed — the land and people west of the Red River didn't impress him much. He viewed the southwestern states, particularly Texas, as being in constant fear of slave rebellions. He also, correctly, recognized how the slave-holding south used the three-fifths compromise to shore up its political power: more and more slaves were being moved westward into Texas to inflate its population and thus, representation in congress.

Olmsted's book is also very geographically descriptive. After disembarking the steamship at Grand Ecore, he and his party left Natchitoches and proceeded to Texas along "the old Spanish trail from Monterey, Chihuahua, and Santa Fe, by way of San Antonio" (this is the Camino Real, or Royal Road). They left in December in the hopes of avoiding yellow fever. Before passing Fort Jesup, they spent the night at "Mrs. Stokers," a "double log cabin — two log erections, joined by one long roof, leaving an open space in between" with "a gallery extending across the whole front." Here, Mrs. Stoker provided the party with fodder for the horses, a small cabin for sleeping that had a hole in the roof, and a supper "consisting of pork, fresh and salt, cold corn-bread and boiled sweet potatoes."

Further down the road, they came across a nascent village (I believe this may have been Many in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, founded in 1843), which "consisted of six dwellings" where a farrier, grocer, and wagon wheel repairman lived and who charged over "one hundred percent" more than similar services in New Orleans. Olmsted described the land as over-grazed and dilapidated, but his observations may have been prejudiced by the sleet and snow that had begun to fall on this dreary day.

Olmsted and his party pushed on to Gaines Ferry on the Sabine River, which at that time was "the property of Mr. Strather" a planter who lived in "a log house of two stories and the first we had met having glass windows." Fancy!

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