Thursday, August 25, 2016

Frederick Law Olmsted on Virginia Slave Quarters

If you have not read Frederick Law Olmsted's (pictured above in later years) travel accounts through the slaveholding states in the 1850s, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Cotton Kingdom. In it, the future famous landscape architect makes a number of interesting observations. Being an northerner and thus outsider to the "peculiar institution" provided Olmsted the opportunity to offer a different perspective than that of slaveholder or the enslaved.

In his travels through Virginia, Olmsted paused to comment on slave dwellings:
"The houses of slaves are usually log-cabins, of various degrees of comfort and commodiousness. At one end there is a great fire-place, which is exterior to the wall of the house, being made of clay in an inclosure, about eight feet square and high, of logs. The chimney is sometimes of brick, but most commonly of lath or split sticks, laid up like log work and plastered with mud. They [slaves] enjoy a great roaring fire, and, as the common fuel is pine, the cabin, at night when the door is open, seen from a distance, appears like  a fierce furnace. The chimneys often catch fire, and the cabin is destroyed. Very little precaution can be taken against such danger. Several cabins are places close together, and they are called "the quarters." On a plantation of moderate size there will be but one "quarters." The situation [location] chosen for it has reference to convenience of obtaining water from springs and fuel from the woods."

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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