A Butter Take on Texas History


A Butter Take on Texas History BY DEBBIE NATHAN A Journey through Texas: Or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier By Frederick Law Olmsted University of Nebraska Press 539 pages, $21.95

A Journey through Texas: Or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier By Frederick Law Olmsted, edited by Randolph B. Campbell DeGolyer Library & William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies SMU Press 321 pages, $60. oday he is best known as the genius who designed Central Park just before the Civil War. But in 1853 and 1854, Frederick Law Olmsted had different work: riding a horse through Texas to report for the fledgling New York Times about how slavery was affecting the frontier. A third of Texas’ population at the time was chattel and much of the state—including the Capitol in Austin—was built with Negro sweat. Olmsted’s articles were published in the newspaper, then compiled a few years later into A Journey through Texas. Generations hence, Journey still gets accolades: True West magazine has called it one of the best books ever written about the American West. It’s so good that two publishers—count them, two!—reprinted it last year to fete the 150th anniversary of its original publication. Both are academic presses, but don’t be scared if you’re not a scholar. The peculiar institution was more peculiar in Texas than in other states, and Olmsted’s eye for the weirdness makes Journey a page turner. So does his use of sprightly travelogue to make the serious argument that slavery was ruining Texas. His best evidence? It sounds like the silly kvetching of a modern-day East Coast tourist, and it boils down to this: From Houston to Austin to Corpus Christi, he could hardly find a decent shmear. Well, not quite. Olmsted lived in New York City decades before the mass immigration that brought bagels there. Olmsted didn’t care about cream cheese; his real concern as a traveler in Texas was butter. He expected it to be fresh and available, and not just because he was a Yankee cosmopolitan used to frills. He also ran an experimental farm on Staten Island. That made him an expert on efficient agriculture, including dairy production. Imagine Olmsted’s disgust, then, riding for months through cow-clotted farms in East Texas, yet almost never coming across butter—and when he did, it was usually rancid. Imagine, too, the talent of a writer who could translate abstruse political economy into everyday home economics. Slavery as crappy cousine, Texas as the menu from hell. Generations after its debut, Journey’s descriptions of Lone Star swill can still dampen one’s appetite. Still, the book is a tasty read. Olmsted’s word portraits of mid-19th-century Texas are as good as the best modern travelogues. Reading his sketches of rural people, their land and dialects, feels like watching Paris Hilton in “The Simple Life”—if she’d been able to visit the boonies in 1854. “Simple,” of course, isn’t smart enough to tie Hilton’s ritzy-ditzy, let-them-eat-cakedom to a critique of, say, Bush administration policy as it plays out in contemporary, What’s-the-Matter-with-Kansased, Podunk. Mainly, she just ends up mocking the rubes. Or sentimentalizing them. Olmsted is far better. Sure, he starts poking fun as soon as he crosses the Sabine River—at vulgar and garrulous whites, enslaved blacks, and “yellow fellow” chattel (up North they’d be “mulattos”). They worship his rifle. They bore him with stale jokes about his ineptness at outback travel. They invite him to “take some whiskey” with them—all the while spouting double negatives and verb constructions like “done gone.” (“Execrable,” Olmsted calls this talk.) Besides being irked by poor grammar, he’s appalled by Texan homes, which lack windows, even doorknobs. And there are the hogs, which run in packs everywhere, attacking the chickens roasting on Olmsted’s campfire and snatching grain from his horse’s feed bag. Not wild hogs, mind you. They’re domestic, yet their owners don’t bother to pen them. Execrable! But Olmsted’s city-slicker eye-rolling makes a Tocquevillean point in reverse. In the rest of America, he notes, democracy has engendered yeoman industry, popular literacy, even yummy food. But Texas? There, bad grammar, bad housing, bad pigs, and bad dairy come straight from a stain on democracy. From slavery, which has reduced Texans to unlettered, poorly housed—and butterless—slobs. The logic is simple, according to Olmsted’s on-the-road observations. Because of slavery, you can hardly find a Texan—black or white—who gives a damn about working. A young man with “20 or 30 negroes and hundreds of acres and herd of cattle” is typical. He did not fancy taking care of a plantation. It was too much trouble. He was a regular Texan, he boasted… Any man who had been brought up in Texas, he said, could live as well as he wanted to, without working more than one month in a year. For that month, he drove his cattle into a pen and branded them. During the rest of the year he hadn’t anything to do. This man’s house has one room. It is so open to the elements that “in many places the sky could be seen,” and on winter mornings the temperature inside measures 25 degrees. Instead of spending money to fix their houses, say slave owners like this man, they would rather invest it in human property. But the slaves are also loath to work. A white woman recently transplanted from above the Mason-Dixon line laments that “up north,” if a servant girl “went out into the garden for anything, when she came back she would clean her feet, but these nigger girls will stump right in and track mud all over the house. What do they care? They’d just as lief clean the mud after themselves as anything else—their time isn’t any value to themselves.” Exactly, nods Olmsted to his readers. If time is money, then who wants to work if they don’t own their hours? That’s the dilemma of slavery, and it slows production in every Dixie state. But things are worse in Texas, where there’s a special problem with discipline. That problem is the international border, because if you whip your slave too hard he might make a run for it—with assistance from South Texas’ uniquely mixed population. Or, as one owner puts it, “Every nigger or Mexican he could find would help him.” So Texans go relatively easy on their slaves. At the same time, they stew obsessively about bondage and discipline. Olmsted hears one owner remark that if he caught a runaway, he would pull out his toenails one by one. At another plantation, an eight-year-old boy flings nasty curses at his puppy, parroting the noisy threats of whippings and beatings that his father hurls at the family’s slaves. So much anger and yelling, so much work still not done. Elsewhere in the South, he observes, slavery had seemed to be accepted generally, as a natural, hereditary, established state of things, and the right and wrong of it, or the how of it, never to be discussed or thought of… But in Texas, the state of war in which slavery arises, seems to continue in undertone. Meanwhile, the pigs run wild because no one wants to do the work to catch them. And since churning is also work, there’s never any fresh butter. Nor decent coffee—it costs money that’s better invested in slaves—or beef, which would have to be rounded up for slaughter. Only fatback from those damned, free-range pigs. It drives Olmsted to distraction. Then, almost by chance, he discovers the Germans in their little burgs near San Antonio. These are the European revolutionaries of 1848, the democrats who read books, oppose slavery, and—miracle of miracles!—do their own churning. Olmsted can’t get over how delicious the butter is in towns like “Neu Braunfels.” He also notices that, unlike on the slave plantations of East Texas, Germans plant and chop their own cotton. Southerners always say the country needs slavery because cotton is too hot and difficult for “free”—i.e. white—labor to handle. But Texas Germans are free, notes Olmsted, and they do fine in the fields. A Journey Across Texas: Or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier by Frederick Law OlmstedWith this observation, he shows that the Negro-cotton connection is hardly God-given. Instead, it’s what academics will later call “socially constructed.” Years will pass before others will question the inevitability of, say, women being the only ones who can care for kids or men as the sole practitioners of medicine and law. A Journey through Texas establishes Olmsted as a pioneer social constructionist as much as a pioneer travel writer. And writer he is, one who makes Texas landscape as vibrant as the grand park he’ll later create. There are the prairies, with “live-oaks, standing alone in picturesque groups near and far upon the clean sward, which rolled in long waves that took, on their various slopes, bright light or half shadows from the afternoon sun.” There’s the norther that plummets the thermometer 12 degrees in 12 minutes: The air had been perfectly calm; but as we arrived near the next summit there was suddenly a puff of wind from the westward, bringing with it the scent of burning hay; and in less than thirty seconds, another puff, chill as if the door of a vault had been opened… In five minutes we had all got our overcoats on, and were bending against it. Journey also gives us Indian warriors barging into white people’s homes to pat the hair of indifferent housewives, Texas Rangers riding half naked down the streets of San Antonio, escaped slaves gallivanting around Piedras Negras, Tejana women splashing in limpid streams, and souvenir horned toads mailed back to the goggle-eyed folks in Manhattan. The University of Nebraska edition comes with reproductions of Texas newspaper clippings that Olmsted collected on the trip. Besides runaway and “for sale” slave notices, these include squibs about small town dances and meetings, ads for children’s clothing, and paranoid warnings about suspected Mexican and Negro revolts. The polyglot of languages in these papers—Spanish, French, German, English—is testament to the crazy mishmash of culture and ethnicity in Texas on the eve of the Civil War. It’s all brilliant, and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. once called Olmsted’s book “the nearest thing posterity has to an exact transcription of a civilization which time has tinted with hues of romantic legend.” But time didn’t do all the tinting. As Journey shows, Texas was romantic from the start, and while romance usually starts sweet, it can leave a rancid aftertaste. True then, true today. Still you keep spreading your butter in Houston, Austin, and beyond, hoping for something fresher, trying to find the churn. Contributing writer Debbie Nathan is a native Texan. She now lives in Manhattan, where you can’t get a decent breakfast taco.