Olmstead is best known for his work in landscape architecture, but as a young man he travelled in the South and wrote several books of his travels. Although this piece anticipates the South-baiting style of H. L. Mencken's Sahara of the Bozart, it gives important glimpses into the religious attitudes of both slaves and white Southerners. While the details of conversation and dialect are perhaps too full for accuracy as a record of casual conversation and while it is apparent that Olmstead has little sympathy for "Yazoo", Olmstead does observe the concerns of plain people and his travel diary is an important record of ordinary life in the South in the decade before the War. Olmstead's record of the planter's comments about slave reading are especially interesting. Immediately after the Nat Turner incident in 1831, several Southern states passed laws forbidding the instruction of negroes in reading or assembly without white supervision. If accurate, Olmstead's record suggests a remarkable economic and educational motivation among a slave population stereotypically viewed as backward, indolent, and illiterate. It also recalls a common but now all but forgotten figure of Nineteenth Century life-the itinerant book peddler.
Before dark all my companions left me, and in their place I had but one, a young gentleman with whom I soon became very intimately acquainted. He was seventeen years old, so he said; he looked older; and the son of a planter in the "Yazoo bottoms." The last year he had "follered overseein'" on his father's plantation, but he was bound for Tennessee, now, to go to an academy, where he could learn geography. There was a school near home at which he had studied reading and writing and ciphering, but he thought a gentleman ought to have some knowledge of geography. . . .
The next morning when I turned out I found Yazoo looking with the eye of a connoisseur at the seven prime field-hands, who at half past seven were just starting off with hoes and axes for their day's work. As I approached him, he exclaimed with enthusiasm:
"Aren't them a right keen lookin' lot of niggers?" And our host soon after coming out, he immediately walked up to him, saying: "Why, friend, them yer niggers o' yourn would be good for seventy bales of cotton, if you'd move down into our country."
Their owner was perfectly aware of their value, and said every thing good of them.
"There's something ruther singlar, too, about my niggers; I don't know as I ever see any thing like it anywhere else."
"How so, sir?"
"Well, I reckon it's my way o' treatin' 'em, much as any thing. I never hev no difficulty with 'em. Hen't licked a nigger in five year, 'cept maybe sprouting some of the young ones sometimes. Fact, my niggers never want no lookin' arter; they jus tek ker o' themselves. Fact, they do tek a greater interest in the crops than I do myself. There's another thing-I 'spose 't will surprise you-there ent one of my niggers but what can read; read good, too-better'n I can, at any rate."
"How did they learn?"
"Taught themselves. I b'lieve there was one on 'em that I bought, that could read, and he taught all the rest. But niggers is mighty apt at larnin', a heap more 'n white folks is."
I said that this was contrary to the generally received opinion.
"Well, now, let me tell you," he continued; "I had a boy to work, when I was buildin', and my boys jus teachin' him night times and such, he warn't here more'n three months, and he larned to read as well as any man I ever heard, and I know he didn't know his letters when he come here. It didn't seem to me any white man could have done that; does it to you, now?"
"How old was he?"
"Warn't more 'n seventeen, I reckon."
"How do they get books-do you get them for them?"
"Oh, no; get 'em for themselves."
"How do they get the money?"
"By their own work. I tell you my niggers have got more money 'n I hev."
"What kind of books do they get?"
"Religious kind a books ginerally-these stories; and some of them will buy novels, I believe. They won't let on to that, but I expect they do it."
They bought them of peddlers. I inquired about the law to prevent negroes reading, and asked if it allowed books to be sold to negroes. He had never heard of any such law-didn't believe there was any. The Yazoo man said there was such a law in his country. Negroes never had any thing to read there. I asked our host if his negroes were religious, as their choice of works would have indicated.
"Yes; all on 'em, I reckon. Don't s'pose you'll believe it, but I tell you it's a fact; I haint heerd a swear on this place for a twelvemonth. They keep the Lord's day, too, right tight, in gineral."
"Our niggers is mighty wicked down in Yallerbush county," said my companion; "they dance."
"Dance on Sunday?" I asked.
"Oh, no, we don't allow that."
"What do they do then-go to meeting?"
"Why, Sundays they sleep mostly; they've been at work hard all the week, you know, and Sundays they stay in their cabins and sleep and talk to each other. There's so many of 'em together they don't want to go visiting off the place."
"Are your negroes Baptists or Methodists?" I inquired of our host.
"All Baptists; niggers allers want to be ducked, you know. They ain't content to be just titch'd with water; they must be ducked in all over. There was two niggers jined the Methodists up here last summer, and they made the minister put 'em into the branch; they wouldn't jine 'less he'd duck'em."
"The Bible says baptize, too," observed Yazoo.
"Well, they think they must be ducked all under, or 'tain't no good."
"Do they go to meeting?"
"Yes, they hev a meeting among themselves."
"And a preacher!"
"Yes; a nigger preacher."
"Our niggers is mighty wicked; they dance!" repeated Yazoo.
"Do you consider dancing so very wicked, then?" I asked.
"Well, I don't account so myself, as I know on, but they do you know-the pious people, all kinds, except the 'Piscopers; some o' them, they do dance themselves, I believe. Do you dance in your country?"