Journal of Gideon Olmsted

I happened to find a copy of the Library of Congress 1978 facsimile reproduction of The Journal of Gideon Olmsted: Adventures of a Sea Captain during the American Revolution in a library book sale. To say the least, I found it interesting but not at all what I expected. To quote from the foreword “Gideon Olmsted has long occupied a place of distinction in the annals of American jurisprudence. His 30-year litigation over the prize money from the sale of the British sloop Active set an early precedent for the supremacy of federal over state authority. The events leading up to his monumental court battle, however, have remained relatively obscure. This volume chronicles the six-month period of imprisonment and mutiny which precipitated Olmsted’s extended legal proceedings.” I think I was expecting a narrative that would span more that six months.

I received the volume in mid-May. It had been offered by a Vermont library in their on-line book sale and as it had not been accessioned by the library it must have been a donation. It is a slip cased, cloth bound copy in almost mint condition. In addition to the facsimile (photographic) reproduction of each of the fifty pages of the original journal on the facing page is a transcription of the original. That makes it easy reading. I found the discussion in the Introduction of the background of the legal case that eventually ended in the Supreme Court of the United States who ruled in favor of Olmsted and thus set a precedent of federal over states rights an unseat into the life and times of the Revolutionary period of our young nation. The Coda that follows the journal’s pages explains the differences in the language of the time 230+ years ago as compared to today; particularly it points out that written language at that time was not standardized as it is today. A glossary lists the majority of the thousand words that Gideon used; often the same word was written or spelled differently each time. Noah Webster would later influence writers with publication of his dictionary and other writing aids.

Briefly, Gideon was a sea captain moving goods between the northern colonies and Caribbean ports. He was captured by a British warship, made prisoner aboard ship, then in Haiti, and when being sent north was part of a successful mutiny when he took control of the British sloop. Just a day out of New Jersey a Pennsylvania privateer detained him and claimed the ship as prize, as it still had British papers and they ignored Olmsted’s claim. When the prize was sold, Olmsted was given a small portion of the claim with the Pennsylvania court granting the bulk of it to the Pennsylvanians.

Olmsted then filed new court papers and the thirty year legal battle followed. As stated, his case set precedent. In reality he would have been better off financially to take the original award which, after his thirty years of expenses, which exceeded his final award.

Those who attended our Olmste(a)d Family Reunion at the University of Hartford in July 1978 will remember Charlie McLaughlin and Charles Beveridge of the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers project of the Library of Congress, Manuscript’s Division. The Gideon Olmsted’s original journal was found hidden away for many years in those boxes of documents along with a short typescript note that it had been a gift to FLO by his great-uncle Gideon.

Gideon Olmsted (1749-1845) is number #190 in the 1912 Olmsted Family in America and at

Gideon Olmsted — U.S. Supreme Court “Olmstead v. U.S.” (Argued Feb. 20 & 21, 1928; Decided June 4, 1928);

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This Page Updated February 20, 2018
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