Among the Olmsted papers in my family archives are several letters from 1st cousins in Canada with whom my ancestor Henry Morse Olmsted corresponded in the 1890s. He and they were the progeny of a diaspora of twelve siblings, born in Ridgefield, Connecticut and dispersed far and wide. Moss Olmsted, Uncle Henry's father and my direct ancestor, was the eldest and ended up a sea captain in Philadelphia. Russell Ingersoll Olmsted was the next in line and settled in Saltfleet, Ontario, where he served in the local Canadian militia during the War of 1812 while one of the other brothers, Benjamin, was a midshipman in the United States Navy - their revolutionary father Ebenezer must have been turning in his grave. Now late in life, cousins in Canada and the United States started to correspond on genealogical matters and rekindle old memories.
As I read through one of these letters from the Canadian cousins, I was struck by a marvelous bit of forgotten family lore concerning another of the Olmsted brothers who pulled up stakes and left Connecticut, the sort of biographical information that seldom makes it into official genealogies. Writing for her husband, Moss Ingersoll Olmsted, Louisa Jane Barnes Olmsted recorded:
"Moss can remember when quite young, his Uncle Ira who used to visit Canada frequently with a circus, of which he was part owner, always stopping at his father's place above Stoney Creek where the show was held. He usually preceded the circus with posters, and gave the members of the family free tickets, which were duly appreciated. It was understood that he died in England."
The fact that deep in our family tree was the part owner of a circus was news to me, although it would explain a general tendency toward wanderlust and theatricality that regularly manifests itself in our line. I confess I cannot recall which of my twin second cousins, Christopher or Dimitri Ogden, juggles with a circus in Europe, but one of them certainly does. Be that as it may, this tantalizing bit of information sent me on a quest to see what else I could discover about Uncle Ira and his circus.
The astonishing thing about the Internet is that occasionally it has just the information one is seeking and a ready-made source of expertise on whatever esoteric subject one might choose to research. A simple Google search revealed the existence of the Circus Historical Society, a trove of all things related to the sawdust circle. To my delight they also have a message board, to which I posted my query (#698) and promptly received not one but two replies with additional information about Uncle Ira. Stuart Thayer, one of the foremost historians of the American circus, shared that:
"In 1833 there was a menagerie in the U. S. called Miller, Mead & Olmstead. The partners were John Miller, Abraham Mead, and Ira Olmstead. The menagerie was built around the elephant "Gold Button," which was imported in Philadelphia in early 1833. This is the only reference to the name Olmstead in my files. In 1834 the menagerie became Miller, Mead & Delavan. They were in Louisville, KY from November, 1832 to 1 January 1833. Cincinnati, OH from 25 March to 4 April 1833. They were licensed in Morgantown, WVA, 24 September 1833."
This was fascinating information, but this circus of Ira Olmsted's probably was not the one that Moss Ingersoll Olmsted remembered seeing "when quite young" as he was born in 1830. The Miller, Mead and Olmstead menagerie would not have traveled by rail but overland, by canal or by riverboat: the latter mode of transportation, in fact, seems most probable given the location of the towns visited in 1833 along the Ohio River.
The other response revealed that Ira Olmstead was later Manager, western unit, June, Titus, Angevine & Co., 1841. That would be in the right time frame for his Canada visits, and would be a more likely occupation for the front man who preceded the circus with posters than outright owner. His posters might well have been billboard sized, as large steam press technology allowed circus promoters to produce very large posters as early as the 1830s, and perhaps adorned the side of the barn of the Canadian cousins.
Messrs. June, Titus and Angevine were a syndicate and aggressively sought to control the market in traveling shows during the 1830s. They were the first to import exotic animals expressly for exhibition in mobile menageries. In their prime, their Zoölogical Institute had 150 shareholder subscribers and ran a string of 13 menageries and 3 circuses: almost every show then on the road. The crash of 1837 set many of the shows back on their heels, but these three owners continued to thrive. They were known as the "Flatfoots" by their detractors for their tendency to stamp out their competition. Uncle Ira Olmstead evidently managed one of their traveling shows on the western circuit, covering part of his old territory in the Ohio Valley, and apparently including trips across the Niagara to the fields of Stoney Creek in Ontario.
For all his peregrinations, Ira Olmsted had at least one solid reason for his association with the circus stemming from his place of birth. Ridgefield, Connecticut and neighboring towns in Putman and Westchester Counties, NY, are known for the many showmen and circus owners who lived there in the early 19th century. Nearby Somers, NY is known as the "Cradle of the American Circus" because in 1805, Hachaliah Bailey of that town brought an elephant to the United States and toured her up and down the eastern seaboard. The circus fever spread from there and many local entrepreneurs invested in traveling shows. The Zoölogical Institute of June, Titus and Angevine was formed in Bailey's Elephant Hotel in Somers in 1835. Angevine was from North Salem, New York, just over the ridge from Ridgefield.
The circus was by far the most popular and principal form of American mass entertainment for many decades. Ira Olmstead had been merely a name on a list of collateral ancestors to me before I discovered his circus connection. I can well imagine the excitement among the Canadian nephews and nieces when Uncle Ira was in town.