Capt. Gideon Olmsted

Craig R Johnson – Capt. Gideon Olmsted (1749 – 1843) & Mabel Roberts Olmsted (1727 – 1811)



Capt. Gideon Olmsted was not only a descendant of one of the prominent founding families of the Hartford Settlement, but also of one of the founding families of its Third Ecclesiastical Society, on the east side of what was then called Great River.

The story of his long and colorful life puts him among the notable members of this old, influential and very American family.

It was the American Revolution that took a farm boy of what is now East Hartford first in 1775 in defense of Boston, along with his brothers, as part of the 50 man East Hartford militia, and later to that of captain of a French privateer.

Throughout most of his early life, Gideon kept a journal which was later to be found by his grandnephew, Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous 19th century landscape architect who then made it known to American history.

As a privateer, he lost a confrontation with the British in 1778 and taken prisoner. Thereupon he was transported to Jamaica and then put aboard the sloop, Active, destined for New York with supplies for British troops, and he for a terrible fate on a rotting prison ship.

Along the way, after a violent struggle in which he was wounded in the leg, Gideon and 3 other captive Connecticut sailors were able to seize control of the Active.  When the British captain threatened to ignite the ship’s gunpowder store and send everyone to the bottom if the American didn’t agree to return the ship to his control, Gideon bellowed, “Do it and be damned.”

Then aged 29, this was only the beginning of Gideon’s remarkable story that would include helping to define the U. S. judicial system in a very profound way.

As was his right, the Active was his war prize and he claimed its ownership. However, through legal maneuvering so did the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where the shipped docked, and a state judge ruled in its favor. Gideon then sued in Federal Court, then still only an embryonic part of the justice system of a newly created United States.

Thus began a 30 year battle pitting states rights against those of the federal government. There was even, at one point, a confrontation between state militia and U.S. marshals in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, he returned to the life of privateer commanding a succession of vessels. Before the end of the Revolution, he was even captured by the British once again, this time near Nantucket.

Eventually Gideon’s persistence, if not monumental stubbornness, paid off when in 1808 the still young U.S. Supreme Court finally settled the matter in his favor.

In a landmark decision written by the court’s first chief justice, John Marshall, the court took a major step in resolving one of the most explosive issues confronting the young nation – the balance of power between the states and the ultimate supremacy of the federal government.

Awarded $36,000, the sweetness of Gideon’s victory was partially soured by his legal fees taking $23,000 of that.

Nonetheless, he managed to live out the remainder of his long life in comfort, dying in his own bed, in his hometown of East Hartford.

Little is know about his wife Mabel, other than that she was the daughter of
sea Capt. Eliphalet Roberts, who died at sea during the American Revolution in 1777.

Her great grandfather, William Roberts, who as owner of three large tracks of land was among the largest landed proprietors on the east side of the Great River, married Dorothy Forbes in 1688.

Thus, her marriage to Gideon linked three of the founding families of now East Hartford all of which had influence and business interests locally, statewide, and well beyond, and which endured well into the 20th century.