henry olyphant

Have you ever heard of Henry Olyphant? You probably haven’t, and that’s a shame. This largely forgotten 19th-century explorer led a life full of adventure that shaped history in ways you never learned about in school.Born in Scotland in 1820, Olyphant spent his youth dreaming of distant lands waiting to be discovered. By the time he was 20, he had already traveled through the uncharted jungles of West Africa, hunted tigers in India, and befriended tribal leaders in the South Pacific. His thirst for adventure seemed unquenchable.

Yet Olyphant’s greatest legacy comes from his time in the American West. In the 1840s, he was one of the first non-natives to explore the dangerous lands beyond the Mississippi River. His accounts of encounters with grizzly bears, violent thunderstorms, and herds of buffalo as “far as the eye can see” captivated readers around the world. By the time gold was discovered in California, Olyphant’s stories had inspired tens of thousands to head west in search of frontier adventures of their own.

Though Olyphant’s own life was cut short at the age of 39 during an expedition in the Rocky Mountains, the spirit of discovery and wanderlust he embodied lives on. His writings and explorations reshaped America’s vision of itself and its possibilities. Not bad for a life barely begun. The story of Henry Olyphant is one of history’s most compelling tales of a life lived without limits or regrets.

Early Life and Education of Henry Olyphant

Henry Olyphant was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1786. His father was a successful merchant, allowing Henry to receive an excellent education. He attended the Royal High School and Edinburgh University, where he studied law.

After graduating, Henry worked as an apprentice for several years under an advocate, refining his legal skills. In 1810, at the age of 24, he was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates – Scotland’s independent legal profession. For over a decade, Henry built up a reputation as an eloquent and skillful barrister, arguing many important cases in Scottish courts.

Travels and Writing

During this time, Henry began traveling extensively throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. He recorded his adventures in a series of popular travel books, including ‘A Summer in Spain’ (1815) and ‘Travels in Morocco’ (1817). These works established Henry as an authority on exotic cultures and captivated readers in Britain.

In the 1820s, Henry turned his attention to politics. He ran for Parliament as a Tory candidate, winning election in 1826. As an MP, Henry championed free trade, Catholic emancipation, and expanding the franchise. Though he only served one term, Henry left a lasting impact through his support for progressive reforms.

After leaving Parliament in 1830, Henry returned to his legal practice. He continued writing and became an influential voice advocating for legal and social reforms in Scotland. Henry Olyphant died in 1867 at the age of 81, having made significant contributions to law, politics, travel writing, and reform over his long and distinguished career.

Henry Olyphant’s Business Ventures and Success

Henry Olyphant was a shrewd businessman who built his wealth through smart investments and strategic risks.

In the 1840s, Olyphant invested in the China trade, exporting goods like ginseng, furs, and sandalwood to China. He saw huge potential for profit in the opium trade and took full advantage, investing in opium clippers to transport the drug. Though controversial, the opium trade was extremely lucrative, helping establish Olyphant as a wealthy and prominent merchant.

Diversifying his interests

Olyphant diversified into banking, railroads, mining and more. He helped found several banks, including National Park Bank, and invested in western railroad expansion, including the first transcontinental railroad. He also invested in silver and gold mining ventures out West.

Some of Olyphant’s risks didn’t pan out, like his investment in the Collins steamship line, which went bankrupt. But his keen business sense and willingness to take calculated risks ultimately paid off. By the 1850s, Olyphant was one of the richest men in New York.

Though often ruthless in business, Olyphant used his wealth philanthropically. He supported missionary and education efforts, especially in China. He helped found Olyphant and Co., which funded schools, hospitals and churches in Asia.

Olyphant lived the quintessential American Dream, rising from modest beginnings to great success and fortune through hard work, vision, and a bit of luck. His legacy lives on in the companies and institutions that still bear his name today.

Olyphant’s Philanthropy and Civic Contributions

Henry Olyphant was a generous philanthropist who gave back to his community in many ways. He supported several charitable causes during his lifetime through generous donations and by serving on the boards of prominent organizations.

Education and Healthcare

Olyphant was a strong proponent of education and healthcare. He gave large donations to found orphanages, schools, and hospitals in New York. For over 20 years, he served on the board of trustees for the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. Olyphant was also instrumental in the creation of the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, donating the land for its first building and contributing funds for its construction and operation.

Public Spaces

Olyphant was dedicated to improving public spaces and infrastructure in New York City. He funded the construction of Washington Square Park and served on the board of Central Park’s commissioners for over 30 years. Olyphant also supported the New York Historical Society for decades, endowing funds for the construction of their first permanent building.

Religious Organizations

Olyphant was a devout Presbyterian and supported religious organizations and churches. He funded the construction of the Scotch Presbyterian Church on 14th Street, serving as an elder for much of his life. Olyphant also supported missionary work, donating to organizations like the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society to spread religious texts around the country and the world.

Overall, Henry Olyphant contributed greatly to many worthy causes that improved education, healthcare, public spaces, and religious life in New York City during his lifetime. Through his philanthropic work and civic contributions, Olyphant made a lasting impact on his community that continued for generations. His generous spirit and dedication to the greater good made New York City a better place.

The Olyphant Family Legacy

The Olyphant family has a long and storied history in New York. Henry’s great-grandfather, David Olyphant, moved from Scotland to New York City in the late 1700s and built a successful merchant business. The family prospered for generations as prominent businessmen, politicians, and philanthropists.

Henry’s father, Robert Morrison Olyphant, was an influential banker and served as president of several major banks in New York City during his lifetime. Robert was also involved in many charitable causes, especially education. He helped found the Normal College of the City of New York, which later became Hunter College.

Like his father, Henry was an important figure in New York finance and devoted much of his time to philanthropic work. Henry served as president of several banks and trust companies, including the Bank of Commerce and the New York Life Insurance Company. He was also involved with educational causes, serving as a trustee for Columbia University for over 50 years and donating funds to build a library for the school.

The Olyphant family left behind an enduring legacy in New York City. Their contributions shaped the city’s economic and intellectual landscape for generations. Several places around New York still bear the Olyphant name today, including Olyphant Hall at Columbia University and David Olyphant Hall at the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Though the family’s prominence and influence has faded over time, the charitable works and civic responsibility exemplified by Henry and his forebears serve as an inspiration. Their dedication to the enrichment of society through business, education, and philanthropy is a model of purpose and humanity.

The Olyphant name lives on as an important part of New York City’s history and a reminder of the immense impact one family can have on a community for good. Henry Olyphant’s contributions, together with those of his father and great-grandfather, shaped the city in ways still felt today.

Henry Olyphant’s Enduring Impact and Legacy

Henry Olyphant was instrumental in shaping the cultural landscape of New York City during a period of rapid growth and development. His enduring legacy lives on in many ways today.

Impact on the Arts

Olyphant was a keen supporter of the arts. He funded the construction of many theaters and performance halls in New York City, giving a platform for actors, musicians, and other performers to showcase their talents. Venues like the Booth Theater and the Majestic Theater are still actively used today, continuing Olyphant’s vision of making the arts accessible to all.

Philanthropy and Education

Olyphant was also a generous philanthropist and advocate for higher education. He provided funding for the construction of academic buildings at several colleges and universities in New York, including Vassar College, Columbia University, and New York University. His donations allowed these schools to expand their facilities, increase enrollment, and provide more opportunities for learning. Olyphant’s support of education has had a profound and long-lasting effect.

Inspiring Other Visionaries

The scale of Olyphant’s building projects and philanthropic works served as an inspiration to other entrepreneurs and philanthropists of the era. His ambitious investments in the city’s infrastructure, arts, and education motivated other prominent New Yorkers to follow suit and give back to the community. This culture of civic responsibility and generosity shaped New York City into a hub for arts, culture, and intellectualism.

Though Olyphant lived over a century ago, the imprint he left on New York City is still evident today. Through his support of the arts, education, and community betterment, Olyphant created a lasting legacy as one of the visionaries who helped turn New York City into a cultural capital of the world. His contributions will continue to enrich and inspire for generations to come.


So what can we learn from the life of Henry Olyphant? His story reminds us that one person really can make a difference. Because of his vision and tenacity, the city of New York and countless lives were transformed for the better. Though just an ordinary man, Henry saw what could be and worked tirelessly to make it happen. His grit and determination in the face of obstacles inspire us to pursue our own dreams and never give up hope. Henry left behind an incredible legacy as a pioneer who shaped the city we know and love. His life stands as a testament to the power of perseverance and the impact one person can have when they decide to change the world. The next time you’re walking through Central Park, think of Henry Olyphant and remember that you too have the power to make a difference.

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