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In January 1846, Francis Parkman’s intense interest in recreating the past spurred the Beacon Hill born Bostonian, who had recently completed his law degree, to travel west with his cousin Quincy Adams Shaw. Parkman’s quest to experience the native peoples of the Great Plains before their way of life changed or disappeared forever proved more than just a personal summer outing. His sojourn brought him into the heart of Dahcotah country, then inhabited by a people more commonly known in later times as the Sioux. Without realizing it he recorded these bison-hunting people at a crossroads in times. He observed their ways some three decades before the onslaught of whites resulted in a culture clash that culminated in George Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn during the summer of 1876 and the tragedy at Wounded Knee more than a dozen years later. His journal from this excursion ultimately provided the basis for what became the first of many books produced by this prolific writer. In the process he created a benchmark for histories related to the westward movement. In fact, the publication of Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail (1849) helped establish his reputation as one of the United States’ most important historians, and rightly so because his eye for details resulted in a vivid narrative that wove history, ethnography, and geography into one enthralling fabric. As such, over a century and a half since the first edition of one thousand copies rolled off the press, Parkman’s prose remains fresh, transporting readers back to a time that would disappear soon after the enthusiastic twenty-three year old had set out on his incredible adventure.
Born on September 16, 1823, as the first son of the Reverend Francis Parkman and Caroline Hall Parkman, the new addition to this Boston Brahmin household would grow up in privileged circumstances. His father, a well-established Unitarian pastor of the New North Church on Hanover Street, followed in the footsteps of many of his New England forebears who had been ministers, although this was not the case for Reverend Parkman’s own father, Samuel Parkman, who had amassed considerable wealth as a merchant. Financial independence meant Francis, along with his three sisters and one brother, enjoyed many advantages. In his case, a good education, travel in the United States and abroad, and the pursuit of a variety of interests were made possible because of his family’s economic and social standing.
Parkman did not take his privileged position for granted. Much like Theodore Roosevelt, who came after him health problems as a youth prompted him to embrace the life of a hunter and outdoorsman. In the process he honed his skills as a marksman and an equestrian, and even scaled mountains, a fete that was even more challenging given the lack of proper equipment required to participate in this dangerous pursuit.
Parkman balanced these strenuous physical activities with intellectual efforts. He studied Greek, Latin, French, and mathematics. Before attending college he even had acquired a sound appreciation for style due in great part to the requirement of his teachers at the elite Chauncey Hall to translate Virgil and Homer into idiomatic English. Additionally, his love of reading, especially Sir Walter Scott’s chivalric tales and James Fenimore Cooper’s novels of rugged, buckskin-clad heroes, provided him with models when he too became an author. Indeed Parkman’s bent toward the romantic embodied by the works of Scott and Cooper was evident in his own later literary efforts.
Yet Parkman’s publications were not historical fiction. Rather he based his works either on personal experience or extensive research relying heavily on original documents and even interviews with participants who had first-hand knowledge of the events captured in his chronicles. As an example of Parkman’s approach he once contended: “Faithfulness to the truth of history” involved “far more than research…. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time…. ”
The latter goal underpinned Parkman’s first forays into the world of letters. In the mid-1840s five articles drew on his outings to the remaining wilds of the East. These pieces appeared in Knickerbocker Magazine, although they did not bear his name.
This same periodical served as his outlet for recounting the story of his junket to the West. Once again, those who read his words originally did not know who the author was because he signed the first installment simply as “A Bostonian.” Thereafter he received a byline as successive submissions intermittently appeared in the magazine between February 1847 and February 1849.
Under ordinary circumstances Parkman’s articles could have reached his audience with relative ease. After all, he already had writing experience and a fine education including his attendance at Harvard where as an undergraduate he was made Phi Beta Kappa. Thus his training and ability provided him with ample background as an author. There was only one problem, “the enemy” as he referred to it —poor health that stemmed from a combination of physical overexertion and neurosis.
After returning from his excursion to the West these factors brought about the onset of several ailments that plagued him from an extended period, not the least of which was a severe eye condition, which temporarily left him almost blind. Undaunted, he turned to friends and family members among them his cousin Quincy who had been his fellow traveler. Unable to write because of his impaired vision, Parkman dictated his words to his volunteer recorders using his journals as a major source for inspiration. He also turned to the noctograph, an ingenious invention that helped guide his pen so he could undertake some of his own writing. Despite the laborious means of output Knickerbocker Magazine editor Gaylord Clark was not disappointed with the product he received. His readers responded favorably to the series, among them Washington Irving, who at that time was arguably the most famous living American historian.
Encouraged by the enthusiasm of Irving and others Parkman decided to gather the serial together, and reworked the material. Because of his continued physical disabilities editing required the aid of his friend Charles Eliot Norton, who agreed to proofread the manuscript and assist in several other ways. Besides adding these steps to improve what was to become his first book, he also decided to hold back the final submission to Knickerbocker. In this way his volume would be available for sale before the magazine had concluded his story. While Parkman’s strategy to do so represented a savvy marketing move, his main motive in following this course of action stemmed from a “fear of piracy.” Even in Victorian times a black market existed for unauthorized versions of publications.
Parkman’s precautions paid a dividend, as did his publisher George P. Putman’s addition of “California” to the title albeit without the author’s permission. Putman rightly reasoned when he released the book during the spring of 1849 that the wave of excitement over the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill during the previous year would spur sales. The first printing sold out in little more than a month. Another five hundred copies soon followed. These also would be bought in rapid order, prompting Putman to propose delivery of yet another one thousand books.
Such success may have continued indefinitely had Parkman’s work been the only one available. This was not to be the case, however, as the gold rush unleashed a flood of western migration. Before long a litany of other titles appeared that for the time being overshadowed Parkman’s pioneer volume. Among the rival publications were immigrant guides, often based on slim facts that in some occasions could prove disastrous for those who took the unsupported advice of uninformed authors, and an assortment of more reliable first-hand sagas. The latter category included Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw In California, Lewis Garrard’s Wah-To-Yah and the Taos Trail, and Jessy Quinn Thorton’s Oregon and California.
While these volumes and others of the era momentarily eclipsed Parkman’s publication, they ultimately faded into obscurity. In contrast Parkman quickly saw a renewed interest in his book. For instance, as early as 1852 Putnam brought out another press run, but with a new title—Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life; or the California and Oregon Trail. Moreover, the “third edition” carried a preface from Parkman, but the rest of the reissue simply reprinted the 1849 text unaltered.
Among the reasons for Parkman’s lack of revision was that fact that he was engaged in other pressing projects and personal matters. His marriage to Catherine Scollay Bigelow in 1850, and the beginning of their family with the birth of their daughter Grace during the following year understandably took precedent. Then, too, health problems returned with arthritis being added to other disabilities. While slowed by his infirmities, he did not set aside his writing entirely. Not long after Parkman’s Oregon Trail debuted, his next book, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, was ready for eager readers. Long passionate about the place France played in North America’s past, this pivotal work would serve as the cornerstone for a total of fourteen studies focusing on the Anglo-French duel for a continent. The other volumes tracing this topic, such as Pioneers of France in the New World and The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, would place Parkman among the most noted contemporaries of his profession. Consequently Parkman would join the prestigious ranks of Hubert Howe Bancroft and William Hickling, Prescott. The former chronicler would become well known for his encyclopedic works on California and other western states, and the latter writer for tomes about Spain’s history not the least of which was his classic The History of the Conquest of Mexico.
But as was the case with his peers, Parkman was a man of his times. His upbringing and social standing caused him to revere white Anglo-Saxon males, particularly those with education, while Hispanics, French Canadians, African Americans, Native Americans, and rough, unschooled frontiersmen almost always were viewed as holding lesser status. His references to individuals from these groups often were patronizing or even prejudiced at times.
In addition to his bias, Parkman also admitted that The Oregon Trail lacked historical perspective. In his introduction to the 1872 edition he cited the maxim of “this too shall pass” as indicative of the numerous transformations taking place during the 1840s when he first set down his observations about the West, and faulted himself to a degree for not being more aware of the transitional nature of the times he had recorded.
Perhaps Parkman was more critical of his own work than deserved. In fact, he admirably achieved the main purpose of his journey to the “Great American Desert” as he revealed in chapter ten of the book. Parkman wrote:
I had come into the country almost exclusively with a view of observing the Indian Character. Having from childhood felt a curiosity on this subject, and having failed completely to gratify it by reading, I resolved to have recourse to observation. I wished to satisfy myself with regard to the position of the Indians among the races of men; the vices and the virtues that have sprung from their innate character and from their modes of life; their government, their superstitions, and their domestic situation. To accomplish my purpose it was necessary to live in the midst of them, and become, as it were, one of them.
He accomplished his mission admirably, and fortunately preserved his experiences for generations who would come after him in an exciting portrayal of what he saw and felt more than a century and a half ago. Consequently, long after his death on November 8, 1893, Parkman had secured his own place in history with The Oregon Trail. As Mason Wade, a noted Parkman scholar, stated in a 1943 reprint, the book provided “a rare picture of America on its westward march, which enables the reader to share Parkman’s great adventure….” This reissue of the Parkman’s classic once again permits us to travel to another time and place where the plains were black with buffalo and to vicariously ride alongside the exuberant explorer as he passes through grasses so high that they touch the belly of his mustang.
John P. Langellier has written dozens of books related to the American West and other historical topics as well as served as a media consultant on film and television productions since 1973. He received his B.A. and M.A. in History from the University of San Diego, and in 1982 was awarded his Ph.D. in History from Kansas State University.