The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail

by Francis Parkman
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Overview

The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman set out west from St. Louis in order to see the prairie for himself and "to observe the Indian character". Along the way he encountered some "unexpected impediments" to this aim. In fact, Parkman's whole journey seems full of misadventures, which he describes with dry good humor and a charming ability to laugh at himself.

The series of minor disasters makes The Oregon Trail entertaining, but it is also a valuable narrative of life on the prairie and has some wonderfully detailed descriptions of Indian villages and customs. The author is clearly impressed with native sportsmanship, and brings the thrill of the hunt to life in vivid detail.

Parkman has a boundless fascination for all he sees, and seems to fall in love with the prairie itself over the course of the book. He transforms this enthusiasm into his descriptions, which often verge on the poetic.

Unlike many explorers of the West, Parkman is not hardedged, and while he is accurate, he is also somewhat romantic. This book is not saturated with the violence that characterizes much literature of this genre. His portraits of native people, while not always flattering, seem good-spirited.

This is not a scientific or anthropological treatise, but Parkman has a passion for these subjects which, coupled with his unique adventures, makes this a very appealing narrative.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781589760806
Publisher: Narrative Press, The
Publication date: 06/01/2001
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 0.78(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

About the Author

Francis Parkman was born in Boston in 1823 and is best known for his masterly seven-volume history, France and England in North America, and for the annual prize awarded by the Society of American Historians in his honor. He died in 1893.

David Levin was the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. His books on American historical writing included History as Romatic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman; In Defense of Historical Literature; and Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663–1703. He was the editor of Francis Parkman’s masterpiece, France and England in North America.

Read an Excerpt

Francis Parkman set out West from St. Louis in order to see the prairie for himself and "to observe the Indian character". Along the way he encountered some "unexpected impediments". In fact, Parkman's whole journey seems to be one long misadventure, which he describes with dry good humor and a charming ability to laugh at himself. The series of minor disasters makes The Oregon Trail a very amusing story, but it is also a valuable narrative of life on the prairie and has some wonderfully detailed descriptions of Indian villages and customs.

The author is clearly impressed with native sportsmanship:

"A shaggy buffalo bull bounded out from a neighboring hollow, and close behind him came a slender Indian boy, riding without stirrups or saddle, and lashing his eager little horse to full speed. Yard after yard he drew closer to his gigantic victim, though the bull, with his short tail erect and his tongue lolling out a foot from his foaming jaws, was straining his unwieldy strength to the utmost. A moment more, and the boy was close alongside. It was our friend the Hail-Storm. He dropped the rein on his horse's neck, and jerked an arrow like lightning from the quiver at his shoulder."

Parkman has a boundless fascination for all he sees, and he seems to fall in love with the prairie itself over the course of the book. He transfers this enthusiasm into his descriptions, which often verge on the poetic:

"Emerging from the mud-holes of Westport, we pursued our way for some time along the narrow track, in the checkered sunshine and shadow of the woods, till at length, issuing into the broad light, we left behind us the farthest outskirts of the great forest, that once spread from the western plains to the shore of the Atlantic. Looking over an intervening belt of bushes, we saw the green, ocean-like expanse of the prairie, stretching swell beyond swell to the horizon."

Unlike many other explorers of the West, Parkman lacks hard-edged cynicism, and while he is generally accurate, he is also somewhat romantic. The Oregon Trail is not saturated with the violence that characterizes much literature of this genre, and, while his analyses of the people are not always flattering, they seem good-spirited:

"Kettles were hung over the fires, around which the squaws were gathered with their children, laughing and talking merrily. A circle of a different kind...was composed of the old men and warriors of repute, who sat together with their white buffalo robes drawn close around their shoulders; and as the pipe passed from hand to hand, their conversation had not a particle of the gravity and reserve usually ascribed to Indians. I sat down with them as usual. I had in my hand half a dozen [fireworks], which I had made one day when encamped upon Laramie Creek, with gunpowder and charcoal, and the leaves of 'Fremont's Expedition,' rolled round a stout lead pencil. I waited till I could get hold of the large piece of burning bois de vache which the Indians kept by them on the ground for lighting their pipes. With this I lighted all the fireworks at once, and tossed them whizzing and sputtering into the air, over the heads of the company. They all jumped up and ran off with yelps of astonishment and consternation. After a moment or two, they ventured to come back one by one, and some of the boldest, picking up the cases of burnt paper, examined them with eager curiosity to discover their mysterious secret. From that time forward I enjoyed great repute as a 'fire medicine.'

The Oregon Trail is not a scientific or anthropological treatise, but Parkman has a passion for these subjects that, coupled with his unique adventures, makes this a very appealing narrative.

Table of Contents

1The Frontier1
2Breaking the Ice9
3Fort Leavenworth19
4"Jumping off"23
5The "Big Blue"34
6The Platte and the Desert46
7The Buffalo58
8Taking French Leave72
9Scenes at Fort Laramie87
10The War Parties101
11Scenes at the Camp122
13Ill-Luck139
14Hunting Indians146
15The Ogillallah Village167
16The Hunting Camp187
17The Trappers209
18The Black Hills218
19A Mountain Hunt222
20Passage of the Mountains234
21The Lonely Journey248
22The Pueblo and Bent's Fort266
23Tete Rouge, the Volunteer274
24Indian Alarms279
25The Chase289
26The Buffalo Camp298
27Down the Arkansas313
28The Settlements329

What People are Saying About This

Robert L. Gale

The Oregon Trail, edited [by] Seltskog…is the most authoritative text, based on scholarly collation of all editions published in Parkman's lifetime and containing an excellent critical and analytical introduction, textual and factual notes, Frederic Remington's illustrations and maps. This splendid edition is essential to an understanding of the Oregon Trail.
—(Robert L. Gale, Francis Parkman)

Bernard DeVoto

I owe a great deal to an appallingly large number of historians but I am glad to name those from whom I have taken most or on whom I have principally relied: foremost and always Parkman.
—(Bernard DeVoto, The Course of Empire)

Henry Steele Commager

It was his own fortitude and perseverance—perseverance under the most grievous physical affliction—that made it possible for Parkman to see as much as the West as he did, to experience at first hand the life of the explorer and the trapper and hunter and even of the Indian. And it was his arduous preparation, his intellectual curiosity, his talent for observation, his enthusiasm, his gift for dramatic narrative that enabled him to reconstruct from his fragmentary Journals what he had seen and to convey it with such useful exuberance to generations of readers….It is this picturesqueness, this racy vigor, this poetic eloquence, this unconquerably useful quality which gave The Oregon Trail its perennial charm, recreating for us, as perhaps no other book in our literature, the wonder and beauty and intensity of life in a new world that is now old and but a memory.

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The Oregon Trail 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Budd More than 1 year ago
Thomas Parkman paints a very clear and detailed picture of life among the Dakota Indians prior to the American Civil War. It is very intriguing to see what life was like and how this group of native americans and whites got along in the pre-civil war era. It also shows the thoughts of the time that helped to lead to the almost total annihilation of the Great Bison Herds of the Great Plains. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in getting a deeper understanding of the American West.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love old books the best because they really tell it like it is, before everyone started worrying about being politically correct. Francis Parkman killed buffalo for sport, thought Indians were second class citizens and pretty much lived the Oregon trail the way it was at the time, believing the things that a lot of people believed then. That is real history, like it or not. He seemed aware of what the white man was doing to the Indians but didn't seem too concerned, that is how it was lived back then. That's how I want to read it, not the Hollywood version. An awesome book!
Ann Crawford More than 1 year ago
A book quite descriptive of long gone places, people and activities on the trail west. I can easily imagine the difficulties of life traveling through indian territory. The author was there in 1846 and you sense the reality of his point of view from the actual time.
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