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Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail


In the numerous accounts and the more obscure journals that make 1846 perhaps the best-documented year in the history of the West, there runs a predominant symbol of civilization and security — the road — but Parkman seems particularly to have sensed the importance of that symbol, to have understood how the road, stretching westward in vast isolation and terrifying loneliness, dominated the imagination of those who traveled it.

E. N. Feldskog (Parkman's editor)

1846, Bernard De Voto has told us, was The Year of Decision (see timeline). After word of the first successful overland crossings in 1841 and 1842 had spread, in 1845 the first large wagon trains, counting some 5000 people, had assembled for the journey to California and Oregon. Those staying on the southwestern frontier had a close eye on the impending war with Mexico, with General Stephen W. Kearney patroling the Platte River before he marched his troups down the Santa Fé Trail and on, along the Gila River, to California.

In May 1846, the twenty-three-year-old Bostonian Francis Parkman, recently graduated from Harvard Law School, also came to Westport, Missouri, intent on visiting an Indian village somewhere along the newly established roads to the West. The Oregon Trail, the book that came out of the notes Parkman took along the way to Ft. Laramie, in an Oglala village, and around Bent's Fort in Southeastern Colorado, came to have a lasting impact on generations of readers, shaping their views of Native Americans.

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When Parkman accompanied his cousin Quincy Adams Shaw on a tour of the west, the outing seemed a summer’s romantic rambles "out of bounds." It was, rather, another calculated step in the career he had staked out for himself—whatever adverse effects it may have incurred. Parkman had spent previous vacations roaming the receding wilderness areas of New England, and during his senior year at Harvard he had been to Europe for seven months, on the grand tour. Now, in further preparation for his calling as America's historian of colonial times, he wanted to inspect what was left of the continent's native population in its original habitat.


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The route of Parkman's sojourns from Westport MO up the Platte River to Ft. Laramie (in today's Wyoming), the Pueblo (now Pueblo CO), Bent's Fort (near present-day La Junta CO), and back.


What Parkman saw on his trail, convinced him that the Indian was doomed; but he was not too worried about that insight. If the realistic descriptions contained in The Oregon Trail offered a correction of the image sentimental fiction produced about the Noble Savage, they were also laden with "condescension that Melville recognized as the genteel New Englander's conception of progress" (David Levin). The two paragraphs in the following quote are exemplary, taken from the opening of Chapter XIV, "The Ogallalla Village" (called "Ogillallah Village" in the first edition).

   Such a narrative as this is hardly the place for portraying the mental features of the Indians. The same picture, slightly changed in shade and coloring, would serve with very few exceptions for all the tribes that lie north of the Mexican territories. But with this striking similarity in their modes of thought, the tribes of the lake and ocean shores, of the forests and of the plains, differ greatly in their manner of life. Having been domesticated for several weeks among one of the wildest of the wild hordes that roam over the remote prairies, I had extraordinary opportunities of observing them, and I flatter myself that a faithful picture of the scenes that passed daily before my eyes may not be devoid of interest and value. These men were thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilization. They knew nothing of the power and real character of the white men, and their children would scream in terror at the sight of me. Their religion, their superstitions, and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with and wore the same rude garments of skins.

   Great changes are at hand in that region. With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must be broken and scattered. The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky, and overawed by military posts; so that within a few years the traveler may pass in tolerable security through their country. Its danger and its charm will have disappeared together.

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