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Francis Parkman


the Oregon Trail

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Francis Parkman

A renowned Brahmin practitioner of "history as romantic art" (David Levin), Francis Parkman is chiefly remembered for his nine volumes, still authoritative, on the history of British and French exploration and conflict in North America (see list of major works).

Parkman's first publication of note was The Oregon Trail, serialized in twenty-one instalments in Knickerbocker's Magazine (1847-49) and subsequently reissued as The California & Oregon Trail (1849; see the book cover above). Revised at least four times by the author (the last revision dates from 1892), it has since become "the perennial favorite of highschool reading lists" (E.N. Feltskog). The account of a summer tour of the High Plains of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas met with the acclaim of early reviewers like Herman Melville, who, though he on the whole lauded the book for "the true wild-game flavor," complained of its demeaning presentation of Native Americans and its misleading title. (Parkman's excursion led him only along the first third, the flat stretch of the 2,100 mile trail; he never saw the cruelest parts across the mountains and deserts.)

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the Oregon Trail

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Map of Major Western Trails


Ft. Laramie
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The Donner Party
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Oregon Trail, overland pioneer route to the northwestern United States. About 2,000 miles long, the trail extended from Independence, Missouri, to the Columbia River in Oregon. The first part of the route followed the Platte River for 540 miles through what is now Nebraska to Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming. The trail continued along the North Platte and Sweetwater rivers to South Pass in the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains. From there the main trail went south to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, before turning into the Bear River valley and north to Fort Hall in present-day Idaho. In time, alternate routes developed. A more direct route, for example, from the South Pass to the Bear River was Sublette's Cutoff, which was 53 miles shorter but more arid than the main trail. In Idaho the Oregon Trail followed the Snake River to the Salmon Falls and then went north past Fort Boise (now Boise). The route entered what is now Oregon, passed through the Grande Ronde River valley, crossed the Blue Mountains and followed the Umatilla River to the Columbia River.

Originally, like many of the main roads of the country, sections of the Oregon Trail had been crossed by the Native Americans and trappers. As early as 1742-1743, part of the trail in Wyoming had been blazed by the Canadian explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye; the Lewis and Clark expedition, between 1804 and 1806, made more of it known. The German-American fur trader and financier John Jacob Astor, in establishing his trading posts, dispatched a party overland in 1811-1812 to follow in the trail of these explorers. Later, mountain men such as James Bridger, who founded Fort Bridger in 1843, contributed their knowledge of the trail and often acted as guides. The first emigrant wagon train, headed by the American pioneer physician Elijah White, reached Oregon in 1842. The trip took the early pioneers some five or six months, a journey fraught with much hardship resulting from poor equipment, illness, and attack by the Native Americans, for whom the growing number of travellers on the trail was an ever-constant threat. At first, the termination point of the Oregon Trail was Astoria, Oregon (Astor's fur-trading post); later, it was extended into southern Oregon to the fertile and valuable land in the Willamette Valley.

Microsoft® Encarta® 96 Encyclopedia.
© 1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
© Funk & Wagnalls Corporation. All rights reserved.


Historically more accurate and perceptive seems the following remark
taken from The Oregon Trail homepage (see below)

The journey west on the Oregon Trail was exceptionally difficult . . . One in 10 died along the way; many walked the entire two-thousand miles barefoot. The common misperception is that Native Americans were the emigrant's biggest problem en route. Quite the contrary, most native tribes were quite helpful to the emigrants. The real enemies of the pioneers were cholera, poor sanitation and--surprisingly--accidental gunshots.
The first emigrants to go to Oregon in a covered wagon were Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who made the trip in 1836. But the big wave of western migration did not start until 1843, when about a thousand pioneers made the journey. That 1843 wagon train, dubbed "the great migration" kicked off a massive move west on the Oregon Trail. Over the next 25 years more than a half million people went west on the Trail. Some went all the way to Oregon's Willamette Valley in search of farmland--many more split off for California in search of gold. The glory years of the Oregon Trail finally ended in 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed.


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