Out of Boston’s Bounds

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The limitless grasslands both delighted and terrified Parkman. Here, having failed to down the bull buffalo after which he has been galloping, Parkman finds himself wholly lost: ” … I looked round for some indications to show me where I was, and what course I ought to pursue; I might as well have looked for landmarks in the midst of the ocean. How many miles I had run, or in what direction, I had no idea; and around me the prairie was rolling in steep swells and pitches, without a single distinctive feature to guide me. 1 had a little compass hung at my neck; and ignorant that the Platte at this point diverged considerably from its easterly course, I thought that by keeping to the northward I should certainly reach it. So I turned and rode about two hours in that direction. The prairie changed as I advanced, softening away into easier undulations, but nothing like the Platte appeared, nor any sign of a human being; the same wild endless expanse lay around me still; and to all appearance I was as far from my object as ever. … The prairie teemed with [animal] life. Again and again I looked toward the crowded hill-sides, and was sure I saw horsemen; and riding near, with a mixture of hope and dread, for Indians were abroad, I found them transformed into a group of buffalo.”

When it came to Indians, Parkman’s hope always overcame his dread. His portrait of them is not as vivid as it might have been. His dimmed eyesight made it impossible for him to read his on-the-spot jottings once he got back to Boston; they had to be read aloud to him so that he could dictate a more formal version. Here, for example, are his first unedited impressions of the arrival of a Dakota band led by a warrior named Smoke: “This morning, Smoke’s village appeared on the opposite bank, and crossed on their wild thin, little horses. Men and boys, naked and dashing eagerly through the water—horses with lodgepoles dragging through squaws and children, and sometimes a litter of puppies—gaily attired squaws, leading the horses of their lords—dogs with their burdens attached swimming among the horses and mules—dogs barking, horses breaking loose, children laughing and shouting—squaws thrusting into the ground the lance and shield of the master of the lodge—naked and splendidly formed men passing and repassing through the swift water.”

Parkman butchered buffalo, learned to enjoy stewed dog, and was unhappy only when he missed out on seeing Indian warfare.

By the time that scene was rendered suitably literary by Parkman himself and then burnished further by his editor, Charles Eliot Norton, a good deal of its immediacy had been rubbed away: the frantic dogs now more predictably “yelled and howled in chorus,” and the Indian women became “buxom young squaws, blooming in all the charms of vermillion …”

Still, Parkman experienced and described things denied subsequent historians. He learned to enjoy stewed dog, explored the Black Hills, butchered buffalo, and was unhappy only that the Indian warfare he’d hoped for was denied him in the end. “War is the breath of their nostrils,” he wrote of the Dakotas. “This fierce and evil spirit awakens their most eager aspirations and calls forth their greatest energies. It is chiefly this that saves them from lethargy and utter debasement.”

The campfire tales his Indian hosts told him were warlike enough: in lush detail and “with the same air of earnest simplicity which a little child would wear in relating to its mother some anecdote of its youthful experience,” one seasoned Oglala warrior recalled scalping alive a hapless Snake, building a fire, cutting the tendons of his captive’s wrists and feet, then throwing him in and holding him in the flames with long poles until he was burned to death. Parkman longed to witness as well as hear about such things and was disgusted when, after a good deal of promising war dancing had taken place, a full-scale expedition against the Snakes was aborted in favor of a buffalo hunt, and he was further desolated when a second, smaller campaign was canceled after its leader developed a last-minute sore throat.

Despite his disappointment, he knew how privileged he had been, how envious his successors would be. “The Indian of to-day,” Parkman wrote in the preface to the 1872 edition, “armed with a revolver and crowned with an old hat; cased, possibly in trousers or muffled in a tawdry shirt—is an Indian still, but an Indian shorn of the picturesqueness which was his most conspicuous merit.”

Without that picturesqueness, the Indian was in danger of becoming what America’s first great historian seems to have deplored most, an ordinary American.