November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
September 21, 1846, Dragoon Creek, Indian Territory. Eager drivers, urging their wagons westward, are confronted by a curious sight: two gaunt, weather-beaten young men in fringed buckskins, riding slowly and silently in the opposite direction, bucking the pioneer tide.
“Whar are ye from, Californy?” one driver shouts.
“Santy Fee?” another asks.
“What yer been doing thar? Tradin’?” a third shouts as the two riders continue down the line.
“What have you been doing, then, God damn ye?”
No answer came. For Francis Parkman, the more haggard of the two riders, the drivers were barely worth notice, noisy, intrusive representatives of a heedless American future he deplored. The American past was what mattered, and he had been living in it for almost half a year.
Parkman was twenty-three and just graduated from Harvard when he and his cousin Quincy Adams Shaw set out for the West. Like a good many young Easterners of his time, Shaw was looking to the frontier primarily for sport and adventure. Parkman was also in search of those things, but he had something else in mind as well: he had already resolved to write a history of the French and Indian War and had spent three summers exploring what remained of the New England wilderness in search of traces of the great colonial struggles that would occupy him for the next forty-seven years. Now he hoped to find among the relatively unaltered Plains tribes the living embodiment of the woodland Indians of an earlier era. “I went in great measure as a student, to prepare for a literary undertaking of which the plan was already formed … ,” he wrote later. “It was this that prompted some proceedings on my part which, without a fixed purpose in view, might be charged with youthful rashness. My business was observation, and I was willing to pay dearly for the opportunity of exercising it.”
He had paid dearly. His eyes, which he believed to have been weakened by too much study at Harvard, were ruined by too many weeks spent squinting in the prairie sun. Repeated bouts of trailside dysentery permanently impaired his digestion and robbed him of the ability to sleep through the night. His joints would throb with arthritic pain for the rest of his life.
But in the end his costly journey yielded a classic, The Oregon Trail, just republished (with Parkman’s first work of history, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada) as part of the Library of America series.
The Oregon Trail’s original subtitle was A Summer’s Journey Out of Bounds, and for a young man from Beacon Hill it was certainly that. As recorded in Parkman’s journals, his views of non-Bostonians of all kinds and colors were less than generous. Manhattanites were “thin, weak, tottering,” with “little, contemptible faces.” The Adirondacks were “occupied by a race of boors about as uncouth, mean, and stupid as the pigs they seem chiefly to delight in.” The Spanish he encountered at trading posts were “dark slavishlooking, gazing stupidly out from beneath their broad hats.” A runaway slave, rescued by the Indians after thirty-three days of wandering on the plains, was “disgusting to look upon,” and the fact that two other slaves managed to remain outwardly cheerful while chained together only seemed to him conclusive evidence that they were “of an inferior race.”
As for the pioneers flooding past him, few revisionist historians of the westward movement have been less cordial than was Francis Parkman. He deplored their accents, their manners, their pretensions to self-government and was utterly baffled by the reasons for the exodus. He knew precisely why he was on the trail—he had serious, scholarly work to do—but he couldn’t imagine what had lured his fellow travelers westward: “I have often perplexed myself to divine the various motives that give impulse to this migration; but whatever they may be, whether an insane hope of a better condition in life, or a desire of shaking off the restraints of law and society, or a mere restlessness, certain it is that multitudes bitterly repent the journey and after they have reached the land of promise are happy enough to escape it.” When he was offered the chance to travel part of the way with a wagon train of ordinary pioneers, he and Shaw chose instead to join forces with two presumably better-mannered Britons.
In his six-month seventeen-hundred-mile journey, Parkman encountered a good many whites who were already playing prominent roles in the West—the fur baron Pierre Chouteau; Col. Stephen Watts Kearny, on his way to seize Santa Fe; James Clyman, who had helped chart the best routes to California; a train of Mormons; the ill-fated Donner Party—and had shown precious little interest in any of them. It was the changeless, not the changing, West that drew him—the still-untamed landscape and the as-yet-untrammeled Indians who made their homes on it.
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.”
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.