The Oregon Trail

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"Last spring, 1846, was a busy season in the city of St. Louis. Not only were emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon and California, but an unusual number of traders were making ready their wagons and outfits for Santa Fé. . . . Steamboats were leaving the levee and passing up the Missouri, crowded with passengers on their way to the frontier" (p. 13). Ever since it was first published—serially in Knickerbocker in 1847 and then as a book in 1849—Francis Parkman's The California and Oregon Trail (all subsequent editions would bear the title The Oregon Trail), more than any other literary text, perhaps, captured the sense of wonder, hope, and excitement that has been at the heart of the popular mythology of the American frontier. A record of a hazardous journey up the Oregon Trail into the haunts and hunting grounds of the Pawnee and Sioux tribes, it has become a symbol of the nation's collective nostalgia for a landscape, an ecology, and an era in America's turbulent ethnic history that were quickly fading even as Parkman was putting them on his literary canvas.


Francis Parkman (1823–1893) enjoyed a reputation as one of the greatest American historians of the nineteenth century, based principally on his monumental study of the struggle between France and England for control of North America, the seven-volume historical epic France and England in North America (1865–1892). Yet curiously, Parkman liked to refer to his classic in narrative historiography as "the history of the American forest," and, what is perhaps even more remarkable, his principal mentor was not a fellow historian but a Romantic novelist—James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851). As writers of Romantic fiction and Romantic history respectively, Cooper and Parkman were primarily concerned with the representation of the pristine American wilderness as the breathtaking backdrop for their explorations of the tension between the rival forces of nature and civilization. Like Cooper before him, Parkman used the wilderness in the first instance to create a mood of historical urgency and to add local color to his story. But he went beyond Cooper in that he consistently depicted environmental wildness as an ecological conditioner of civilized man. For Parkman, the natural wilderness was a storehouse of ecological and ethnohistorical metaphors of conflict (beauty versus ugliness, growth versus decay, creativity versus destructiveness), which mirrored similar clashes in the history of the civilized world.

Once described by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner as the epic chronicler of the American "primeval wilderness" (p. 451), Parkman's class standing, training, and disposition cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as "wild," let alone "primeval." He was born in 1823 into an old, Boston Brahmin family. He described his boyhood as "neither healthful nor buoyant" (Hubbell, p. 29): he grew up in the protective and socially privileged surroundings of the family's elegant and spacious mansion on Boston's Bowdoin Square, reaping all the benefits of his father's extensive library. An avid reader, he early on developed a passion for the American forest, "whose features . . . possessed his waking and sleeping dreams, filling him with cravings impossible to satisfy" (Letters 1:177). In 1840 he entered Harvard, where he studied language, literature, ethnology, and history, with a particular emphasis on the Romantic themes of such historians and novelists as Chateau-briand (1768–1848), Jules Michelet (1798–1874), Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), and James Fenimore Cooper.

After completing his B.A., Parkman went on to study law, but he much preferred doing research for a historical account of "the Old French War." Because ethnography was still an infant science in the 1840s, he quickly realized that it would be impossible to write such an epic narrative without first gaining "an inside view of Indian life" (quoted in Woodward, p. xxvii). To this purpose he initially inspected historical sites in the Old Northwest. Disappointed with the descendants of the once-powerful Six Nations Indians that he encountered at the ancient Onondaga stronghold, he began to prepare for an extensive journey to the far western frontier.


Parkman was just twenty-three when he and his cousin and companion, Quincy Adams Shaw, set out on their wilderness mission in March 1846. Neither was particularly qualified for the adventure, and both had only romantic notions at best about the rugged western prairie and the tribes that roamed there. But Parkman was determined to study American Indians in their natural habitat, and he very much owed his survival to that dogged determination (and to the help and wisdom of their guide, Henry Chatillon, a seasoned mountain man, whose marriage to the daughter of a deceased Sioux chief stood them in good stead). First making their way from the east across the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh, then by river steamer down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi to St. Louis, Parkman and his companions joined a medley of emigrants heading for California and Oregon as they "jumped off" from Westport (the present-day Kansas City) onto the western prairie. They traveled in a northwestern direction toward the Platte, then up that river to Fort Laramie, in what is now southeastern Wyoming. There Parkman spent some time observing the social dynamic of Indians, fur traders, and emigrants. Always eager for the authentic wilderness experience, Parkman decided to join a band of Sioux (or "Dahcotahs," as he called them) who were bent on wreaking bloody revenge on their enemies in the west, the Snakes, or Shoshones. To his disappointment, tensions between the Sioux and the Shoshones had subsided by the time he reached the Sioux camp. He stayed with the band anyway, riding with them into the "Black Hills" (in fact, the Laramie Mountains, not the Black Hills of South Dakota) and beyond, into the Medicine Bow Mountains. The appearance of buffalo in the area turned the warriors into hunters, which gave Parkman a taste of life in a Sioux hunting camp. After rejoining Shaw at Fort Laramie, Parkman traveled south, toward Pueblo and Bent's Fort, on the Arkansas River in present-day Colorado. From there he traveled east along the Santa Fe Trail, till he got back to Westport, Missouri, in late September.

Parkman worked his extensive field notes and diary (first published in 1947) into The Oregon Trail, producing one of the most vibrant and detailed narratives of the exploration of the American frontier wilderness. While it certainly gives us an insight into the daily dynamics of Indian life and culture, however, few historians would now reiterate without reservation the conventional claim that The Oregon Trail is one of the great historical records of our national past. Nor is Parkman's text the romantic eulogy for a relatively untouched ecosystem that it was long claimed to be. In fact, The Oregon Trail treats both Indian culture and the wilderness landscape as expendable obstructions to progress and civilization.

Parkman depicts the western wilderness from the outset as brutal, inhospitable, and even aggressive—fiercely resisting penetration by explorers and treacherously conspiring against peaceable emigrants. Thus, describing his journey by steamboat up the Missouri from St. Louis, Parkman observes that luckily the river was high in March, for when he descended the river on his return in the fall, it had fallen so low that "all the secrets of its treacherous shallows were exposed to view. It was frightful to see the dead and broken trees, thick-set as military abattis, firmly imbedded in the sand, and all pointing down stream, ready to impale any unhappy steamboat that at high water should pass over them" (Oregon Trail, p. 10). Even if travelers managed laboriously to make their way up the perilous river, all that awaited them was an endless, gloomy, and barren prairie. "Should any one of my readers ever be impelled to visit the prairies," Parkman muses somberly, "I can assure him that he need not think to enter at once upon the paradise of his imagination. A dreary preliminary . . . awaits him before he finds himself fairly upon the verge of the 'great American desert,'—those barren wastes, the haunts of the buffalo and the Indian, where the very shadow of civilization lies a hundred leagues behind him" (p. 34). Emigrants would frequently find that their wagons became stuck in the mud or their axletrees broke on the uneven trails. For weeks on end they had to subsist on whatever food they had brought, all the while beset by snakes and wolves. The days were excessively hot and oppressive, and they would be tormented by stinging insects, almost daily drenched in terrific thunderstorms and pelted by hailstones. The wagon trail across the prairie was marked by "abundant and melancholy traces" of the emigrants' progress (p. 49): shallow graves, some torn up by wolves, and the "shattered wrecks" of tables, desks, and chests (p. 72)—often ancient family heirlooms of European origin discarded from family wagons during the arduous trek across the desert plains.

Parkman's rendering of Indians and Indian culture is as sobering as his depiction of the prairie wilderness. Although Parkman was known to have had "Injuns on the brain" from an early age, he completely rejected the notion of the Noble Savage. The Indian warrior was to him essentially a crude barbarian, an anachronistic throwback to the primeval world. Thus, he described his Oglala hosts as "thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilization. . . . Their religion, superstitions, and prejudices were the same handed down to them from immemorial time. . . . They were living representations of the 'stone age'" (p. 149). Yet despite his unsympathetic and unsenti-mental depiction of the Indian race, his "field trip" afforded him firsthand knowledge of Indian life, culture, and customs. Parkman shared their food and living conditions and rode their horses; he was able to gather details about their hunting practices and teepee building, their social life, gender relations, and inter-tribal feuds. Parkman probably knew more about woodland and Plains Indians than any other historian of his generation.

Perhaps it was because Parkman knew their way of life so intimately that there is such an overwhelming sense of doom in his account of Indian life in the western wilderness. Less a eulogy than a requiem for the open frontier and the nomadic life of the Plains Indians, The Oregon Trail was inspired and shaped by the author's awareness that he was traveling through a natural environment that was rapidly vanishing. Thus, living among the Oglala, he at one point observes that

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 abashed by whiskey and overawed by military posts; so that within a few years the traveller may pass in tolerable security through their country. Its danger and its charm will have disappeared together. (P. 149)

In the final analysis, Parkman was fascinated by the denizens of the western wilderness because they were on the verge of extinction.

Although an early work in a long and prolific career, The Oregon Trail already reveals Parkman's ambivalence toward both the wilderness and modern civilization—an ambivalence he very much shares with his great inspiration, James Fenimore Cooper, whose Leatherstocking Tales (1823–1841), notably The Last of the Mohicans (1826), reflect a similar patrician stance toward the vanishing Indians and their disappearing habitat—a habitat that is simultaneously romanticized and dreaded, mythologized and mourned, not for having escaped the destructive thrust of progress and civilization but for having fatally fallen under civilization's ever-lengthening shadow. In both Cooper and Parkman this ambivalence finds expression in a rudimentary form of ecological concern: most clearly in his novel The Pioneers (1823), Cooper describes the white man's wasting of game and wildlife; in The Oregon Trail, Parkman is concerned that hunters are shooting the buffalo bulls rather than the cows, for, in contrast to the cows, "thousands of [the bulls] might be slaughtered without causing any detriment to the species" (p. 258).


After The Oregon Trail Parkman was ready to undertake a more formidable task, the reconstruction of the rise and fall of Pontiac—the war chief of the Ottawa tribe—focusing on the episode known as the "Conspiracy of Pontiac." Parkman's letters and journals of the time reveal that above all he wanted to recreate the past and recapture the days of Indian frontier and woodland life in the pages of history. More than affording him "better opportunities than any other portion of American history for portraying forest life and the Indian character," however, the History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851) allowed Parkman "to portray the American forest and the American Indian at the period when both received their final doom" (Turner, p. 452).

An exponent of the Great Man theory of history, Parkman's historical personalities tend to loom larger than life in his narratives, and the figure of Pontiac is no exception. In fact, in Parkman's work Pontiac is the epitome of the statuesque Indian warrior. Modern historiography does not share Parkman's method of arranging the results of historical and ethnological research into a single narrative of historical drama surrounding the rise and fall of a tragic hero; nor does it share Parkman's conclusion that the actions of Chief Pontiac constituted a "conspiracy" (we would characterize Pontiac's "conspiracy" as a war for Indian self-determination). But always lurking in Parkman's pristine wilderness is his villain archetype, the treacherous Indian barbarian. Ultimately, despite his nostalgic mythologization of the American Indian, Parkman could never descend from his Brahmin pedestal and in his life and writings always looked down on races and classes other than his own. If Parkman respected the Indian, it was because the Indian represented for him a figure of brute strength, courage, and endurance, a worthy foe of the patrician European soldier-explorer, who inevitably wins the battle and conquers the land.


What is true for Pontiac is also true for Parkman's non-Indian foes in his magnum opus, France and England in North America. Prominent French figures such as Robert La Salle, Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac, and Louis de Montcalm are first set up as formidable enemies, ultimately to be overcome by superior British patrician leaders such as Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe. To Parkman, the ultimate success of the British represented the victory of progress over reaction. For although he believed in a representative government, Parkman believed with even more conviction that leadership should lie with a natural aristocracy. The future of America was safe only in the hands of men of "birth and breeding," to cite his favorite phrase. Not surprisingly, he was strongly opposed to universal male suffrage and women's suffrage, pacifism, and philanthropy, and despised or at least resented Indians, Roman Catholics, the uneducated classes, poor immigrants, and blacks. Although he did not use the term Manifest Destiny, Parkman believed in a version of Social Darwinism that very much embraced that concept. The Indians were obliterated, in Parkman's way of thinking, because they stood in the path of progress. Progress "doomed" the Indians as well as the wilderness culture they inhabited; and likewise progress doomed the old French regime in Canada. It is not a coincidence that both The History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac and Montcalm and Wolfe (1884), the culminating volume of France and England in North America, end in the historic year of 1763, when the power of Anglo-America dealt a decisive blow to both the Indian tribes and old French Canada: "Could the French have maintained their ground," he writes, "the ruin of the Indian tribes could have been postponed; but the victory of Quebec was the signal of their swift decline. Thenceforth they were destined to melt and vanish before the advancing waves of Anglo-American power, which now rolled westward unchecked and unopposed" (Preface, Conspiracy of Pontiac).

Parkman considered Montcalm and Wolfe to be his masterpiece, a view generally shared by readers and critics. The book is the most consummate illustration of both Parkman's central theme (the ethno- or ecohistory of the rise of British North America) and his style (the historical wilderness narrative, or forest epic). But the groundwork for the success in his mature years had been laid in his first publication, The Oregon Trail. It was there that Parkman first displayed his unique talent for writing history as literature. Combining rigorous scholarship with the art of history, he managed to bring the past to life in ways that more conventional historians can only dream of.

See alsoBorders; Exploration and Discovery; History; Travel Writing


Primary Works

Parkman, Francis. The Conspiracy of Pontiac. 1851. New York: Library of America, 1991.

Parkman, Francis. The Letters of Francis Parkman. 2 vols. Edited by Wilbur R. Jacobs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail. 1849. New York: New American Library, 1950.

Secondary Works

Hubbell, John T. "Francis Parkman, Historian." Midwestern Quarterly 8, no. 1 (October 1966): 29–39.

Jacobs, Wilbur R. "Francis Parkman's Oration 'Romance in America.'" American Historical Review 18 (April 1963): 692–698.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. "Francis Parkman and His Work." Dial 300, no. 25 (16 December 1898): 451–453.

Woodward, C. Vann. "Foreword." In Montcalm and Wolfe:The French and Indian War, by Francis Parkman. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Wil Verhoeven

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The Oregon Trail

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