Excerpt from the Oregon Trail (1846, by Francis Parkman)
EXCERPT FROM THE OREGON TRAIL (1846, by Francis Parkman)
Francis Parkman was twenty-two years old when he journeyed on the Oregon Trail. He was a native of Boston, a graduate of Harvard College; a sickly, near-sighted greenhorn. Accompanied by his cousin Quincy Adams Shaw, Parkman went west to study the Plains Indians, whose culture would be a primary source for a projected history of the French-Indian War (1755–1763). Parkman returned from his excursion ill, requiring extensive bed-rest, during which time he wrote The Oregon Trail. The book, published in 1847, had an ironic title, as Parkman never reached Oregon, indeed never crossed the Rocky Mountains. His itinerary involved a journey west from the Missouri River overland across the Midwestern prairies to the eastern slopes of the Rockies, which he paralleled south to the neighborhood of Pike's Peak, from which he departed east following the Arkansas River to the prairies of Kansas, which he then crossed, returning to Saint Louis.
The excerpt from The Oregon Trail reveals the astonishment of a New Englander used to the tall pine trees and mountains of home, confronting the vast flat sandy plains of the Platte River valley in what is today Nebraska. Parkman echoed earlier explorers who saw the endless prairie before them and could only think to call it "the Great American Desert." All was wild: the climate went from long spells of dry heat to a fierce thunderstorm of the coldest wind and rain. The desert hosted cactus, lizards, and sand—even the Platte was filled with sand. The famous Mountain Men—the white trappers and hunters—were as savage and primitive as the native Pawnee Indians.
Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail is a wonderful tale of the West. But it is, of course, a tale, based on actual events romanticized with the imagery of what Parkman expected to see. The experiences and phenomena of the West passed through the mind, and were altered by the pen of a wealthy, sophisticated Bostonian and Harvard man.
A low undulating line of sand-hills bounded the horizon before us. That day we rode ten consecutive hours, and it was dusk before we entered the hollows and gorges of these gloomy little hills. At length we gained the summit, and the long expected valley of the Platte lay before us. We all drew rein, and, gathering in a knot on the crest of the hill, sat joyfully looking down upon the prospect. It was right welcome; strange too, and striking to the imagination, and yet it had not one picturesque or beautiful feature; nor had it any of the features of grandeur, other than its vast extent, its solitude, and its wildness. For league after league a plain as level as a frozen lake was outspread beneath us; here and there the Platte, divided into a dozen thread-like sluices, was transversing it, and an occasional clump of wood, rising in the midst like a shadowy island, relieved the monotony of the waste. No living thing was moving throughout the vast landscape, except the lizards that darted over the sand and through the rank grass and prickly pear just at our feet. And yet stern and wild associations gave a singular interest to the view; for here each man lives by the strength of his arm and the valor of his heart. Here the feeble succumb to the brave, with nothing to sustain them in their weakness. Here society is reduced to its original elements, and the whole fabric of art and conventionality is struck rudely to pieces, and men find themselves suddenly brought back to the wants and resources of their original natures.
We had passed the more toilsome and monotonous part of the journey; but four hundred miles still intervened between us and Fort Laramie; and to reach that point cost us the travel of three additional weeks. During the whole of this time we were passing up the center of a long, narrow, sandy plain, reaching like an outstretched belt nearly to the Rocky Mountains. Two lines of sand-hills, broken often into the wildest and most fantastic forms, flanked the valley at the distance of a mile or two on the right and left; while beyond them lay a barren, trackless waste—"the Great American Desert"—extending for hundreds of miles to the Arkansas on the one side and the Missouri on the other. Before us and behind us, the level monotony of the plain was unbroken as far as the eye could reach. Sometimes it glared in the sun, an expanse of hot, bare sand; sometimes it was veiled by long, coarse grass. Huge skulls and whitening bones of buffalo were scattered everywhere; the ground was tracked by myriads of them, and often covered with the circular indentations where the bulls had wallowed in the hot weather. From every gorge and ravine, opening from the hills, descended deep, well-worn paths, where the buffalo issue twice a day in regular procession down to drink in the Platte. The river itself runs through the midst, a thin sheet of rapid, turbid water, half a mile wide, and scarce two feet deep. Its low banks, for the most part without a bush or a tree, are of loose sand, with which the stream is so charged that it grates on the teeth in drinking. The naked landscape is, of itself, dreary and monotonous enough; and yet the wild beasts and wild men that frequent the valley of the Platte make it a scene of interest and excitement to the traveler. Of those who have journeyed there, scarce one, perhaps, fails to look back with fond regret to his horse and his rifle.
Fancy to yourself a long procession of squalid savages approaching our camp. Each was on foot, leading his horse by a rope of bull-hide. His attire consisted merely of a scanty cincture and an old buffalo robe, tattered and begrimed by use, which hung over big shoulders. His head was close shaven, except a ridge of hair reaching over the crown from the center of the forehead, very much like the long bristles on the back of a hyena, and he carried his bow and arrows in his hand, while his meager little horse was laden with dried buffalo meat, the produce of his hunting. Such were the first specimens that we met—and very indifferent ones they were—of the genuine savages of the prairie.
They were the Pawnees whom Kearsley had encountered the day before, and belonged to a large hunting party known to be ranging the prairie in the vicinity. They strode rapidly past, within a furlong of our tents, not pausing or looking toward us, after the manner of Indians when meditating mischief or conscious of ill desert. I went out and met them; and had an amicable conference with their chief, presenting him with half a pound of tobacco, at which unmerited bounty he expressed much gratification. These fellows, or some of their companions, had committed a dastardly outrage upon an emigrant party in advance of us. Two men, out on horseback at a distance, were seized by them, but lashing their horses, they broke loose and fled. At this the Pawnees raised the yell and shot at them, transfixing the hindermost through the back with several arrows, while his companion galloped away and brought in the news to his party. The panic-stricken emigrants remained for several days in camp, not daring even to send out in quest of the dead body.
The reader will recollect Turner, the man whose narrow escape was mentioned not long since; and expect perchance a tragic conclusion to his adventures; but happily none such took place; for a dozen men, whom the entreaties of his wife induced to go in search of him, found him leisurely driving along his recovered oxen, and whistling in utter contempt of the Pawnee nation. His party was encamped within two miles of us; but we passed them that morning, while the men were driving in the oxen, and the women packing their domestic utensils and their numerous offspring in the spacious patriarchal wagons. As we looked back we saw their caravan dragging its slow length along the plain; wearily toiling on its way, to found new empires in the West.
Our New England climate is mild and equable compared with that of the Platte. This very morning, for instance, was close and sultry, the sun rising with a faint oppressive heat; when suddenly darkness gathered in the west, and a furious blast of sleet and hail drove full in our faces, icy cold, and urged with such demoniac vehemence that it felt like a storm of needles. It was curious to see the horses; they faced about in extreme displeasure, holding their tails like whipped dogs, and shivering as the angry gusts, howling louder than a concert of wolves, swept over us. Wright's long train of mules came sweeping round before the storm like a flight of brown snow-birds driven by a winter tempest. Thus we all remained stationary for some minutes, crouching close to our horses' necks, much too surly to speak, though once the Captain looked up from between the collars of his coat, his face blood-red, and the muscles of his mouth contracted by the cold into a most ludicrous grin of agony. He grumbled something that sounded like a curse, directed, as we believed, against the unhappy hour when he first thought of leaving home. The thing was too good to last long; and the instant the puffs of wind subsided we erected our tents, and remained in camp for the rest of a gloomy and lowering day. The emigrants also encamped near at hand. We, being first on the ground, had appropriated all the wood within reach; so that our fire alone blazed cheerily. Around it soon gathered a group of uncouth figures, shivering in the drizzling rain. Conspicuous among them were two or three of the half-savage men who spend their reckless lives in trapping among the Rocky Mountains, or in trading for the Fur Company in the Indian villages. They were all of Canadian extraction; their hard, weather-beaten faces and bushy mustaches looked out from beneath the hoods of their white capotes with a bad and brutish expression, as if their owner might be the willing agent of any villainy. And such in fact is the character of many of these men.
SOURCE: Parkman, Francis. The California and Oregon Trail: Being Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life. New York: George P. Putnam, 1849.
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