Native History: Harvard Rich Kid Starts Research for ‘Oregon Trail’
This Date in Native History: On June 15, 1846, Francis Parkman Jr., a young, Harvard-educated historian, arrived at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to begin a summer of research among the Oglala Sioux.
Parkman was born into money near Boston’s Beacon Hill, the oldest son of a prominent couple who descended from colonists of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. He was only 22 when he ventured west to observe American Indians for a definitive history he planned to write about the wars between the French and Indians.
In his own words, Parkman described the purpose of his trip:
“I had come into the country chiefly with a view of observing the Indian character,” he wrote. “To accomplish my purpose, it was necessary to live in the midst of them and become, as it were, one of them. I proposed to join a village and make myself an inmate of one of their lodges.”
Parkman traveled for about nine months with the goal of “studying the manners and characters of the Indians in their primitive state.” He filled notebooks with drawings and observations, which later informed his most famous book, The Oregon Trail, published in 1849.
Even as a child, Parkman was drawn to the outdoors, said Peter Drummey, librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society. His colonial background, coupled with a curiosity about what would become of the American Indians, led him westward in search of answers. He now is credited for his prolific—though biased—writings about American Indians in the 19th century.
“He was fascinated by Indian life, which he knew in New England only from relics and what was told to him,” Drummey said. “He made this big circular route through the spring, summer and fall of 1846, and while the published account is interesting, it’s written as an upper-class New Englander who’s seeing the final frontier.”
Parkman traveled by coach, railroad and steamship to St. Louis, Missouri, then took a boat to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which served as a jumping-off point for people bound for the West. He made the long journey across Kansas and Nebraska by horseback, along the Oregon Trail.
Parkman was not the first to make the trek; his journey followed a route taken by thousands of other Americans seeking new lives on the western frontier. Yet Parkman, who journeyed with a small group of men, including fellow Bostonian John Quincy Shaw, had the time and means to travel slowly.
On June 15, he arrived at Fort Laramie, which was established in southeast Wyoming 12 years earlier as a fur trading fort. It later evolved into the largest military post on the western plains.
The fort served as a stopping point for tens of thousands of immigrants bound for Oregon, California and the Salt Lake Valley, according to data from the Fort Laramie National Historic Site. Indian tribes, especially the Sioux, traded buffalo robes at the fort for a variety of goods.
While he was inside the fort, Parkman received a visit from the Sioux, who he described in The Oregon Trail as “diffident and bashful” people whose “soul is dormant” and who would not “trouble themselves to inquire into what they cannot comprehend.”
The book, a narrative chronicling Parkman’s experiences with the Sioux, is acclaimed as an important historical account and literary work, though it also has come under fire for its arrogant tone and Parkman’s discriminatory views of Indians, trappers and immigrants he met along the way.
Parkman wrote with “real prejudice,” Drummey said. Although he recorded valuable information and observations about life on the plains, Parkman viewed all his experiences through a critical lens.
“He really saw Indians as being ‘others,’” Drummey said. “Parkman can be very harsh, but not specifically aimed toward Indians. He was harsh about class differences. He was taking the pose of the sophisticated person and as a result, he’s kind of making fun of people he saw.”
Critics have blamed Parkman’s wealth and Boston upbringing for the prejudice that inevitably appears in his published works.
“Perhaps the most serious single handicap that Parkman had as a student of the West was the very inherited wealth that made the trip possible,” biographer Mason Wade wrote in his 1942 book, Francis Parkman: Heroic Historian. “The means that enabled him to devote two-thirds of a year to a journey, simply for adventure, recreation and study, which so many were making in order to live, blinded him to the profound social forces which were at work in the West in 1846.”
After his early success with The Oregon Trail, Parkman went on to publish a series of historic accounts of the French and Indian wars. Although he likely gained some fame and wealth from his writings, Parkman lived a lonely life, Drummey said. He struggled with poor health for most of his life, lost his wife and son at young ages and raised two daughters on his own.
Parkman died November 8, 1893, in Boston, at age 70. He is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
This story was originally published June 15, 2014.