The Oregon Trail, by Francis Parkman

This book, I am told, used to be on high school reading lists. (If you have read it, raise your hand.) I came across it only recently in a used book stall at a local farmer’s market. It caught my eye because I had just read Chaining Oregon, set during the years immediately following the influx of settlers into the Oregon territory over this trail.

The book is not about surveying. Nor is the book, strictly speaking, about the Oregon Trail. When it was first published in 1849, its title was The California and Oregon Trail. But it covers the way west only on this side of the Rocky Mountains, about a third of its length, and then only because it provided a convenient route to the author’s intended destination, the home ground of the Ogillallah (Sioux) Indians at the foot of the mountains.

The book is nevertheless interesting because it vividly describes the conditions that surveyors of the public lands encountered when they extended the grid system westward. It provides a first-hand account of the terrain, the weather, the fauna and the flora, how varied and rugged the conditions were. It also portrays the Indians, the trappers, and the emigrants and how well or ill suited they were for life in the wilderness.

The author of the book is Francis Parkman (1823-1893), an eminent American historian during the latter half of the 19th century. Early in his college days at Harvard, he became interested in the French and Indian Wars. Later, in eight volumes written over a period of four decades, he expounded the conflict between the British and the French for control of what he called the American forest.

His interest in this conflict probably grew out of his boyhood experiences at his grandfather’s estate in Medford, not far from Boston, which included a 4,000-acre tract of primeval woodland. He was removed to it at an early age to spare him the rigors of city life because he suffered from an undiagnosed neurological ailment that affected his walking and his eyesight. But that did not keep him from exploring the woods, or from other strenuous activities throughout his life. The first was this trip to the Midwest.

Upon graduating from Harvard, in the spring of 1846, he and a college friend, Quincy Adams Shaw, embarked on “a tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky Mountains.” They traveled by coach, railroad, and steamship to St. Louis, Missouri, and then took a boat up the Missouri River to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. This was the “jumping off” place for those bound for the West. Here, Parkman and Shaw equipped themselves with everything they needed to survive the next few months and with trinkets they could present to the Indians. For safety reasons, they teamed up with four other men for the long ride on horseback across Kansas and Nebraska to Ft. Laramie, Wyoming.

Parkman’s initial claim notwithstanding, this was not a pleasure trip. It was part of his education for a career as a historian of colonial America. “I had come into the country chiefly with a view of observing the Indian character. 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.”

At Ft. Laramie, he heard that a war party was gathering, and he “rejoiced” at the prospect of being able to witness the Indians’ “rites” of preparing for war. Though, with difficulty, he found the intended meeting ground, it was completely empty. The Indians had relocated to another spot where they could hunt the buffalo they needed to sustain themselves. As it happened, the war party never materialized.

After another lengthy search, he found the village of the Ogillallah and stayed for about a month with one of its chiefs. He ate and slept with the Indians, smoked their blend of tobacco, and listened to tales about their feats of bravery. He accompanied the “wandering democracy” from camp site to camp site and hunted buffalo by “running” with the herd. 

The idea Parkman formed of the Indians during his sojourn with them is anything but noble. He repeatedly refers to them as savages, even as “a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast.” The Indians do not acknowledge “any law but [their] own will.” The foundation of their character is a “wild idea of liberty and utter intolerance of restraint” bred into them from their earliest days. As a result, they are imbued with “jealousy, suspicion and malignant cunning” and “cannot act in bodies.” They exhibit a “tranquility of self-control,” but yield to “sudden acts [of] strange, unbridled impulses.” They are at once rapacious and generous with the bounty of the hunt. Whether these observations do the Indians on the whole justice can be—and has been—debated. But in this book, they are stated as facts. 

Parkman’s description of the land over which he traveled is no less harsh. It consists of “rough prairie and broken hills.” The prairie is a flat plain but contains gullies hidden by grass so tall that it scratches a horse’s belly. The hills (declivities) are craggy, and hem in valleys (defiles) so overgrown that they are hardly penetrable. Food and water are scarce. The heat in summer is unbearable; the storms are unpredictable and violent. Prairie dogs, snakes, insects, and buffalo inhabit the prairie; elk, deer, sheep, and grizzly bears the hills. Travel across this terrain by any means is slow and fraught with danger every step of the way.    

Consider the fact that surveyors soon thereafter traversed this land. Some still do—facing the same hardships, if not Indians prowling for scalps.

About the Author

  • Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm Schmidt is the former owner of the surveying firm Bascom and Sieger in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You may contact him at willischmidt@verizon.net.

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