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.
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