In the mid-1950s, John Hancock insurance ran full-page magazine advertisements featuring famous people from history. In 1955 one of those ads focused on Francis Parkman. “He brightened the dim record of our past,” the ad began but conceded that “a lot of people today don’t know about” him, although they ought to, since “there is so much about Francis Parkman that’s good for all of us to know.” The ad described Parkman as “brilliant, determined, and courageous.”
For Parkman’s brilliance, the ad cited his gifts as a narrator. “When he takes you along the Oregon Trail,” the ad went on, “you can feel the sting of alkali dust in your eyes and smell the pungent sage.” Parkman’s determination meant that in college he conceived a plan for historical research and writing and saw it through for the rest of his life. His courage helped him overcome the adversity of being nearly blind from his mid-twenties onwards. Yet, from 1865 to 1892 he published an acclaimed series of books on France and England in North America.
Praise for Parkman’s historical writing began with his first book, The Oregon Trail (1849) and continued with each new book he published. In a letter dated 23 June, 1872, Henry Adams called Parkman “our best American historian and a very agreeable man.” In January, 1875, in a review of Parkman’s The Old Régime in Canada, Adams described him as “by natural inclination and cast of mind” having “an objective way of dealing with history.” Adams explained, “He prefers to follow action rather than to meditate upon it, to relate rather than to analyze, to describe the adventures of individuals rather than the slow and complicated movements of society.”
Like Adams, Parkman (1823-1893) was a Boston Brahmin, but an upper-crust life can be marred by violence. In November, 1849, a professor at Harvard, John White Webster, murdered Parkman’s uncle, George Parkman, also a professor at Harvard. A sensational case at the time, it attracted attention into the twentieth century. In 1953, a weekly half-hour radio program called Crime Classics dramatized it, and in 1991, Simon Schama devoted the second half of his book, Dead Certainties, to it.
Parkman grew up in a bygone culture, where people kept personal tragedies private. Anyone looking for Parkman’s tell-all, Oprah-style book revealing how his family felt about Uncle George’s bludgeoning and then dismemberment by Webster will be disappointed. Instead, readers can find numerous esteemed editions of Parkman’s histories.
In 1906 Little, Brown published Parkman’s works in a seventeen-volume uniform edition, and in 1983, nine of his books appeared in three volumes of the Library of America. In 1948, John Tebbel abridged Parkman’s seven volumes on the French and English colonial struggle into one, calling it The Battle for North America; in 1987 Easton Press produced a handsome leather-bound edition of it. As Tebbel noted in his preface, The Oregon Trail is Parkman’s most accessible work, although Tebbel sniffed at it being read “chiefly by boys in the cowboy-and-Indian stage.” Older readers also enjoy it, a paperback or old hardcover Modern Library edition making a handy traveling companion.
In 1846, Parkman and a cousin, Quincy Adams Shaw, set out from St. Louis for eastern Wyoming and Colorado, then back to St. Louis. Over six months they made an elliptical loop through the plains and the mountains. For Parkman, it was a form of research. If he were to write about the French and Indian War, he reasoned, he must learn first-hand about Indians. Along the way he kept a journal, and it became the basis for his book.
In Chapter 9, having arrived at Fort Laramie, Parkman wrote that he was looking for an Indian village where he could stay. “I had come into the country,” he wrote, “chiefly with a view of observing the Indian character.” He added, “To accomplish my purpose it was necessary to live in the midst of them, and become, as it were, one of them.” Before long, he found what he sought, and, a dedicated pipe-smoker, he developed a taste for shongsasha, an additive to tobacco made from willow bark, as well as for dog.
Parkman had just graduated from Harvard and saw scenes through the lens of Tacitus and other classical historians. Some easterners heading west encountered Parkman’s party. “They were not robust,” Parkman recorded, “nor large of frame, yet they had an aspect of hardy endurance.” As he surmised, “Finding at home no scope for their energies, they had betaken themselves to the prairie; and in them seemed to be revived, with redoubled force, that fierce spirit which impelled their ancestors, scarcely more lawless than themselves, from the German forests, to inundate Europe, and overwhelm the Roman empire.” Regarding a leader among the Sioux, Parkman observed, “Like the Teutonic chiefs of old, he ingratiates himself with his young men by making them presents, thereby often impoverishing himself.”
As the son of a Unitarian minister, Parkman tended to take a broad and balanced view of other beliefs. In his The Jesuits in North America (1867), after recounting the torture and martyrdom of a priest since canonized, Parkman observed, “Thus died Isaac Jogues, one of the purest examples of Roman Catholic virtue which this Western continent has seen.” Along the Oregon Trail, he had heard that “a priest had been at Fort Laramie two years ago, on his way to the Nez Percé mission, and that he had confessed all the men there, and given them absolution.” It was his own time among the local tribes, however, that drove him.
In 1950, in the foreword to the Signet Classics edition, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., wrote, “We have an account by the first literary man who actually lived with the Indians.” In 1976, Keith Wheeler, in The Chroniclers, summed up Parkman’s little book, “Its intimate prose-picture of Indian life was, in fact, incomparable.” Geoffrey C. Ward, writing in American Heritage (November, 1991), pointed out that “It was the changeless, not the changing, West that drew him—the still-untamed landscape and the as-yet-untrammeled Indians who made their homes on it.”
Maybe the best sketch of Parkman, though, remains in that old John Hancock ad. “We have learned a lot,” the ad concluded, “from those great history books that Francis Parkman wrote,” but it mused that “perhaps we can learn a lot more from the life that Francis Parkman lived,” because “he showed us that a man can go on to greatness, no matter how long the road, or how many blocks are thrown across it, if he has the heart and the will to keep trying.”
A noble and venerable man of letters, no doubt, but first he was a hunter and hiker, a crack shot and a man to take risks. As has been the case since the days of Herodotus, the Father of History, historians must travel. Adventure, wisdom, tenacity are facets of Francis Parkman, but amidst any Olympian dignity, his unpretentious amiability emerges when learning that Henry Adams called him Frank.