Recently I was looking around for something to read. It dawned on me, after looking something up in The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman–something to do with our great-great grandmother’s stepfather (the mysterious Austrian Louis Vogel, whom Parkman describes as shifty-eyed)–that I should just read the whole thing.
The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, you will recall, was originally serialized in twenty-one installments in Knickerbocker’s Magazine (1847–49) and subsequently published as a book in 1849. It is an engaging first-person account of a 2-month summer tour in 1846 of territory that would become the U.S. states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas. Parkman, a Harvard graduate from a distinguished Boston family, was 23 at the time.
The heart of the book covers the three weeks he spent hunting buffalo with a band of Oglala Sioux.
Through much of his trip Parkman suffers terribly from dysentery, but he soldiers on admirably and his tone never reflects the misery he must have experienced. At one point he considers,
“Am I,” I thought to myself, “the same man who a few months since, was seated, a quiet student of belles-lettres, in a cushioned arm-chair by a sea-coal fire?”
He undertook this adventure in large part because he had been fascinated by the American Indian since childhood. If he was expecting the “noble red man” of popular fiction, however, he appears to have been disappointed. What he finds and documents without prejudice is far from that stereotype. He sees too that change is bound to come.
Great changes are at hand in that region. With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must be broken and scattered. The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky, and overawed by military posts; so that within a few years the traveler may pass in tolerable security through their country. Its danger and its charm will have disappeared together.
I am enjoying the book immensely. Parkman evokes the same mid-19th-century youth and optimism found in Whitman and to some extent in Melville–who reviewed the book favorably when it was published.
It is indeed a remarkable thing that this brave young scion of Boston made this arduous trip and recorded it. We should be grateful, because it is amazing to me how little exists in the way of reliable records from this period. Most westerners were too busy (and some illiterate as well) to write anything down. Parkman’s travels with his friend John Quincy Shaw and his telling of them are a treasure. Clearly he learned a lot on his journey–about the land and about himself.
Shaw and I were much better fitted for this mode of traveling than we had been on betaking ourselves to the prairies for the first time a few months before. The daily routine had ceased to be a novelty. All the details of the journey and the camp had become familiar to us. We had seen life under a new aspect; the human biped had been reduced to his primitive condition. We had lived without law to protect, a roof to shelter, or garment of cloth to cover us. One of us at least had been without bread, and without salt to season his food. Our idea of what is indispensable to human existence and enjoyment had been wonderfully curtailed, and a horse, a rifle, and a knife seemed to make up the whole of life’s necessities. For these once obtained, together with the will to use them, all else that is essential would follow in their train, and a host of luxuries besides. One other lesson our short prairie experience had taught us; that of profound contentment in the present, and utter contempt for what the future might bring forth.
One lesson I have learned from reading this volume is that there are hundreds of books on my own shelves worth reading and re-reading!
What are you reading?