Before the Trail

Francis Parkman's Medicine Chest

Francis Parkman’s Medicine Chest

Pratt must be paid. There was a route to examine one last time, and three shirts to stuff into a knapsack bulging with flannels and history books, powder and shot. The Berkshire Hills trip was a rush job; he needed to return for graduation in late August, 1844. Into the knapsack went a 4” x 2½” dusky-green journal, with shorthand notes in pencil. After a boyhood spent hunting and riding bareback on the Medford frontier, the blue-eyed Harvard senior, 20, knew how to pack for a research errand into the wilderness. Already, he boasted colorful adventures from past summer forays, fine-tuning the field skills that history professor Jared Sparks did not cover in class. Take July 1841: Scaling his first New Hampshire ravine, the rookie historian slipped and swung free, clawing air. As he “shuddered” and clung to the crag, a hard sheaf of pebbles fell, “clattering hundreds of feet” to the sunny gulf below.


Digging into a side pocket for his jacket-knife and jawing it open with his teeth, he notched a single foothold. The whole ordeal, he reckoned, was neatly resolved in ten minutes’ time. Now, three years into fieldwork, he felt like a “perfectly cool” and seasoned explorer. He had haggled with drunken innkeepers, navigated rotten logs and rockslides, forded swollen brooks, and battled forest flies. His gaze matured. When he looked up—often with tired and “scorched eyes”—he saw ash-tipped mountain peaks stilting the “Yankee land” sky. Peering along Canada’s border and down the Connecticut River, he identified a string of frontier towns ripe for scholarly rediscovery. He paid local children (two cents or more) to scout out “curious caves” and odd landmarks. Pain—the blinding headaches and muscular discomfort that he called “my enemy”—made him work piecemeal. Often, he paused to catch up the narrative unspooling in his notebook, or, happily, to “loaf” around a new neighborhood. Strangers eyeing his American passport (below) met, in turn, a young man of “features changeable with good or bad health,” much like the lands he longed to see. This was Francis Parkman, before the Oregon Trail.

However you may feel about Francis Parkman—and there’s plenty of room for debate—his formative process as a historical researcher is worth another ponder, with pictures. Today, we head into the archives with all manner of analog and digital toolkits. Most modern university history programs seed the curriculum with helpful courses like “The Historian’s Craft” or “History Lab.” But in Parkman’s day, it was not necessarily so. At first, Francis Parkman (1823-1893) tackled history-writing with an outdoorsman’s sense of extreme adventure, and with more amateur relish than polished research. By 1844, he had charted a course past Lake George and Lake Champlain, scoured Maine, investigated Montreal and Quebec, and sampled the Old World on a posh grand tour. “The traveller in Europe,” Parkman jotted in his journal, like a new indexer of culture. “Art, nature, history combine.”

FP Passport

Parkman’s Passport, 1844

Affluent enough to stay abroad, Parkman became a nuanced observer of foreign “types,” filing character studies and travel vignettes in his pocket-sized archive. His early journals and more prized correspondence, preserved in a drawer of his private desk, came to light in the 1940s, thanks to the biographer and historical editor Mason Wade. Wisely avoiding the urge to impose copyedits that lionized the “memory of a great writer,” Wade still conveyed Parkman’s unique knack for reading landscapes with the same care as parsing manuscripts. In the resulting documentary editions of Parkman’s journals, Wade used modern punctuation but he retained Parkman’s slips of the pen. Wade slotted all annotation into the endmatter, since his intention (like Parkman’s) was to write for “the general reader and the historical student” alike, “scandalous as that may seem today,” Wade wrote, in 1946.

In July 1844, on the cusp of entering Dane (Harvard) Law School, the cosmopolitan Parkman took off for several weeks in western Massachusetts. On previous trips, he had extolled the “stunted verdure” and “noble spectacle” of sweeping vistas. His letters listed moose shot, or arrowheads idly found. This trip felt different. Now, Parkman trapped and framed his conversations with other Americans, in an effort to know what made up the “national” character. He whittled down each portrait for the page. Near Mount Washington, he dined with a woman living in her “Hell on earth,” too poor to leave her log hut even when, terrified and “sitting alone, she hears the footstep of a man about the house.” In a “vilely perfumed” barroom, he watched Anti-Rent protesters lean in for a strategy session. His catalogue of characters—a sort of “Humans of the Berkshires” for 1844—grew thick, but some mannerisms recurred. By Parkman’s tropes, drunks bullied, women teased, and old soldiers (usually straw-hatted) told him their war stories with dusty, wrinkled charm. Nature prompted his kinder, richer prose. “Living pines” raised “their arms out towards the light,” and even swamps glittered, given the right light. Near Fort Massachusettts, Parkman’s eye fell on the “little brown hen hopping among the fallen pine trees.” Sitting on the hillside, his historical vision deftly split down parallel screens: He mused that “French hatchets have been found here, beside Indian weapons of stone.”

FP Screen

Parkman’s Writing Screen

When he returned from the Berkshires, Parkman’s historical gaze had sharpened, shifted. His physical eyesight was, however, at risk. To keep steady while conducting research, he used a wire grid (right) so he could write evenly on unlined paper. Parkman carried a pair of portable, battery-operated eye sponges to shock his face for relief. His medicine chest (above) held laudanum and at least one bottle marked “poison.” What else was in Francis Parkman’s actual historical toolkit? His traveling desk, held at the Massachusetts Historical Society per the scholar’s will, stockpiled his eyeglasses, pencils, notebooks, Native American relics, a cathedral postcard, and plenty of rubber erasers. These artifacts crowded his Jamaica Plain study and surrounded Parkman as he wrote. By autumn 1844, his ever-dim interest in studying law had sputtered out. Eager to get back on a foreign road, Francis Parkman repacked, touring Pennsylvania, western New York, and parts of Michigan in 1845. “All is new—all is rough—no charm of a familiar country,” he wrote.

Next, Parkman pitched his first book: a history of the “American forest” and of Native American culture, to be drawn from western travels with a Brahmin friend, Quincy Adams Shaw. Like any historian in search of an audience, Parkman roadtested titles. A serialized first run in the Knickerbocker (1847-1849) relied on “A Summer’s Journey Out of Bounds”; Gold Rush editors cashed in on “The California and Oregon Trail”; and modern editions use The Oregon Trail. Parkman’s vivid blend of history and story weathered each reincarnation. “How wide and deep and infinitely various is human nature!” he wrote from St. Louis in April 1846, staring down the epic Oregon Trail that lay ahead. “And now the contemplation of it grows more absorbing as its features disclose themselves to view.”

TOMORROW: What did Francis Parkman bring home from the Oregon Trail?

4 responses

  1. The neat thing is that we can still discover some of these places ourselves, and trace their historic steps. I re-read Edwin Bryant’s “What I Saw in California” earlier this summer, following his route (much of which Parkman traveled) the best I could in an atlas . . . now, I can’t wait to actually get out there and follow at least a portion of his journey on foot. Same with Lewis & Clark . . . would love to hike a portion of their trail that still looks much as it did in 1804-1805, discovering vistas that they described, as they saw them.

    It’s about as close as any of us will ever get to time travel.

  2. Pingback: On what to take on your summer journey–and what to do about the journey after you are finished, 1840s style | Buffalo Doug

  3. Pingback: After the Trail « The Junto

  4. Pingback: Southern Odyssey (Guest Post by Sara Georgini) |


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