After the Trail

Sioux Shield FP op

Oglala Sioux Shield, ca. 1846

Consider the sixth-grader of 1907. Gertrude F. Greene’s syllabus passed over Plato, sidelined Scottish ballads, and resisted the Alaskan derring-do of The Fur-Seal’s Tooth. At the top of her reading list—first to devour on a snowy winter break from the old Belcher School—she ranked Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail (1849). In under a century, Parkman had gone from cliffhanger to canon. Why? What might students learn from a 23-year-old romantic historian’s rambles in the Indian country of 1846? Glints of Parkman’s early artistry shone through, but only when you shook up the story a bit. His sketch of life with the Oglala Sioux melded ethnography and emotion, sense and sensation. His Oregon Trail had been greatly curated, edited, and revised in the retelling. And yet Ms. Greene’s sixth-graders missed out on the juicier bits. What Parkman saw (“a strange variety of characters”), what Parkman heard (“harsh and guttaral” dialects), and what Parkman ate (buffalo, fish, dog) on the road filled his private journals, first made available to readers in the 1940s. There, stashed away in the “no-filter” notebooks that Parkman used to piece together his first blockbuster, lay the real adventure. Continue reading

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.

 

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Guest Post: Lowell & the Executive

Today’s guest post is from Lindsay Schakenbach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Brown University. Her dissertation,  “Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry 1790-1840,” explores the development of the arms and textile industries in the context of national security, diplomacy, and territorial expansion.

lowellLook through any opinion section of The Wall Street Journal and you’ll almost certainly find condemnations of government intervention in business or a lambasting of the inefficiencies of bureaucratic meddling. Too much government, these commentators say, is bad for the economy. A reexamination of America’s origins as an industrial superpower, however, suggests a different mantra. Take the founding of Lowell, Massachusetts, for example. Even if we debate the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution–Pawtucket, Rhode Island?, Patterson, New Jersey?–the fact remains that Lowell was the site of the first large-scale integrated factory system in the United States and stands as a symbol of the birth of industrial capitalism. And its rise to prominence depended on federal meddling. Continue reading

Shadows of History in the Boston Marathon Manhunt

lexingtonandconcordPublic radio station WHYY in Philadelphia airs BBC World Update at 5 a.m. on weekdays. So on Friday morning, oddly enough, it was from the British Broadcasting Corporation rather than any domestic service that I heard surprising news from Boston.

During the night, police had chased two bombing (and robbery) suspects through the labyrinthine streets of Cambridge and Watertown, engaging in at least one major firefight along the way. Now the police seemed to be laying siege to a Watertown neighborhood. The reports at that hour were confused and confusing–not to mention frequently wrong. But as the hunt for the surviving terrorist suspect continued during the day, it became clear that the story was also, in several different ways, strangely familiar.

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