Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part One

“One morning, a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it, apparently by a red-hot piece of iron. MARY ELLIS, DIED MAY 7th, 1845, AGED TWO MONTHS. Such tokens were common occurrence. Nothing could speak more for the hardihood, or rather infatuation, of the adventurers, or the sufferings that await them upon the journey.” (56)

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My apologies for beginning my look at Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail with this bit of pathos. Indeed, I am not particularly interested in stressing the hardship and suffering of the trail. Any high school text book can do this adequately. But this makeshift tomb did strike me as an impressive piece of Americana for another reason. The Oregon Trail was created by thousands of working people, from many different nations, men and women, adults and children, through interactions with local people. Sure, the government had a thin role through forts and the occasional army presence, but the trail was a vernacular creation. This tomb was just one of the small relics left behind by these people. Ah, forgive me, I feel I am still within the mythology of the American past: The rugged individual staking out, with courage, the settlement of the West. Is it possible to tell this story (especially through the mind of someone like Francis Parkman) without regurgitating these myths? Nevertheless, let me stand by this. The Oregon Trail, according to Parkman anyway, was created by a motley, international crew of settlers, some Romantic frontiersman, some practical patriarchs and matriarchs, some Indians who through the participation may have helped ensure the end of Indian autonomy in the West. The state seemed distant at best. Perhaps this is really a story of bottom-up vernacular creation. Maybe the myths are correct.

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Francis Parkman, the great historian whose epic history of the British and French empires in North America I looked at earlier in the year, experienced the Oregon Trail in 1846, after graduating from law school. He did not go as a settler, but as a reporter. During his investigations he participated in a buffalo hunt with the Sioux. He returned and experienced a collapse in his health, something that would plague him for the rest of his life. Out of his experiences came The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, appearing first in serial formation in 1847 and in book form in 1849 (as The California and Oregon Trail, to profit off the gold rush). He had already hoped to work on Pontiac’s revolt, his first major historical work, and his reportage was a place holding work toward what he felt was a more important historical investigation.

Almost immediately the reader gets a sense of the transnational solidarities of the participants in the Oregon Trail. “The passengers on board the Radnor [the boat Parkman used to navigate the Missouri River before setting off on the land route] corresponded with her freight. In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions, and her steerage was crowded with Oregon emigrants, ‘mountain men,’ negroes and a party of Kanzas Indians, who has been on a visit to St. Louis.” (9–10) Some of the characters he describes meeting are almost out of film stereotypes of nineteenth century frontiersmen. Sorry to quote again, it is too lovely. “As I stood at the door of the tavern, I saw a remarkable looking person coming up the street. He had a ruddy face, garnished with the stumps of a bristly red bread and a moustache; on one side of his head was a round cap with a knob at the top, such as Scottish laborers sometimes wear: his coat was of a nondescript form, and made of a gray Scotch plaid, with the fringes hanging all about it; he wore pantaloons of coarse homespun, and hob-nailed shoes; and to complete his equipment, a little black pipe was struck in one corner of his mouth.” (11–12) Parkman’s early impressions seems to have been that the people he was surrounded by (did I mention a large group of Mormons?) were much more interesting than the rather dull environment.

I do not want to give too cheery a picture, however. Fear was real, and Parkman described in on the faces of some of the pioneers he encountered, whether bachelors or entire families. Difficult alliances were formed among groups for protection against Indians, forcing the creation of makeshift councils and decision-making structures.

The infamous conflicts with the Indians are here as well, but Parkman’s narrative shows them for a bit of a facade. He reports violence from time to time, but neither side dared open confrontation if it could be avoided. The Pawnee, for instance, looked upon the wagon trains as a source of income (and the train prepared for theft as simply part of the cost of doing business on the train). Shows of bravado and intimidation occurred, but avoidance of large confrontation was the rule. For example, when Parkman’s group was out hunting for buffalo they ran into a group of Pawnee. “The amazement and consternation were mutual. Having nothing but their bows and arrows, the Indians thought their hour had come, and the fate that they were no doubt conscious of richly deserving, about to overtake them. So they began, one and all, to shout forth the most cordial salutations of friendship, running up with extreme earnestness to shake hands with the Missourians, who were as much rejoined as they were to escape the expected conflict.” (63) On the next page we learn that Parkman bought the friendship of people from the same group with a half-pound of tobacco, while a neighboring group of emigrants lost one man to the Pawnee and were forced to huddle in camp for a day or two. I do not want to give these encounters, based on threats and sometimes violence, a too festive atmosphere, but I get the sense that what was happening was a bit of a game (perhaps like drug dealers and police) that often ensnared people tragically, but when carefully played, left both sides intact. Unfortunately, it seems too few of the emigrants fully understood the rules.

When examining power on the Oregon Trail, it seems there are four forces, but none of them dominate enough to control the other three. One center of power were the emigrants themselves, forming organizations to protect themselves and survive. They were armed, provisioned, and organized (to a degree). A second group was the United States government, but they were largely absent outside of visits to forts. Their power was not projected outward very much, at least not in 1846, when Parkman was there. A third group, more extensive than the government, were transnational corporations such as the American Fur Company (owned by a US citizen, but many of the employees were French-Canadians and Indians). As Parkman said of Fort Laramie, “Here their officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force; for when we were there, the extreme outposts of her troops were about seven hundred miles to the eastward.” (97) The final group, were the Indians, who seemed—according to this account—more interested in securing a steady income from the emigrants than preventing the migrations entirely. It seems that there is a space here for taking seriously the vernacular organizations formed by the emigrant themselves, but I do not know of any scholarship that does this.

American Fur Compay's Fort Laramie

American Fur Compay’s Fort Laramie

Most of the rest of The Oregon Trail details Parkman’s time living with the Sioux. What we can learn about his attitudes about them and the nature of their society will be reserved for my second post on this excellent example of early American reportage.

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