Francis Parkman

Many people regarded nature and the world with their eyes only. However, some perceived the world through all their senses. They stopped and listened to what appeared before them, and then they experienced their surroundings. One person who looked beyond his first impression was Francis Parkman. Parkman’s love for history and nature drove him to overcome his physical weaknesses. He pursued his passion with the diligence of a soldier and brought a different perspective to nineteenth century history.

Francis Parkman traveled across North America and obtained firsthand experiences about nature, hardships, and the unknown. He developed his quest for knowledge as a child on the Hall Farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. Parkman battled the degenerating loss of his health, the loss of only son, and the loss of his wife. He compiled his wisdom in letters, journals, articles, and books; and Parkman left a legacy unmatched by historians of his time.

On September 16, 1823, the union of Reverend Francis Parkman and Caroline Hall Parkman produced a son, Francis Parkman, Jr. The Reverend and Mrs. Parkman, his second wife, resided in Somerset Place, Boston, and the family tree consisted of ministers, merchants, philanthropists, and brave Indian fighters. The Parkman family spent winters in Boston and summers at the Hall farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. The farm in Quincy provided Parkman with a vast area of rocks and forestry to explore, since it happened to be located adjacent to the Five Mile Woods, later renamed the Middlesex Fells. He encountered many illnesses in Boston, and his parents decided to leave him in his grandparents’ care on the farm. On the farm he collected rocks, trapped animals, shot arrows at birds, and conducted experiments. He wrote about himself and his experiments in the third person just as his peer, Henry Adams, regularly did. Parkman returned home to his parents at age thirteen to begin private schooling.

Parkman attended Gideon Thayer’s famous private school, Chauncey Hall, in order to prepare for college at Harvard. He entered Harvard in August 1940, and he excelled academically, physically, and socially. In addition to his regular studies, Parkman joined several school clubs and helped found another one. In July 19, 1841, during summer break from Harvard, he and Daniel Denison Slade took a trip to explore the White Mountains located in New Hampshire and Maine. Parkman, aware of an avalanche that killed nine in 1826, eagerly climbed the unstable flume close to Notch House. However, he found the climb down even more treacherous when he chose to return. Continuing around for a different route, he slipped and struggled to get a foothold by cutting away at the mountainside with his jackknife. He wrote about this experience in his earliest existing journals but omitted the event in a letter to his Father. Parkman entered law school at Harvard in August 1844 as his father wished. However, learning the letter of the law weighed lightly on his mind as he desired to explore and write about the history of the American forests. In a letter to George S Hale, Parkman writes, “I am down at Divinity, devoting one hour per diem to law, -the rest to my own notions.” He and his lack of enthusiasm for the law earned the label “a make-believe law student.”

Parkman obtained a law degree from Harvard in January 1846, but the struggle of continuing his passion for history and finishing school took its toll on his health. In an attempt to remedy his failing eyesight, he and his cousin, Quincy Adams Shaw, planned a trip west to the Oregon Trail. They set out in March 1846. Parkman traveled from New York to St. Louis where he, Shaw, and Henry Chatillon, Parkman’s unparalleled hunter and guide, boarded a steamboat going to Independence. The group reached the trail on May 24 and continued westward toward Fort Laramie and Oregon Territory. Parkman wrote about their travels, his collected information, and his opinions in his journals. The trip back from Oregon Territory took the group over the Sante Fe Trail. By October 1, Parkman ended his journal with an entry that he was on his way home.

After returning from his trip out west, Parkman’s health and eyesight continued to decline, but he agreed to pursue law in New York. Dr. Samuel Elliot promised a quick cure to his ailing eyes but resulted no improvement. Being of little use in a law office he resigned to complete his book The Oregon Trail which he previously started. Family and friends read aloud from his journals; Parkman formulated ideas in his head; then he dictated back to them. Although Parkman desired to marry Ida Aggasiz, she married another. In May 1850, he married Catherine Scollay Bigelow, whom he had met in 1844. His wife spent the majority of their eight years of marriage reading to him as well.

The Parkman’s happy union lasted three years and resulted in three children. Grace arrived in 1851. Francis, who was born in 1854, died of Scarlet Fever in 1857. Katharine came in 1858 at which time Mrs. Parkman died. After losing his wife and his only son, he left his two daughters with his sister-in-law, Mary Bigelow, and traveled to Paris to see Dr. Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard. Parkman reported that his condition appeared to be improving to his sister, Lizzie, in Spring 1859. He returned from Paris by August 1859.

After returning from Paris, Parkman found that he continued to be unable to read historic documents therefore dedicated some time to horticulture for therapy. Parkman, meticulous in all his endeavors, concocted a fertilizer recipe that he thought ideal for enriching his garden plot. He combined hoof shavings and horse manure into a rich, porous mixture. Parkman cultivated roses, lilies, and many other flowers; he was given a lifetime membership to the Massachusetts Horticulture Society. Parkman developed a new lily which he sold to a British specialist in 1876. In 1866 he published the Book of Roses and renewed his literary career.

Parkman devoted the remainder of his life to historical research, writing, and publishing his works. The Oregon Trail, originally published in installments in Knickerbocker, went to press in 1852 then revised extensively in 1872. Parkman composed History of Conspiracy of Pontiac in 1851 but revised and expanded it as Conspiracy of Pontiac and Indian War after Conquest of Canada in 1870. Parkman also penned Vassall Morton, Pioneers of France in New World, Jesuits in North America in Seventeenth Century, Old Regime in Canada, Discovery of Great West, Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV, and Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman revised and expanded many of his works. Parkman wrote a number of essays for magazines and letters that were published in periodicals. In addition, Parkman corresponded with author Charles Haight Farnham through numerous letters where he assisted and encouraged Farnham with his project: A Life of Francis Parkman.

Parkman used a writing style unique in comparison with most Bostonian scholars. Parkman wrote in a historical but entertaining manner as to put a reader in the scene of the event not just at the scene. Vitzthum stated that Parkman re-created the past so vividly that he drew the reader into it even against his will. Parkman painted scenes in his writing with vivid intensity, such as this excerpt from The Oregon Trail: “...languidly creeping along over a bottom of sleek mud. My arrival produced a great commotion. A huge green bull-frog uttered an indignant croak, and jumped off the bank with a great splash; his webbed feet twinkled above the surface...” Michael Mullin found that Parkman’s writings offered three legacies for modern scholars: his writings differ from fellow Boston peers–Parkman claimed nature reduced man from “to his primitive condition”; they showed importance of race, class, and gender in nineteenth century history; and Parkman existed as one of the first historians who understood the importance of studying environment in history.

Although Parkman’s life consisted of many personal hardships, he overcame them to be considered a distinct historical scholar and a skillful, charming writer. Parkman’s works had a great impact on nineteenth century history, specifically the history of the west. Other historians compared his work with his colleague’s and concluded superiority in his contributions. After numerous expeditions, he obtained primary sources of history and researched distant archives to compile his historical writings. Parkman died in 1893 at the age of seventy. Parkman had many critics, but experts believe that only Henry Adams rivaled Parkman’s historical style.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

  • Eggleston, Edward. “Note on the Completion of Francis Parkman’s Work.” The Century: a popular quarterly. Vol. 45, Issue 1, November 1892.
  • Farnham, Charles H. A Life of Francis Parkman. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1900, 1901.
  • Parkman, Francis. Letters of Francis Parkman: Volume I. Compiled by Wilbur R. Jacobs, ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.
  • Letters of Francis Parkman: Volume II. Compiled by Wilbur R. Jacobs, ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.
  • The Oregon Trail. Cornwall, New York: Cornwall Press, Incorporated. 1849. Reprint, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1964.

    Secondary Sources

  • Doughty, Howard. Francis Parkman. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.
  • Mullin, Michael J. Encyclopedia of the American West: Volume Three, s.v. “Parkman, Francis.” p. 1270
  • Gale, Robert L. Francis Parkman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1973.
  • Levin, David. The History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman. Stanford University Press, 1959.
  • Vitzthum, Richard C. The American Compromise: Theme and Method in the Histories of Bancroft, Parkman, and Adams. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.