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The Oregon Trail

Francis Parkman


(Horses, rifles, and knives see a party of adventurers through the land of expansive plains, craggy mountains, buffalo, and the Sioux.)

Crop of Fort Laramie, by Alfred Jacob Miller (1858-1860), painted from memory, as Miller had joined an 1837 expedition along the Oregon Trail.  This is the only painting of the fort, as no other artist had trekked there prior to 1840 when it was torn down. Fort Laramie lay at the junction of the east-west Oregon Trail and a north-south Indian trail. The Cheyenne and Sioux would camp outside the fort for trading purposes. This painting can be found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“Shaw! Buddy!” Imagine a young, spontaneous Yankee calling out to his friend, both of them just out of college. He proposes that they leave the effeminate comforts of the East, and spend a summer adventuring westward into the untamed lands where life is dangerous and fascinating. Francis Parkman explains (ch.II):

“The restlessness, the love of wilds and hatred of cities, natural perhaps in early years to every unperverted son of Adam, was not our only motive for undertaking the present journey. My companion hoped to shake off the effects of a disorder that had impaired a constitution originally hardy and robust; and I was anxious to pursue some inquiries relative to the character and usages of remote Indian nations, being already familiar with many of the border tribes.”

So they did it. In 1846. Francis was 23. And the recollections of that journey, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, remain with us as one of the best treatments of the early West that we will ever have. Parkman’s prose has the feel of a chronicle—it is obviously nonfiction, a travelogue.  But it is not a ponderous journal of trivia and redundancy through which we must wade for hours to find the few interesting episodes; nor is each sunset a springboard for a forced flight of sentimental fancy in poor imitation of Byron’s Childe Harold or other Old World sketches.  Rather, it is an engaging selection of vignettes, personalities, and anecdotes that admit us to the ranks of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” that was Parkman’s expedition.  Parkman’s writing is like Parkman himself—the stereotypical American at his best, one might say: direct yet perceptive, practical yet romantic, hearty yet insightful.

The author’s treatment of the Indians is probably the best example of his fine balance as an observer and writer. Some of his statements are likely to soothe our consciences, and others to inflame them.  The modern reader may find in his observations both the profoundly progressive and the irksomely condescending.  To me this polychromatic view is refreshing, showing that Parkman thinks for himself, and that his opinions are products of individual observation and consideration rather than simply the visceral parrotting of either New England liberalism or mountain man spittoon-talk.  He is as free with praise for the qualities that he deems honorable, as he is with denigration for those he deplores.  Perhaps no contemporary American historian of European ancestry is capable of providing such an account of the Sioux, combatting a trend towards xenophobia while at the same time not fearing to describe frankly and make bold evaluations.  I think it is because we the United States have, especially since Parkman’s travels, destroyed the cultures of the Sioux and others, that we find ourselves too psychologically and morally compromised to approach their nations with the free spirit that Parkman could.

More than anything else, The Oregon Trail should be precious to us because, as Parkman himself said of Remington’s art, it is “the work of one who knew the prairies and the mountains before irresistible commonplace had subdued them.”  The Oregon Trail preserves the personality and character of a landscape, and of a man.  The landscape, including its inhabitants, is largely departed now, forever, as the author soberly eulogizes in prefaces to his work’s 1872 and 1892 editions.  And I would argue that men like Francis Parkman are, if not vanished like the Old West, at least highly endangered.  Hidden today amid a soft-skinned, hedonistic, safety-craving society, such doughty and imaginative men are probably thinly distributed, without acclaim, across the mills, factories, taverns, 18-wheelers, nature departments, wooded trails, and rock faces of our country.  They would be explorers, pushers of the civilized envelope, if only there were something left to explore, some real danger left to brave for a real reason.  Instead, most channel this yen into either recreational danger-mongery, vicarious experience through entertainment, the occasional sporting or camping foray, or just plain hard work.  Books like this one allow us to regain something from the era when such adventurers and pioneers were proudly functional.  We might learn something from them, and in some way stave off our descent into that luke-warm bath of cultivated complacency. This map depicts the complete Oregon Trail, that famed horse track that provided early 19th century explorers, trappers and traders access to the West.  Parkman and his companions traveled only the eastern third of the route, stopping at Fort Laramie, and spending the rest of their time wandering with the Indians, mainly through present-day Wyoming and western South Dakota.  They returned by a southern route, traveling through Colorado to Pueblo, then eastward through Kansas.  



I present a few interesting moments in the book, divided into two sections.

  1. The personalities and experiences of Parkman’s expedition
  • Glowing description of the frontiersman Chatillon (II).
  • On Mormons (V).
  • Profusion of animal life on the prairie (VII).
  • Apartment of Parkman’s at Fort Laramie: “a rough bedstead, but no bed; two chairs, a chest of drawers, a tin pail to hold water, and a board to cut tobacco upon. A brass crucifix hung on the wall, and close at hand a recent scalp, with hair full a yard long, was suspended from a nail.” (IX).
  • Vivid chapter of life on the trail (XIII).
  • Casual aside: men in constant peril do not care about religion. (XIV)
  • The hunt and consumption of a wild buffalo (XIV).
  • A short and idyllic descriptive chapter on the Black Hills (XVII)
  • An expedition into the Black Hills, a description of Indian character, and colorful reflections (XVIII) [one of my favorite chapters].
  • Passage of the mountains in the midst of a forest fire (XIX).
  • Return to the civilization of the fort Laramie (XIX).
  • Through Colorado to Pueblo (XX).
  • He wishes he could study the social behavior of prairie dogs (XX).
  • Description of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” back to the settlements from Bent’s Fort (XXIII).
  • Hilarious description of Tête Rouge, a ridiculous urbanite stranded at a fort, “an odd compound of weakness, eccentricity, and good-nature” (XXIII).
  • Running versus approaching buffalo, two methods of hunting [a general strategic dichotomy, it seems, in all martial activities] (XXIV).
  • Amazing account of the author on a buffalo chase (XXIV).
  • Buffalo bulls vs. cows, and the travelers’ “unrelenting war” on bulls, since the Indians disproportionately kill cows (XXV).
  • Detailed description of an approach-hunt (XXV).
  • Henry’s character, excellence, and buffalo ethic; and contrast with the woeful character of Tête Rouge (XXV).
  • American instinctual prowess in battle (XXVI).


  1. The Plains Indians
  • Picturesque Dakota encampment (VIII).
  • Dim view of Indian spiritual personality (IX).
  • The importance of a demeanor of bravery towards the Indians (IX).
  • Striking description of an old hag (XI).
  • Indian inability to act in large bodies (XI).
  • Social system of the Dakota (XI).
  • War as a cultural catalyst (XI).
  • Powerful description of a chief (XI).
  • Vivid, interesting story of fierce Mahto-Tatonka (XI).
  • The physical beauty of the Indians (XI).
  • Though diverse in lifestyle, North American Indians are remarkably similar in the way they think. (XIV).
  • An Ogallalla asks a cricket where the buffalo are [gryllomancy!] (XIV).
  • Buffalo hunt (XV), including an arrow disappearing entirely inside an animal.
  • Kids torturing little animals (XV).
  • Indian childrearing fostering a libertine character (XV).
  • Indians brag and lie (XV).
  • An example of US ignorance of Indian ways leading to bad policy (XVI).
  • Property rights and communal property regarding a buffalo carcass (XVI).
  • Role of an Indian “soldier” (XVI).
  • Indian character, and friendship being the most romantic aspect of it (XVIII).
  • The unpredictable volatility of Indian aggressiveness (XVIII).
  • Indian spirituality, guardian spirits (XVIII).
  • The temptation to view Indians as beasts (XIX).
  • Funny story about an Indian using a spur—he was so glad to get it he jabbed it into his horse and Parkman never saw him again, though he assumed that everything turned out alright, for “an Indian on horseback has more lives than a cat”. (XIX).
  • Code of the Strong Hearts, an Indian association that had a specific tutelary spirit (this one was the fox), and a fundamental principle (this one was never turning back once commencing an enterprise) (XX).
  • Description of the “ugly Arapahoes” (XXIII).
  • The stupidity of impolite communication with an Indian (by Tête Rouge) (XXIII).

Tidbits of Significance 

The thunder here is not like the tame thunder of the Atlantic coast. Bursting with a terrific crash directly above our heads, it roared over the boundless waste of prairie, seeming to roll around the whole circle of the firmament with a peculiar and awful reverberation. The lightning flashed all night, playing with its livid glare upon the neighboring trees, revealing the vast expanse of the plain, and then leaving us shut in as by a palpable wall of darkness.



He was possessed with an active devil that had driven him over land and sea, to no great purpose, as it seemed; for although he had the usual complement of eyes and ears, the avenues between these organs and his brain appeared remarkably narrow and untrodden.

-of R., an English military officer, ch.V.


…here each man lives by the strength of his arm and the valor of his heart. Here society is reduced to its original elements, the whole fabric of art and conventionality is struck rudely to pieces, and men find themselves suddenly brought back to the wants and resources of their original natures.

-along the Platte River, ch.VI.


Four trappers, one called Moran, another Saraphin, and the others nicknamed “Rouleau” and “Jean Gras”, came to our camp and joined us. They it was who fired the guns and disturbed the dreams of our confederate Reynal. They soon encamped by our side. Their rifles, dingy and battered with hard service, rested with ours against the old tree; their strong rude saddles, their buffalo robes, their traps, and the few rough and simple articles of their traveling equipment, were piled near our tent. Their mountain horses were turned to graze in the meadow among our own; and the men themselves, no less rough and hardy, used to lie half the day in the shade of our tree lolling on the grass, lazily smoking, and telling stories of their adventures; and I defy the annals of chivalry to furnish the record of a life more wild and perilous than that of a Rocky Mountain trapper.



One morning we were summoned to the lodge of an old man, in good truth the Nestor of his tribe. We found him half sitting, half reclining on a pile of buffalo robes; his long hair, jet-black even now, though he had seen some eighty winters, hung on either side of his thin features. Those most conversant with Indians in their homes will scarcely believe me when I affirm that there was dignity in his countenance and mien. His gaunt but symmetrical frame, did not more clearly exhibit the wreck of bygone strength, than did his dark, wasted features, still prominent and commanding, bear the stamp of mental energies. I recalled, as I saw him, the eloquent metaphor of the Iroquois sachem: “I am an aged hemlock; the winds of a hundred winters have whistled through my branches, and I am dead at the top!”



Savage figures surrounded our tent, with quivers at their backs, and guns, lances, or tomahawks in their hands Some sat on horseback, motionless as equestrian statues, their arms crossed on their breasts, their eyes fixed in a steady unwavering gaze upon us. Some stood erect, wrapped from head to foot in their long white robes of buffalo hide. Some sat together on the grass, holding their shaggy horses by a rope, with their broad dark busts exposed to view as they suffered their robes to fall from their shoulders. Others again stood carelessly among the throng, with nothing to conceal the matchless symmetry of their forms; and I do not exaggerate when I say that only on the prairie and in the Vatican have I seen such faultless models of the human figure. See that warrior standing by the tree, towering six feet and a half in stature. Your eyes may trace the whole of his graceful and majestic height, and discover no defect or blemish. With his free and noble attitude, with the bow in his hand, and the quiver at his back, he might seem, but for his face, the Pythian Apollo himself. Such a figure rose before the imagination of West, when on first seeing the Belvidere in the Vatican, he exclaimed, “By God, a Mohawk!”



There is a spirit of energy and vigor in mountains, and they impart it to all who approach their presence.

-near the Black Hills, ch.XI.


The rain by this time had begun to abate; and going down to the bottom of the ravine, we loosened the animals, who were standing up to their knees in water. Leading them up the rocky throat of the ravine, we reached the plain above. “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?”

-ch.XIII. [Ninety years later, Tolkien would put nearly the same words into the mouth of his Bilbo Baggins.  Every field biologist on an extended far-off expedition feels this way at some point as well.]


To some of the children of cities it may seem strange that men with no object in view should continue to follow a life of such hardship and desperate adventure; yet there is a mysterious, restless charm in the basilisk eye of danger, and few men perhaps remain long in that wild region without learning to love peril for its own sake, and to laugh carelessly in the face of death.



If one is anxious to place himself in a situation where the hazardous and the ludicrous are combined in about equal proportions, let him get upon a vicious mule, with a snaffle bit, and try to drive her through the woods down a slope of 45°. Let him have on a long rifle, a buckskin frock with long fringes, and a head of long hair. These latter appendages will be caught every moment and twitched away in small portions by the twigs, which will also whip him smartly across the face, while the large branches above thump him on the head. His mule, if she be a true one, will alternately stop short and dive violently forward, and his position upon her back will be somewhat diversified and extraordinary. At one time he will clasp her affectionately, to avoid the blow of a bough overhead; at another, he will throw himself back and fling his knee forward against the side of her neck, to keep it from being crushed between the rough bark of a tree and the equally unyielding ribs of the animal herself. Reynal was cursing incessantly during the whole way down. Neither of us had the remotest idea where we were going; and though I have seen rough riding, I shall always retain an evil recollection of that five minutes’ scramble.



“Many a time, when I was with the Indians, I have been hunting for gold all through the Black Hills. There’s plenty of it here; you may be certain of that. I have dreamed about it fifty times, and I never dreamed yet but what it came true. Look over yonder at those black rocks piled up against that other big rock. Don’t it look as if there might be something there? It won’t do for a white man to be rummaging around too much about these mountains; the Indians say they are full of bad spirits; and I believe myself that it’s no good luck to be hunting about here after gold. Well, for all that, I would like to have one of these fellows up here, from down below, to go about with his witch-hazel rod, and I’ll guarantee that it would not be long before he would light on a gold mine. Never mind; we’ll let the gold alone for to-day. Look at those trees down below us in the hollow; we’ll go down there, and I reckon we’ll get a black-tailed deer.”

-Reynal, ch.XVIII.


I knew that though the intellect of an Indian can embrace the idea of an all-wise, all-powerful Spirit, the supreme Ruler of the universe, yet his mind will not always ascend into communion with a being that seems to him so vast, remote, and incomprehensible; and when danger threatens, when his hopes are broken, when the black wing of sorrow overshadows him, he is prone to turn for relief to some inferior agency, less removed from the ordinary scope of his faculties. He has a guardian spirit, on whom he relies for succor and guidance. To him all nature is instinct with mystic influence. Among those mountains not a wild beast was prowling, a bird singing, or a leaf fluttering, that might not tend to direct his destiny or give warning of what was in store for him; and he watches the world of nature around him as the astrologer watches the stars. So closely is he linked with it that his guardian spirit, no unsubstantial creation of his fancy, is usually embodied in the form of some living thing—a bear, a wolf, an eagle, or a serpent; and Mene-Seela, as he gazed intently on the old pine tree, might believe it to inshrine the fancied guide and protector of his life.



For the most part, a civilized white man can discover but very few points of sympathy between his own nature and that of an Indian. With every disposition to do justice to their good qualities, he must be conscious that an impassable gulf lies between him and his red brethren of the prairie. Nay, so alien to himself do they appear that, having breathed for a few months or a few weeks the air of this region, he begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast, and, if expedient, he could shoot them with as little compunction as they themselves would experience after performing the same office upon him.



“Soft-hearted philanthropists,” thought I, “may sigh long for their peaceful millennium; for from minnows up to men, life is an incessant battle.”

-after watching small fish engaging in cannibalism, ch.XIX.


We were on the eastern descent of the mountain, and soom came to a rough and difficult defile, leading down a very steep declivity. The whole swarm poured down together, filling the rocky passageway like some turbulent mountain stream. The mountains before us were on fire and had been so for weeks. the view in front was obscured by a vast dim sea of smoke and vapor, while on either hand the tall cliffs, bearing aloft their crest of pines, thrust their heads boldly through it, and the sharp pinnacles and broken ridges of the mountains beyond them were faintly traceable as through a veil. The scene in itself was most grand and imposing, but with the savage multitude, the armed warriors, the naked children, the gayly appareled girls, pouring impetuously down the heights, it would have formed a noble subject for a painter, and only the pen of a Scott could have done it justice in description.



…[I] lay on the buffalo robes, fairly reveling in the creations of that resplendent genius which has achieved no more signal triumph than that of half beguiling us to forget the pitiful and unmanly character of its possessor.

-on Byron, ch.XIX.


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.

-ch.XX. [My favorite passage on what a wilderness experience does to one.]


The buffalo are strange animals; sometimes they are so stupid and infatuated that a man may walk up to them in full sight on the open prairie, and even shoot several of their number before the rest will think it necessary to retreat. Again at another moment they will be so shy and wary, that in order to approach them the utmost skill, experience, and judgment are necessary. Kit Carson, I believe, stands pre-eminent in running buffalo; in approaching, no man living can bear away the palm from Henry Chatillon.

-ch.XXIV. “Running” refers to hunting by chase, whereas “approaching” is hunting by stealth.


We had scarcely gone a mile when an imposing spectacle presented itself. From the river bank on the right, away over the swelling prairie on the left, and in front as far as we could see, extended one vast host of buffalo.

-ch.XXIV. [We will never see such a sight again.]


We entered the forest, and ourselves and our horses were checkered, as we passed along, by the bright spots of sunlight that fell between the opening boughs. On either side the dark rich masses of foliage almost excluded the sun, though here and there its rays could find their way down, striking through the broad leaves and lighting them with a pure transparent green. Squirrels barked at us from the trees; coveys of young partridges ran rustling over the leaves below, and the golden oriole, the blue jay, and the flaming red-bird darted among the shadowy branches. We hailed these sights and sounds of beauty by no means with an unmingled pleasure. Many and powerful as were the attractions which drew us toward the settlements, we looked back even at that moment with an eager longing toward the wilderness of prairies and mountains behind us. For myself I had suffered more that summer from illness than ever before in my life, and yet to this hour I cannot recall those savage scenes and savage men without a strong desire again to visit them.

-upon their return to Missouri, ch.XXVII.



…you are heading out West and want to take along a veteran explorer to enrich the experience;


…you have the itch to teleport to the time and place of buffalo hordes, wild plains Indians, and rugged Rocky Mountain trappers.



 (for the hardy westward pioneer:)

  • Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806).
  • Lewis H. Garrard, Wah-tó-yah and the Taos Trail (1850).
  • Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913).
  • Edna Ferber, Cimarron (1930). 

(for the followers of historical travelogues:)

  • Marco Polo, Travels (1299)
  • Christopher Columbus, Writings (mostly Letters) (1492-1503)
  • Tobias Smollett, Travels through France and Italy (1766)
  • Sir Henry Morton Stanley, How I Found Livingstone (1872).

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