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On April 28, 1846, Francis Parkman, who had already decided that he was going to write the history of the settling of America, and Quincy Adams Shaw set forth from St. Louis up the Missouri River for a "tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky Mountains."  They traveled some 1700 miles, meeting trappers, gamblers, woodsmen, soldiers and Indians and Parkman eventually spent three weeks hunting buffalo with a band of Oglala Sioux.  The following year he published this travelogue which remains one of the great books ever produced by an American and embarked him on a career as one of Americaís first great historians.

On their trip, they were accompanied by Henry Chatillon, a hunter & guide, and Deslauriers, a muleteer.  Parkman, in a passage which nicely illustrates his mastery of descriptive technique, sketches them as follows:

    Deslauriers was a Canadian, with all the characteristics of the true Jean Baptiste.  Neither fatigue,
    exposure, nor hard labor could ever impair his cheerfulness and gayety, or his politeness to his
    bourgeois; and when night came, he would sit down by the fire, smoke his pipe, and tell stories
    with the utmost contentment.  The prairie was his element.  Henry Chatillon was of a different
    stamp. When we were at St. Louis, several gentleman of the Fur Company had kindly offered to
    procure for us a hunter and guide suited for our purposes, and on coming one afternoon to the
    office, we found there a tall and exceedingly well-dressed man, with a face so open and frank that it
    attracted our notice at once.  We were surprised at being told that that it was he who wished to
    guide us to the mountains. He was born in a little French town near St. Louis, and from the age of
    fifteen years had been constantly in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains, employed for the
    most part by the company, to supply their forts with buffalo meat.  As a hunter, he had but one
    rival in the whole region, a man named Simoneau, with whom, to the honor of both of them, he
    was on the terms of closest friendship. He had arrived at St. Louis the day before, from the
    mountains, where he had been for four years; and he now asked only to go and spend a day with
    his mother, before setting out on another expedition.  His age was about thirty; and he was six feet
    high, and very powerfully and gracefully moulded. The prairies had been his school; he could
    neither read nor write, but he had a natural refinement and delicacy of mind, such as is rare even in
    women. His manly face was a mirror of uprightness, simplicity, and kindness of heart; he had,
    moreover, a keen perception of character, and a tact that would preserve him from flagrant error in
    any society.  Henry had not the restless energy of an Anglo-American. He was content to take
    things as he found them; and his chief fault arose from an excess of easy generosity, not conducive
    to thriving in the world.  Yet it was commonly remarked of him, that whatever he might choose to
    do with what belonged to himself, the property of others was always safe in his hands.  His bravery
    was as much celebrated in the mountains as his skill in hunting; but it is characteristic of him that in
    a country where the rifle is the chief arbiter between man and man, he was very seldom involved in
    quarrels.  Once or twice, indeed, his quiet good nature had been mistaken and presumed upon, but
    the consequences of the error were such, that no one was ever known to repeat it. No better
    evidence of the intrepidity of his temper could be asked, than the common report that he had killed
    more than thirty grizzly bears.  He was a proof of what unaided nature will sometimes do.  I have
    never, in the city or in the wilderness, met a better man than my true-hearted friend, Henry

Any man would consider his life well spent if he could inspire that portrait.  But lest you think he's too pedantic, he also writes with great humor, to wit:

    Whiskey, by the way, circulates more freely in Westport than is altogether safe in a place where
    every man carries a loaded pistol in his pocket.

or try this remark on setting out from Fort Leavenworth:

    Thus we bade a long adieu to bed and board, and the principles of Blackstoneís commentaries.

Parkman's later work, The French and English in North America, was one of the first works published by the Library of America and it was the first great work of history produced by an American.  It is also epic in length, numbering some 2000 pages or so.  For a little easier introduction to his work, try The Oregon Trail.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Francis Parkman Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Francis Parkman
    -ESSAY: American Homer: Celebrating the bicentenary of historian Francis Parkman, who produced a picture of America’s origins that remains unsurpassed (Luke Nicastro, 9/29/23, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: How (and Why) to Read Francis Parkman (Mark Peterson, October 2002, Common-Place)
    -ESSAY: Francis Parkman: A Brahmin among Untouchables (Francis Jennings, July 1985, William & Mary Quarterly)

Book-related and General Links:
    -The Oregon Trail Hypertext, Meanings and Commentaries by Mark Zimmerman
    -Francis Parkman and the Oregon Trail
    -Francis Parkman
    -The Francis Parkman Page
    -Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail
    -Francis Parkman (1823-1893) The California and Oregon Trail
    -REVIEW: France and England in America (NY Times, C. Vann Woodward)
    -REVIEW: France and England in America (NY Review of Books)
    -The Shaw-Parkman Family Tree of Col. Robert Gould Shaw
    -etext David Levin, History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman
    -The Chatillon-DeMenil House and its owners
    -Oregon Trail
    -Library of America
    -The Jesuits in North America by Francis Parkman Chapter VII 1636, 1637 THE FEAST OF THE DEAD