Saturday, March 14, 2015

Francis Parkman on The Oregon Trail

In the spring of 1846, a young Francis Parkman, two months out of Harvard College law school, set out with his cousin from St. Louis up the Missouri River and onto the Oregon Trail.

The outbreak of the Civil War was still fifteen years in the future, though the steady movement of people west that would precipitate the conflict between a statist, slave-holding South and a federalist, slavery-abolishing North was in full swing. The Mexican-American War would begin in May, after Mexico contested the borders of the Republic of Texas, drawing the United States into the conflict. California would also rebel against Mexico in June, and be incorporated into the United States later in July.  The boundary through the Oregon Territory, which had been open to both American and British interests since 1818, was settled at the 49 parallel between the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The only exception was Vancouver Island, which remained entirely in British hands, though its southern tip dipped below the 49 parallel. Texas officially entered the union, when Mexico finally relinquished its claim two years later, around the same time gold was discovered in California.

The timing of Parkman's journey was therefore auspicious. He passed through St. Louis, a gateway into the west, just as the United States was consolidating its present Continental boundaries

The official reason given for the journey was 'curiosity and amusement.' Parkman harboured a more serious intent, though. He had resolved to write a history of France and England in North America through the 17th and 18th centuries, up to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham above Quebec City in 1759, which saw the expulsion of French authority from North America. He required, he believed, a better acquaintance with the native peoples' ways of life. The tribes around New England had lived too long in the presence of Anglo-American 'society to afford him much insight. In order to write such a history, he wanted to observe native people whose material conditions were that much closer to those in previous centuries back in the east.

St. Louis was bustling with activity when he arrived. In The Oregon Trail (1847), a personal memoir of sorts, and his first publication, he describes 'emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon or California...[and] an unusual number of trades were making ready their wagons and outfits for Sante Fe.' 'The hotels were crowded, and the gunsmiths and saddlers were kept constantly at work...Almost every day steamboats were leaving the levee and passing up the Missouri.'

Parkman's description of his surroundings, and the persons that he encountered, are striking for their attention to detail. The degree of care he paints pictures with his pen gives readers a clue to his intention. He is self-consciously making an eye-witness report. So vivid is his description that, with an little stretch of the imagination, the reader can almost see through his eyes. No doubt, this was his intention.

Parkman tells, among others, of 'thirty or forty slavish looking-Spaniards, gazing stupidly from beneath their broad caps,' 'crouching over a smouldering fire...Indians from a remote Mexican tribe,' and 'one or two French hunters from the mountains, with their long hair and buckskin dresses.' It is hardly possible, of course, that these are summary descriptions capture perfect images. Parkman was known for possessing a strong memory. Still, it is not difficult to see stereotypes just beneath the surface of the text, helping to organize the narrative.

About a week out and 500 miles from the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis, where it enters the Mississippi River, Parkman met up with a captain from the British army, his Irish brother, and an English gentlemen, who were on a hunting expedition.

The captain seems left a strong impression on Parkman. He and his companions had waited for a week or more in the town of Westport (today a suburb of Kansas City, south of the Missouri River, just east of the border with Kansas, which was still a territory at the time), hoping to add to their number be setting out. When they finally did set out again, a storm almost immediately blew up on them, and left them soaked to the skin. Parkman recounted, 'The Captain was one of the most easy-tempered men in existence, so he bore his ill-luck with great composure, shared the dregs of coffee with his brother, and lay down to sleep in his wet clothes.'

A hurried reader is likely to miss the fact that Parkman and his cousin stayed behind, while captain and his companions have gone on ahead. This raises a question about how he could have sketched such an intimate portrait.

Did he faithfully report detail that the captain later related to him? which raises the possibility that the captain embellished upon events in order to present himself in a certain life. Did he reconstruct what might have happened based on general impressions of the captain? In that case, some of the details can be doubted. The value of Parkman's book as a strict eye-witness account may be in doubt. 

The obvious answer to these questions is that Parkman relates information he received at a later time and fills in the details. The more likely answer, it seems to me, is that he reconstructs the situation based on later impressions of the captain's character. The difference between the two options, of course, comes down to a matter of perspective. And from one point of view, these are simply two sides of the same coin. But the text leaves ample reason to suppose Parkman took literary license where actual information was absent.

The character of the captain fits a recognizable trope in literature most recently employed in George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman (1834). He is the sort of career soldier who always needs to be sharing his inexhaustible wealth of military knowledge in order to feel useful. Had he fought in the First World War, he would have taken his tea during a artillery barrage, or just before going over the top, in order to settle his stomach. Had he served in India during the Raj, you would find him on the roadside breakfasting with his Indian servant, explaining the meaning of the Gita, which remained hidden until British common sense discerned its true import.

Once off the river and onto the Oregon Trail, Parkman and his cousin join up with the captain Parkman describes how, 'In defiance of the rain, he was stalking among the horses, wrapped in an old Scotch plaid.' The next morning, as their wagon train reaches a river bank, Parkman relates the following conversation:
"Now my advice is--" began the Captain, who had been anxiously contemplating the muddy gulf.
"Drive on!" cried R.
But Wright, the muleteer, apparently had not as yet decided the point in his own mind; and he sat still in his seat on one of the shaft-mules, whistling in a low contemplative strain to himself.
'My advice is,' resumed the Captain, "that we unload; for I bet any man five pounds that if we try to go through we shall stick fast."
"By the powers, we shall stick fast!" echoed Jack, the Captain's brother, shaking his large head with an air of firm conviction.
"Drive on! drive on!" cried R., petulantly.
"Well," observed the Captain, turning to us as we sat looking on, much edified by this play by play among our confederates, "I can only give my advice, and if people won't be reasonable, why they won't, that's all!"
In the event, the captain's advice proved correct. The company was forced to unload their wagon, in order to dig it out. Though he narrates it, Parkman seemingly takes no note of the fact.

The party continued its way along the Oregon trail. Needing something to apply his 20 years of military experience to, the captain fretted over the wagon train's disorderly and defenseless procession. 'We have no sentinels; we camp in disorder; no precautions at all to guard against surprise. My own conviction is that we ought to camp in a hollow square, with fires at the centre [sic]; and have sentinels and a regular password appointed every night.'

Parkman, in passing, comments, 'But his convictions seldom produced any practical results. In the present case he contented himself, as usual, with enlarging on the importance of his suggestions, and wondering why they were not adopted.' The captain was insensible to the objections of apparently wiser heads, who pointed out that, not only had they not crossed into hostile territory, and when they did, it was foolish to mount a defense in the case of an attack. Lives, if not possessions, that way could be preserved.

Contemporary readers of The Oregon Trail are likely to seize on Parkman's prejudices, of which there are many. But even prejudice can be put to good use.

The first use to giving Parkman's prejudice free reign is that allows readers to view the plains through the eye of a contemporary New Englander. The author is himself situated in the objective frame; and rather than continually drawing back to reflect on what the author thought about this or that happening, he is shown thinking in situ. The second, and what I believe is the more significant, use is that it gives Parkman's narrative geographical breadth and temporal depth.

Parkman's stereotypes leaves holes in his narrative that readers, if they had the time, could fill in with further reading. We know the captain served in the British military for 20 years. Where did he serve? In what capacity? What about his English gentleman companion? What brought them to the Oregon Territory?

Similar questions can be asked of every one of his characters: French-Canadian trappers, Spanish traders, American boatmen, Indian tribesmen, and, of course, the endless stream of migrants. The cumulative effect is to suggest much more than the narrative itself can actually say.

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