Thursday, March 19, 2015

Observing Natives with Francis Parkman

When Francis Parkman set out on the Oregon Trail in the spring of 1846, he went with the express purpose of acquainting himself with the conditions of native people's lives.

His long-term project was to write a history of France and England in North America. The completed narrative would range across the north-eastern quarter of the Continent, and cover a period of time from the initial French and English settlements to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759). Since the participation of native tribes was decisive in many cases, the narrative required they be included.

Parkman was keenly aware just how much the lives of native peoples had changed in the course of a centuries back east in New England. So he resolved to observe native peoples living in material conditions that most closely approximated those he planned to write about. That meant heading out onto the Oregon Trail, where the tribes were still lived a largely traditional, semi-nomadic subsistence lifestyle.

Time, it might be said, keeps pace with social change. Tecumseh's War (1811-2) was provoked by an unabating stream of American settlers and European immigrants into the Ohio Valley. 'Sell a country!? Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn't the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?" the great Shawnee chief asked. But time was not on his side.

Native attitudes towards land-ownership proved an continual inconvenience for those who wanted to turn it towards more productive uses. The Native Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, freed up land in the southern states for American settlement and cultivation. It effectively reduced the Five Civilized Tribes to wards of the state. The Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee, who had been spread across sections of Florida, George, and Alabama, were forced marched beyond the Arkansas Territory, which is today remembered as The Trail of Tears.

The interior of the Continent continued to fill up immigrants, pushing the tribes further west. By 1846, the Oregon Territory remained the last open country on the continent, where the native people remained largely unmolested by the federal government. But this too came to an end after the American and British governments settled on 49th parallel, the same year Parkman journeyed into the west. With no longer lands available for relocation, the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 set up the remaining tribes on reservations.

Parkman made the basic assumption that one could infer something about native life in the past by observing the lives of contemporary natives peoples. Though much in dispute today, the assumption has a long and respectable pedigree. Philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that contemporary primitive tribes-people lived in a state of pristine conceptual abstraction called 'the state of nature.' This was a secular, early modern take on the biblical Garden of Eden, but without an angel brandishing a fiery sword to guard the way back to humankind's original innocence. Per Locke's famous observation that in the very beginning, 'All the world was America,' it was now possible both to hypothesize and observe humanity's original state.

Parkman's party made its way from Kansas City northwest along the St. Joseph Trail to the Platte River in present-day Nebraska. From there they turned due west, along the Platte's banks. Occasionally they encountered other migrants, who usually greeted their appearance on the horizon with a certain amount of suspicion. Migrants were aware that Bringham Young was leading a large group of Latter Day Saints from Nauvoo, Illinois, where their prophet Joseph Smith had been murdered, to the Great Slave Lake. The migrants wanted to maintain their distance from 'the much-dreaded Mormons'--as all 'good Christians' might be expected to do.

The wagons now were circled in the evening, and a guard set at sundown. The country they were entering belonged to the Pawnee, who Parkman loses very little sleep describing as 'a treacherous, cowardly banditti, who, by a thousand acts of pillage and murder, have deserved chastisement at the hands of the government.' He even commends to his readers the story of a 'Dahcotah' (or Lakota, which is better known as Sioux) warrior, who stole into a Pawnee village, stabbed, and then scalped sleeping victims, before making his escape onto the vast darkness of the prairie. But, to his credit, Parkman reins in his contempt and goes out to have an 'amicable conference' with one of their chiefs, who he presents with the 'unmerited bounty' of a half a pound of tobacco.

He recounts how his party joined with a larger group of migrants for mutual protection for three or four days, before breaking off again to visit the village along Horse Creek, led by a 'Dahcotah;' chief named 'Old Smoke.' The record of the visit is noteworthy for its care and attention to detail. The usual prejudices color the account, but it is no longer clear whether Parkman is conveying his own impressions or merely adopting the 'civilized' conventions of his reading audience.

The following passage, for example, appears to be constructed to convey more than merely the superficial appearance of things:
Not far from the chief stood a group of stately figures, their white buffalo-robes thrown over their shoulders, gazing coldly upon us; and, in the rear, for several acres, the ground was covered with a temporary encampment. Warriors, women, and children swarmed like bees; hundreds of dogs, of all sizes and colors, ran restlessly about; and, close at hand, the wide shallow stream was alive with boy, girls, and young squaws, splashing, screaming, and laughing in the water. At the same time a long train of emigrants with their heavy wagons was crossing the creek, and dragging on in slow procession by the encampment of people whom they and their descendants, in the space of a century, are to sweep from the face of the earthy.
The intended meaning of the final reflection is opaque. The juxtaposition of the image of happy mothers and children would seem to suggest that Parkman senses that a way of life is about to be lost. At the same time, Parkman surrenders to the plodding progress, however unlovely by comparison, of the migrants. We might say that the final reflection is not descriptive, but rather prophetic. Parkman cannot claim an empirical certainty, but he can, in a sense, claim something better. He has divined the signs of the times; he has peered into the human heart and seen that the traditional tribal ways of life must invariably be trampled by the progress of cultivation and eventually industry. And barring an act of God, certain things must invariably come to pass.

The quoted passage bears the marks of careful construction. Parkman wants to make a general statement, which sees all of the Great Spirit's children in a true light. But his immediate impressions of the persons that he encounters is not so clear. Not all of his prose is as generous. There are 'squaws of lazy warriors' and 'old women, ugly as Macbeth's witches, with hair streaming loose in the wind.' And one older warrior, he relates, seemed eager to 'barter one of his daughters for my horse.'


Also see: Francis Parkman on The Oregon Trail

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