The Oregon Trail

by Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman was born of a wealthy Boston family; in 1846, at the age of 23, he decided that it would be fun to tour the Oregon Trail. This constituted what would today be called “Extreme Sports”, but for the fact that modern Extreme Sports are nowhere near as dangerous as Mr. Parkman’s lark.

At that time, before the Gold Rush, the Mississippi River marked the end of full civilization, and St Joseph, on what is now the western border of Missouri, marked the end of civilization. There were just two routes westward. The first was the Oregon Trail, which followed the Missouri to the Platte River, then westwards to Fort Laramie (not the location of modern Laramie, Wyoming), thence across the Rocky Mountains to the Snake River, following it to the Columbia, and thence to Oregon. The second was the Santa Fe Trail, which followed the Arkansas River westward to Pueblo, Colorado, then turned south to meet with the Rio Grande River, following it to Santa Fe.

At that time there were plenty of emigrants who trekked the Oregon Trail in wagon trains, seeking a new life in the fertile lands of northern Oregon. These groups had fairly good survival rates; the crucial factor was safety in numbers against the attacks of Indians. But Mr. Parkman chose to travel with just a handful of companions, a risky enterprise indeed. His survival can be attributed to a number of factors, the most important of which was his hiring two experienced mountain men as guides. These two fellows knew what they were doing; under lesser guidance, Mr. Parkman would probably not have survived the tour. Mr. Parkman was an eager student who paid close attention and learned quickly; indeed, it was his acute observations that made his book so compelling.

Despite being well-equipped, Mr. Parkman suffered many privations during his six-month journey. The American prairie is subject to sudden, intense thunderstorms, and the simple canvas tent he used was seldom adequate to keep his team dry. They spent many nights cold and drenched. There was no fresh food to be had anywhere; they lived almost entirely on meat: antelope, rabbits, and, when they were lucky, buffalo. The Great Plains teemed with game, so they seldom went long without food, but the random nature of hunting guaranteed some hungry stretches. In the 21st century, the Great Plains are a vast farm, growing millions of tons of grain, but back then, without modern irrigation, they were dry and grassy; the rivers were sparse and shallow, providing enough water for drink but little else. In Mr. Parkman’s eyes, the Great Plains were little short of a desert.

The core of the book is Mr. Parkman’s observations of the Indians of the Great Plains. He interacted with many different Indians from different tribes, but one characterization shines through clearly: to Parkman, Indians were savages. He found them brutal, cruel, untrustworthy, sneaky, and avaricious. His central observation was that they ruthlessly attacked those who failed to inspire fear. If you carried a gun and looked like you were ready to use it at the drop of a hat, you could deal with them; otherwise, they’d rob or kill you without compunction. Indeed, murder was a commonplace in Indian society; until he obtained his first scalp, a boy could not be accepted as a man. So high was the murder rate that few Indian males attained great age. Within a tribal group, murder was generally frowned upon and strictures against it were enforced only by kin-revenge. Outside the tribal group, however, murder was celebrated. Killing a stranger was always a meritorious act.

At one point Mr. Parkman joined a friendly Indian tribe and traveled with them for several weeks to participate in a great buffalo hunt. He had greased the wheels with plenty of gifts and demonstrated his value as a hunter, so he was accepted into their good graces and was mostly safe, although he took care not to be alone with some of the nastier warriors. His descriptions of the life of these people are vivid and fascinating. One anecdote in particular struck me. The Indians maintained a huge pack of dogs, which they used as pack animals, watchdogs, and food. One day Parkman observed a squaw chastise a dog for stealing a scrap of meat. She then killed and made a meal of it. What struck me was the disjunction between her addressing it as a sentient being and her killing it. Life was cheap among these Indians.

Another incident reveals the relationship between the sexes. Indian society was polygamous because there were so few males; each warrior maintained a number of wives. One day a squaw was angry with her warrior; she heaped verbal abuse upon him, screaming loudly. The warrior sat quietly smoking, ignoring her abuses with great dignity. Her anger grew and she began throwing things at him, yet still his impassiveness was not broken. She mounted a horse and rode off. After a few minutes, the warrior rose, selected an appropriate club, and rode off to capture and chastise the squaw. This was a totally male-dominated society. In the camp, men did no work; all camp labor was done by squaws. Men hunted and killed; women did everything else. Men were utterly indolent while in camp; women unendingly busy.

The book is rich with many other sharp observations and lively tales; I found it a great read. The primary lesson I learned from it is that the Great Plains Indians are not to be romanticized. They were a Stone Age population living a harsh life, with social mores to match the conditions under which they lived. They were not bad people, but it is certainly fair of Parkman to characterize them as savages. If by some act of magic, one of these Indians were to be transplanted into modern society, they would surely be regarded as a sociopath and quickly locked up.