Today In Western History: Francis Parkman Heads West

May 16, 1846

Francis Parkman starts on the Oregon Trail and heads west.  The Oregon Trail is a legendary large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail that ran 2,170 miles from the Missouri River across the country to the green valleys in Oregon. The eastern part of the Oregon Trail crossed the future state of Kansas, and nearly all of what is now the states of Nebraska and Wyoming. The western half of the trail spanned most of what is now the states of Idaho and Oregon.

The Oregon Trail was a route that was created by the fur trappers and traders who traveled from about 1811 to 1840, and as such it was only passable on foot or by horseback. By 1836 however, when the first migrant wagon train left from Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho.  Additional wagon trails were added as explorers and westward moving pioneers mad e their way west, and eventually the ended in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  The main route that was used came to be known as the Oregon Trail was complete.  The trip gradually made faster and safer as various bridges, cutoffs, ferries, and roads were constructed.  Every state along the Mississippi had their own starting points, but they all joined together into one route along the lower Platte River Valley near Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory and led to rich farmlands west of the Rocky Mountains.

During the years 1830 to 1869, about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and businessmen and their families walked and rode the Oregon Trail on their way west to Oregon in search of a better life.  As the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the walking trail became less necessary and fell into disuse.  Today, Interstate 80 and Interstate 84  follow parts of the same course westward and pass through towns originally established to serve those using the Oregon Trail.  Wagon ruts can still be seen as a reminder of their history.

Francis Parkman Jr., author and agriculturist, he promoted the Oregon Trail
Francis Parkman Jr., author and agriculturist, he promoted the Oregon Trail

As an American historian, Parkman is best known as author of The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life and monumental seven-volume France and England in North America. These works are still valued as historical sources and as literature. He was also a lead-ing horticulturist, briefly a professor of Horticulture at Harvard University and author of several books on the topic.

In 1846, Parkman traveled west on a hunting expedition, where he spent a number of weeks living with the Sioux tribe during their intro-duction to the perils of contact with the ‘white eyes’. Which included such dangers as epidemic disease and alcoholism – often intentionally inflicted. This exposure to their struggles influenced Parkman to view Native Americans with a much more critical eye which was reflected in his writing about them.   Parkman believed that progress required the conquest and displacement of American Indians, what he called a triumph of “civilization” over “savagery”,  He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1855.


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