The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail   by Francis Parkman

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Written in 1846, this personal account of the Parkman’s journey from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains gives one a vivid picture of what he pristine frontier was like before it was widely settled. Friendly with Dakota and some other tribes, Parkman and his partner Henry Shaw were often guests in the native American camps. His accounts of riding down buffalo, losing their horses or being lost in the forest bring it all to life in front of our eyes.

Francis Parkman was born in Boston in 1788. A sickly child, he was sent to live in the wilderness with his grandfather. here he learned to sleep, hunt and survive in the wilds. He came to have a great love for the forest. After graduating Harvard, he went west in 1846 to see life on the plains.

Parkman suffered from a neurological disorder throughout his life that often rendered him unable to walk or caused temporary blindness. Much of his research was conducted by being read to. One of America’s greatest historians, he did have a racial bias typical of his day. He speaks of the native American girls as very ugly. He also has a great hatred of Mormons settlers out west.

I have read two of his other purely historical works  ( The Conspiracy of Pontiac and Montcalm and Wolfe). He is a master at narrative history.

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The best thing about this 1945 mass production hardcover are the illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was considered a regional artist, and was ostracized by the art world of his time (1889-1975) as a “folksy” artist. His colorful and sometimes humorous paintings add a lot to reading this book.

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The Boy Thomas Hart Benton

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I had a chance to see other of Benton’s works and learn about him as a painter, which was a bonus of reading this book. Benton’s most famous student was Jackson Pollock, though I see no similarity in their work!

If you have an interest in the history of western expansion, I’d recommend Parkman’s book.  In spite of its occasional bias, it gives us a lively presentation of life in the wilderness.

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