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“If any pale student, glued to his desk, here seeks an apology for a way of life whose natural fruits is that pallid and emasculate scholarship of which New England has had too many examples, it will be far better that this sketch had not been written. For the student there is, in its season, no better place than the saddle, and no better companion than the rifle or the oar.”
— American historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893)
My favorite era of American history is the first. Europeans arriving on the shores of a primeval wilderness, wondering if it’s a second Eden or a green hell. Native Americans stumbling upon pale creatures in bizarre clothes rowing to shore from floating wooden islands.
The earliest historian to fully document these encounters is Francis Parkman, a Harvard-educated Boston scion who set aside Yankee comforts to tramp over snowcapped mountains and muddy battlefields.
Like his younger admirer, Teddy Roosevelt, a generation later, Parkman headed west to live among Indians, shelter in frontier forts, and hunt buffalo. He documented this fading way of life in The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life (1847). Toward the end of his travels, he was struck by a neurological malady that hunted him for the rest of his life.
Twenty years later, he began the seven-volume France and England in North America, which covers everything from the discovery of the continent to the French and Indian War. His writing isn’t a jumble of dates and data, but a literary epic covering the rise and fall of empires in the emerging New World.
Needless to say, Parkman’s unpopular among most historians today. He had the audacity to characterize all the people in his work as a mixture of good and bad. He even used the common language of the day (and refused to mention critical gender theory).
Sometimes the Indians are brutal oppressors; at other times, the oppressed. Some French Jesuits were near-divine, others grasping and cruel. The English settlers too, offered pros and cons. He’s definitely not a fan of the Spanish, though:
In the middle of the sixteenth century, Spain was the incubus of Europe. Gloomy and portentous, she chilled the world with her baneful shadow…. Mistress of the Indies, Spain swarmed with beggars. Yet, verging to decay, she had an ominous and appalling strength. Her condition was that of an athletic man penetrated with disease, which had not yet unstrung the thews and sinews formed in his days of vigor.
Told ya. But he summarized the three empires vying for land and treasure better than anyone, all with a literary flourish:
Day was breaking on the world. Light, hope, and freedom pierced with vitalizing ray the clouds and the miasma that hung so thick over the prostrate Middle Age, once noble and mighty, now a foul image of decay and death. Kindled with new life, the nations gave birth to a progeny of heroes, and the stormy glories of the sixteenth century rose on awakened Europe….
Spanish civilization crushed the Indian. English civilization scorned and neglected him. French civilization embraced and cherished him.
The English arrived as freemen, at least in their own eyes, far from the caprices of a royal tyrant. They decided what to do and got on with it. The French acted as mere subjects of their monarch and did nothing without his clear command.
The growth of New England was a result of the aggregate efforts of a busy multitude, each in his narrow circle toiling for himself, to gather competence or wealth. The expansion of New France was the achievement of a gigantic ambition striving to grasp a continent. It was a vain attempt.
French Canada was finally extinguished when a dithering king had neither the competence nor nerve to confine the Brits to the Atlantic shore.
Her manifold ills were summed up in the King. Since the Valois, she had had no monarch so worthless. He did not want understanding, still less the graces of person. In his youth the people called him the “Well-beloved”; but by the middle of the century they so detested him that he dared not pass through Paris, lest the mob should execrate him. He had not the vigor of the true tyrant; but his languor, his hatred of all effort, his profound selfishness, his listless disregard of public duty, and his effeminate libertinism, mixed with superstitious devotion, made him no less a national curse.
Why don’t historians write like this today?!
As we all know, the Anglo-Saxons finally sent the French packing and Parkman summarizes the Gallic legacy:
The French dominion is a memory of the past, and when we evoke its departed shades they rise upon us from their graves in strange, romantic guise. Again their ghostly camp fires seem to burn, and the fitful light is cast around on lord and vassal and black-robed priest, mingled with wild forms of savage warriors, knit in close fellowship on the same stern errand.
A boundless vision grows upon us: an untamed continent; vast wastes of forest verdure; mountains silent in primeval sleep; river, lake, and glimmering pool; wilderness oceans mingling with the sky.
Such was the domain which France conquered for civilization. Plumed helmets gleamed in the shade of its forests, priestly vestments in its dens and fastnesses of ancient barbarism. Men steeped in antique learning, pale with the close breath of the cloister, here spent the noon and evening of their lives, ruled savage hordes with a mild, parental sway, and stood serene before the direst shapes of death. Men of courtly nurture, heirs to the polish of a far-reaching ancestry, here, with their dauntless hardihood, put to shame the boldest sons of toil.
As you can see, nothing Parkman writes is woke. Thus, he is out of favor. He writes from a late 19th-century perspective at the close of Manifest Destiny and the death of the frontier. And he does it with style.
Theodore Roosevelt began his own multi-volume epic, The Winning of the West (1889), with a dedication to the man:
This book is dedicated with his permission to Francis Parkman to whom Americans who feel a pride in the pioneer history of their country are so greatly indebted.
Go ye and read of it. Dip into “The Oregon Trail” first. If you like what you see, keep on reading.Published in