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Francis Parkman



HE Parkmans are descendants of Thomas

Parkman of Sidmouth, Devon, whose son Elias settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1633. Francis Parkman was a son of the Reverend Francis Parkman, pastor for thirty-six years of the New North Church in Boston. Through his mother, Caroline (Hall) Parkman, he was related to the famous colonial minister, John Cotton. Two of his maternal ancestors used to preach to the Indians in their own tongue. Parkman's deep interest in the aborigines' may have been 'partly 'inherited from these Puritan ancestors.' 'It does 'not appear, however, that he ever learned their 'language, and it may be regarded as certain that 'he never preached to them.'

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Edward Wheelwright: Memoir of Francis Parkman, LL.D.,' Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. i, 1895.

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C. H. Farnham: A Life of Francis Parkman, 1901.

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H. D. Sedgwick: Francis Parkman, American Men of • Letters,' 1904.

Born in Boston on September 16, 1823, Parkman prepared for college at Chauncy Hall School and was graduated at Harvard in 1844. During his college course he 'showed symptoms of Injuns ' on the brain,' as a classmate phrased it. In 1841 he began those vacation wanderings which gave him such an intimate acquaintance with the American wilderness. Before taking his degree he had planned a book on the conspiracy of Pontiac. The year after graduation he visited Detroit and other scenes of the historic drama, collected papers, and, wherever it was possible, 'interviewed de'scendants of the actors.'

At his father's instance Parkman then entered the Dane Law School at Cambridge and obtained his degree (1846), but took no steps to be admitted to the bar. He studied by himself history, Indian ethnology, and models of English style.' The passage in Vassall Morton describing the influence of Thierry's Norman Conquest in directing the hero of the novel towards ethnological study, is thought to be autobiographical.

Having weakened his sight by immoderate reading, Parkman (in 1846) made a journey to the Northwest, partly to cure his eyes and partly to study Indian life.' He was accompanied by his friend Quincy Adams Shaw. For some weeks he lived in a village of Ogillallah Indians, sharing the tent of a chief and following the wanderings of the tribe in their search for enemies and buffalo.


The hardships of the life ruined his health. His sight was made worse rather than better, and his first book, The Oregon Trail (1849), describing these western experiences, had to be written from dictation. It was followed by The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851), and that by Vassall Morton (1856), an attempt at fiction. This ends the initial period of Parkman's literary life.

In 1850 Parkman married Catharine, a daughter of Doctor Jacob Bigelow of Boston. She is said to have been a woman of a sweet and joyful disposition, having a keen sense of humor, and, above all, endowed with the high courage requisite to 'tend unfalteringly the pain and suffering of the 'man she loved.' It was a perfect union, but unhappily it was not to last long. Mrs. Parkman died in 1858.


The historian's health steadily declined. For years together his chief study was to keep himself alive. As a part of this study he took up floriculture, and soon found himself absorbed in it for its own sake. He became famous for his roses and lilies, and was the recipient of prizes innumerable from horticultural societies.3 Yet at no time did he lose sight of his main object, the history of France in North America. Little by

The Oregon Trail was first published serially in The < Knickerbocker Magazine.'

2 Sedgwick's Parkman, p. 217.

3 His Book of the Roses was published in 1866.

little his store of materials accumulated. Even when he was at his worst physically, some progress was made. It might be only a step, but the step had not to be retraced.

As his strength returned he began to travel. To renew his acquaintance with the Indians he went to Fort Snelling in 1867. He was repeatedly in Paris consulting archives and doctors. He visited Canada in 1873 and explored over and over again the region between Quebec and Lake George.

The great historical series to which its author gave the title of France and England in North America began to appear just at the close of the Civil War. The volumes in the order of their publication are: The Pioneers of France in the New World, 1865; The Jesuits in North America, 1867; The Discovery of the Great West, 1869;* The Old Régime, 1874; Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV, 1877; Montcalm and Wolfe, 1884; A Half-Century of Conflict, 1892.

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The merits of this extraordinary series were recognized at once as many and varied. It is a question to which of three types of reader the books most appealed, the scholar, who is bound to read critically whether he will or no, the utilitarian in search of facts chiefly, or the mere lover of literature. Each found what he was seeking in these narratives, and each paid homage to the author in his own way.

1 Later renamed La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West.

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