Friday, May 25, 2012

The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life - by Francis Parkman's

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Travel literature is one of my favorite genres.  We have just lost, with the death of Paul Fussell this week, a champion of travel writing.  So I am featuring an extremely good example of the genre by the American historian Francis Parkman.  Before he was a historian, Parkman was just one of many traveling West. 

The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life is Parkman's popular 1849 account of his trip. (US Edition)  (UK Edition)  

He writes in an entertaining style:

Whisky by the way circulates more freely in Westport than is altogether safe in a place where every man carries a loaded pistol in his pocket.

Parkman's description of his travelling companions perhaps foreshadows later problems.

The captain pointed out, with much complacency, the different articles of their outfit. "You see," said he, "that we are all old travelers. I am convinced that no party ever went upon the prairie better provided."

Such as time spent riding in circles.

We rode for an hour or two when a familiar cluster of buildings appeared on a little hill. "Hallo!" shouted the Kickapoo trader from over his fence. "Where are you going?" A few rather emphatic exclamations might have been heard among us, when we found that we had gone miles out of our way, and were not advanced an inch toward the Rocky Mountains.

Much of the book recounts his observations and dealings with Indians, who clearly fascinated him - although he observes them from his "superior" perch.

. . . we came suddenly upon the great Pawnee trail, leading from their villages on the Platte to their war and hunting grounds to the southward. Here every summer pass the motley concourse; thousands of savages, men, women, and children, horses and mules, laden with their weapons and implements, and an innumerable multitude of unruly wolfish dogs, who have not acquired the civilized accomplishment of barking, but howl like their wild cousins of the prairie.

Even the dogs were different back then!  That is why we read . . .

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