(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

In the spring of 1846, Francis Parkman and his friend, Quincy Shaw, traveled by railroad from the East to St. Louis. From St. Louis they went by river steamer up the Missouri River to Kansas, then called Kanzas, about five hundred miles from the mouth of the river. Their object was a trip to the Rocky Mountains, a very unusual excursion in the 1840’s.

Disembarking, the two young men went by wagon to Westport to get horses and guides for their journey. At Westport they met three acquaintances with whom they agreed to travel; two British army officers and another gentleman, who were planning a hunting expedition on the American prairies. Pleased to have companions on their dangerous journey, the two Easterners were also glad they did not need to travel with a train of emigrants, for whom Parkman expressed the utmost contempt.

The journey began inauspiciously for the five travelers. The Britishers decided to start by a trail other than the one which had been previously decided upon. The result was that the party discovered, after several days of travel, that they had gone far out of their way. The party then rode northward to the Oregon Trail, which they decided to follow to Fort Laramie, seven hundred miles away.

On the twenty-third of May the party arrived on the Oregon Trail, where they saw the first human being they had met in eight days of travel. He was a straggler from a caravan of emigrants. At the end of three weeks Parkman and his companions, the Englishmen and a small group of emigrants who had joined them, reached the Platte River. They were still four hundred miles from Fort Laramie. The journey to the Platte River had been a muddy one, for each night the party was drenched by a terrific thunderstorm. During the day they also ran into numerous showers as they made their way westward across the uninteresting country east of the Platte, a country almost devoid of any game except for a few birds.

At the Platte the party entered the buffalo country. Parkman and Shaw were fascinated by those animals, and they slaughtered hundreds, mostly bulls, before their journey ended. When they entered the buffalo country they also entered the first territory where they were likely to encounter hostile Indians. A few days after crossing the Platte, Parkman, Shaw, and their guide went on a sortie after buffalo. Parkman became separated from his companions and spent several anxious hours before he found his solitary way back to the camp. Shortly after that adventure the party met the chief of the trading station at Fort Laramie, who was on his way downstream on the Platte with a shipment of skins. He warned them to watch out for Pawnees, in whose country the party was then traveling.

While traveling up the river, the Englishmen made themselves obnoxious to Parkman and his friend by encouraging emigrants to join the party and by camping at any time of the day they pleased without consulting the Americans. Since Parkman and Shaw had a definite schedule which they wished to keep, they left the Englishmen and pushed on ahead with Henry Chatillon, their guide, and a muleteer named Deslauriers. Not many days afterward Parkman and his group reached Fort Laramie, at that time a trading outpost and not a military fort.

At Fort Laramie the travelers introduced themselves and gave the factor in charge a letter they had brought from his superiors in St. Louis. They were entertained and housed in the best fashion possible at the fort. Parkman and his friend spent the next few days visiting the Indian villages outside the fort, talking with the trappers, and occasionally looking in on emigrant trains which were on their way to the Oregon country. Using a small chest of medical supplies he carried with him, Shaw gained some little reputation as a medicine man by doctoring a few of the more important Indians.

The most decisive news which came to Parkman and Shaw at the fort was that the Dakota Indians were preparing to make war upon their traditional enemies of the Snake tribe. Parkman and his friend decided that they would accompany the Dakotas on the raid, since their guide, Henry Chatillon, was married to a Dakota squaw and could, through her, promise the protection of the Dakota tribe. The travelers felt...

(The entire section is 1727 words.)