What are the chapter summaries for the Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman?

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alexb2 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Summary of Chapter 1: The Frontier

The first chapter introduces you to the narrator (Francis Parkman) and his relative (Quincy Shaw), who are on a ship near St. Louis, preparing to leave on a long journey. It is described thusly:

Almost every day steamboats were leaving the levee and passing up the Missouri, crowded with passengers on their way to the frontier.

In one of these, the Radnor, since snagged and lost, my friend and relative, Quincy A. Shaw, and myself, left St. Louis on the 28th of April, on a tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky Mountains.

The narrator describes the boat and the people on board (both of which could be described as jumbled or motley), and the conditions of the river as the boat makes the first couple of weeks of travel. The boat moves into the Misouri river, which is described in the following way:

The Missouri is constantly changing its course; wearing away its banks on one side, while it forms new ones on the other. Its channel is shifting continually. Islands are formed, and then washed away; and while the old forests on one side are undermined and swept off, a young growth springs up from the new soil upon the other.

This is a great quote because it could describe the entire journey and even America at this time in history. As the journey goes on, the narrator describes what is going on by the river, mainly that there is a lot of Western movement going on. People are in various ways moving West to seek their fortune or escape the misery of their past. The travelers are described as being from many different places and regions-- Spanish, French, and Native Americans are all described. The boat stops in Westport, Kansas, and the narrator gets off and later runs into an old companion, 

Captain C. of the British army, who, with his brother, and Mr. R., an English gentleman, was bound on a hunting expedition across the continent. I had seen the captain and his companions at St. Louis. They had now been for some time at Westport, making preparations for their departure, and waiting for a re-enforcement, since they were too few in number to attempt it alone. They might, it is true, have joined some of the parties of emigrants who were on the point of setting out for Oregon and California; but they professed great disinclination to have any connection with the "Kentucky fellows."

The Captain asks the two men to join them on their expedition, and they agree. The men go to a nearby town to get supplies, and our narrator ruminates on the nature of migration.

I have often perplexed myself to divine the various motives that give impulse to this strange migration; but whatever they may be, whether an insane hope of a better condition in life, or a desire of shaking off restraints of law and society, or mere restlessness, certain it is that multitudes bitterly repent the journey, and after they have reached the land of promise are happy enough to escape from it.

After some time of preparation and weather-related delays, they get moving but soon learn that the Captain and his team have changed the plan and want to go a different route than was first agreed upon. "To adopt such a plan without consulting us, we looked upon as a very high-handed proceeding; but suppressing our dissatisfaction as well as we could, we made up our minds to join them at Fort Leavenworth, where they were to wait for us." 

They move out, but not without trouble. First a mule freaks out on them and must be replaced, and then when they've finally put Westport behind them, they get stuck in a muddy gully for over an hour. 

You can read the entire book online at the second source link below, and you can also see our general summary in the first link. 

Wiggin42 | Student

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.

More can be found in the links. But, again, I recommend you actually read! You will get so much more out of the work. 

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The Oregon Trail

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