Francis Parkman Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111205218-Parkman.jpg Francis Parkman Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Parkman was the greatest of the nineteenth century American patrician historians. He combined extensive research with an unparalleled literary artistry that continues to excite the imagination of readers. For many years, Parkman’s seven-part series France and England in North America (1865-1892) was regarded as the definitive history of the three-sided struggle among the Indians, French, and English for dominion over the continent.

Early Life

Francis Parkman was born in Boston on September 16, 1823, the son of Francis and Caroline (Hall) Parkman. His paternal grandfather had been one of the city’s wealthiest merchants; his father was pastor of the Old North Church and a pillar of Boston’s Federalist-Unitarian establishment. On his mother’s side, he traced his ancestry to the Puritan John Cotton. Because of his fragile health, Parkman was sent at the age of eight to live on his maternal grandfather’s farm and attended school in nearby Medford. He returned to Boston at age thirteen, finished his preparatory work at the Chauncey Place School, and entered Harvard in 1840. He had acquired from his roamings on a stretch of untamed woodland at the edge of his grandfather’s farm a romantic attachment to nature in the wild. His reading of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper sparked his interest in Indians, “the American forest,” and the “Old French War.” He was temperamentally a compulsively intense personality, driven by “passion” and “tenacious eagerness.” During his sophomore year at Harvard, he appears to have decided upon what became his life’s work: to write the dual story of the conquest of the Indians by the French and English and their struggle in turn for mastery. “The theme,” he later recalled, “fascinated me, and I was haunted by wilderness images day and night.”

At Harvard, Parkman was active in student extracurricular affairs, serving as president of the Hasty Pudding Club. He received sufficiently respectable grades in his course work for selection to Phi Beta Kappa. He spent his summer vacations tramping and canoeing in the forests of northern New England and the adjacent parts of Canada. Parkman hoped—in vain, as events turned out—that a strenuous regimen of outdoor living would strengthen his sickness-prone physique. He simultaneously took the opportunity to begin collecting material for his planned history project, filling his notebook with measurements of forts, descriptions of battle sites, reminiscences of survivors, and names and addresses of people in possession of old letters. In the autumn of 1843, he suffered a nervous illness and temporarily left Harvard for a tour of Europe to recuperate. He returned in time to be graduated with his class in August, 1844. At his father’s behest, he went on to law school at Harvard. Although profiting from his exposure to the rules for the testing and use of evidence, he could not muster much enthusiasm for the law as such. His interests were primarily literary. His first appearance in print came in 1845, when he published in the Knickerbocker Magazine five sketches based upon his vacation trips. Although he was awarded his LL.B. in January, 1846, he never applied for admission to the bar.

After receiving his law degree, Parkman set out on what proved to be the formative experience of his life—a trip to the Western plains, partly in the hope of improving his health, partly to observe at first hand Indian life. Camping for several weeks with a band of Sioux Indians, he immersed himself in their habits, customs, and ways of thinking. During those weeks he contracted a mysterious ailment that left him a broken man physically on his return to Boston in October, 1846. His eyesight was so impaired that he could barely read, and he suffered from a nervous condition that made him unable to concentrate for longer than brief spurts. He still managed to dictate to a cousin who had accompanied him an account of their adventures that was serialized as “The Oregon Trail” in the Knickerbocker Magazine over a two-year span beginning in February, 1847. The account came out in book form in 1849 under the title The California and Oregon Trail (the shorter title was resumed with the 1872 edition). Parkman’s experience with the Sioux shattered any illusions he may have gained from reading novels about the noble savage. “For the most part,” he underlined, “a civilized white man can discover very few points of sympathy between his own nature and that of an Indian. With every disposition to do justice to their good qualities, he must be conscious that an impassable gulf lies between him and his red brethren. Nay, so alien to himself do they appear, that, after breathing the air of the prairie for a few months or weeks, he begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast.”

Life’s Work

In 1848, Parkman began work on what became History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada (1851). He had a frame built of parallel wires to guide his hand while writing with his eyes closed in a dark room. For the most part, however, he relied upon others reading the source materials to him and transcribing his words. At first, his progress was painfully slow—the readings limited to a half-hour per sitting and his output averaging six lines a day. Gradually, however, he pushed himself to work for longer periods and successfully completed the two volumes within two and a half years. The work dealt with the Indian uprising in 1763-1765 against English occupation of the Western territories after the French surrender. His purpose, he explained, was “to portray the American forest and the American Indian at the period when both received their final doom.” He divided his story into two distinct phases. During the first, the Indians triumphantly pushed the English back; in the second, the English turned the tide in a successful counterattack. Parkman’s portrayal of Pontiac as the central figure on the Indian side was effective drama but inaccurate history. Later scholars have found that Pontiac was simply one Indian chief among many. The work’s larger importance lies in how Parkman, in his introductory background chapters, sketched in outline the theme that he would develop more fully in his seven-part France and England in North America: the collision of rival cultures culminating in the English triumph on the Plains of Abraham in September, 1759.

History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada appeared in 1851. The first installment of France and England in North America, titled Pioneers of France in the New World, did not come out until 1865. The delay was partly a result of the amount of research involved. The major difficulty, however, was health problems and family tragedies that would have broken the spirit of a weaker personality. On May 13, 1850, Parkman married Catherine Scollay Bigelow, the daughter of a Boston doctor. The couple had one son and two daughters. In 1853, however, he suffered a relapse in his nervous condition that forced him to give up his historical work temporarily. A man who always needed an interest, Parkman, during his enforced withdrawal from scholarship, wrote his only novel, Vassall Morton (1856). Its hero, reflecting Parkman’s own image of himself, is a high-spirited, outdoors-loving young man of high social position who succeeds in overcoming melodramatic trials and tribulations. Unfortunately, Parkman himself was unable to cope with his own personal crises at that time. The death of his son in 1857, followed by that of his wife within a year, precipitated a severe breakdown in 1858. Although these health problems kept him out of the fighting, the Civil War had a major influence on his approach to the rivalry between the French and the English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a struggle, akin to the one under way in his own time, between “Liberty and Absolutism.”

Pioneers of France in the New World focuses upon the founding of Quebec in the early seventeenth century under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain. The next volume in the series, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867), had as its major protagonists the Jesuit missionaries, such as Jean de Brébeuf, Charles Garnier, and Isaac Jogues, who tried to convert the Canadian Indians to Roman Catholicism. The third volume,...

(The entire section is 3495 words.)