In the summer of 1846, a privileged young Bostonian, Francis Parkman, embarked on a journey that took him thousands of miles beyond the protection of the US cavalry. His route led west along the pioneer trail towards the Rocky Mountains, which thousands of men, women and children would travel to seek their fortunes in the new frontier territories across the Great Plains.
Parkman’s brilliant observations capture a defining period in American history. The Oregon Trail is rich in page-turning adventures – hunting with a band of Oglala Sioux, evading Crow war-parties – as well as colourful descriptions of the buffalo, wolves, snakes and prairie dogs that lived within these immense landscapes.
The conditions he faced ranged from oppressive heat to violent storms. We meet white settlers, forging their way through inhospitable terrain, trappers, traders and gamblers living side by side in general accord with the natives. For all the excitement of his frontier experience, however, when Parkman describes his encounters with the Plains Indians, and particularly the three weeks he lived with the Sioux, The Oregon Trail reaches its emotional and dramatic heights. Parkman could see that the Sioux were holding their own amongst the white emigrants, but he also sensed that the freedom of their nomadic existence would not long continue – lending a wistfulness to his sympathetic and faithful portrayal of their lives.
Parkman went on to become one of America’s most eminent historians, but The Oregon Trail, the book of his youth and one of the first great chronicles of the American West, remains the most popular of all his works, for its drama, humour and elegiac portrayal of a world that would soon vanish.