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How Francis Parkman Jr. Wrote the Story of America from a Darkened Room

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Francis Parkman, Jr., wrote what remains one of the most exhaustive reviews of the struggle for control of America ever undertaken.

Illustration from The Oregon Trail by N.C. Wyeth

Illustration from The Oregon Trail by N.C. Wyeth

His seven-volume France and England in North America, published between 1865 and 1892, explores in nuanced detail the battle for American territory waged by the British, French and Native Americans. Three competing religious traditions, social structures and cultures all clashed to determine the future of the North American continent.

That his reading of events was seminal in shaping our understanding of the period is undeniable. But equally amazing is the fact that he managed his work at all, given his health.

Francis Parkman

Parkman was born into a well-to-do Boston family on Sept. 16, 1823. Sickly as a child, an aunt raised him in Medford, Mass., then a rural outpost.  His family hoped the countryside would benefit his health. While it gave him a great familiarity with the forest, including the survival skills of a woodsman, it did not cure his underlying condition.

No one ever discovered exactly what disease plagued him. Apparently it was neurological in nature.

Francis Parkman Jr.

Francis Parkman Jr.

Upon graduating Harvard in 1844, Parkman announced his intention to write the history of the American West. It was hardly the kind of career his father, a Unitarian minister, wanted for his son. At his father’s urging, Parkman returned to college to study the law. But upon graduation, no one could dissuade him from pursuing his love of history.

Parkman had already toured Europe when he headed west with gusto, meeting and living with the Sioux Tribe in 1846. Despite witnessing the influence that western society had on the tribe — new diseases and alcoholism — he supported the United States goals of conquering Native American lands and its people. He viewed the changes as a success for “civilization.”

Parkman’s The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life was a breezy, first-person account of his adventures hunting buffalo and traveling with the Sioux.

While it was not an historical study, it helped inform his views of Native Americans as he prepared to study the decades of conflict that took place over the dominance of North America.

Master Works

Back in Boston, Parkman married Catherine Scollay Bigelow, but she soon died. He raised two daughters and worked diligently on his master works, though his health didn’t cooperate. For long periods where he couldn’t walk. He suffered debilitating headaches. He had an acute sensitivity to light and had to work in a darkened room. Much of his research had to be read to him aloud.

Through it all, however, he continued his studies, producing regular installments of his research. He also published occasional commentaries on current affairs, and in one broadside argued against suffrage for women based more on emotion that research.

“Everyone knows that the physical and mental constitution of woman is more delicate than in the other sex . . .” he would write. Ironic for a man who spent much of his time in the dark battling headaches and fatigue.

Nevertheless, his commentaries on the issue from the 1880s would be revived and used in the run up to the 19th amendment long after his death in 1893.

Over time, his political views fell out of favor. His studies of the triangular battle for control of the continent, however, remained essential reading for historians for generations.

This story was updated in 2022. 

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The Hope and Despair of Acadian Exiles, 1755-1766 - New England Historical Society August 28, 2018 - 4:53 pm

[…] sons be released from their indenture. In Westborough, Ebenezer Parkman (grandfather of historian Francis Parkman) befriended Simon Leblanc and gave work to his […]

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