Francis Parkman


He told the red man's story; far and wide

He searched the unwritten annals of his race;

He sat a listener at the Sachem's side,

He tracked the hunter through his wild-wood chase.

High o'er his head the soaring eagle screamed;

The wolfs long howl rang nightly; through the vale

Tramped the lone bear; the panther's eyeballs gleamed;

The bison's gallop thundered on the gale.

Soon o'er the horizon rose the cloud of strife,

Two proud, strong nations battling for the prize:

Which swarming host should mould a nation's life;

Which royal banner flout the western skies.

Long raged the conflict; on the crimson sod

Native and alien joined their hosts in vain;

The lilies withered where the lion trod,

Till Peace lay panting on the ravaged plain.

A nobler task was theirs who strove to win

The blood-stained heathen to the Christian fold;

To free from Satan's clutch the slaves of sin;

These labors, too, with loving grace he told.

Halting with feeble step, or bending o'er

The sweet-breathed roses which he loved so well,

While through long years his burdening cross he bore,

From those firm lips no coward accents fell.

A brave bright memory! His the stainless shield

No shame defaces and no envy mars!

When our far future's record is unsealed,

His name will shine among its morning stars.


The stories in this volume deal, for the most part, with single actions,

generally with deeds of war and feats of arms. In this one I desire

to give if possible the impression, for it can be no more than

an impression, of a life which in its conflicts and its victories

manifested throughout heroic qualities. Such qualities can be shown in

many ways, and the field of battle is only one of the fields of human

endeavor where heroism can be displayed.

Francis Parkman was born in Boston on September 16, 1822. He came of

a well-known family, and was of a good Puritan stock. He was rather a

delicate boy, with an extremely active mind and of a highly sensitive,

nervous organization. Into everything that attracted him he threw

himself with feverish energy. His first passion, when he was only about

twelve years old, was for chemistry, and his eager boyish experiments in

this direction were undoubtedly injurious to his health. The interest in

chemistry was succeeded by a passion for the woods and the wilderness,

and out of this came the longing to write the history of the men of the

wilderness, and of the great struggle between France and England for the

control of the North American continent. All through his college career

this desire was with him, and while in secret he was reading widely to

prepare himself for his task, he also spent a great deal of time in the

forests and on the mountains. To quote his own words, he was "fond of

hardships, and he was vain of enduring them, cherishing a sovereign

scorn for every physical weakness or defect; but deceived, moreover, by

the rapid development of frame and sinew, which flattered him into the

belief that discipline sufficiently unsparing would harden him into an

athlete, he slighted the precautions of a more reasonable woodcraft,

tired old foresters with long marches, stopped neither for heat nor for

rain, and slept on the earth without blankets." The result was that his

intense energy carried him beyond his strength, and while his muscles

strengthened and hardened, his sensitive nervous organization began to

give way. It was not merely because he led an active outdoor life. He

himself protests against any such conclusion, and says that "if any pale

student glued to his desk here seek an apology for a way of life whose

natural fruit is that pallid and emasculate scholarship, of which New

England has had too many examples, it will be far better that this

sketch had not been written. For the student there is, in its season, no

better place than the saddle, and no better companion than the rifle or

the oar."

The evil that was done was due to Parkman's highly irritable organism,

which spurred him to excess in everything he undertook. The first

special sign of the mischief he was doing to himself and his health

appeared in a weakness of sight. It was essential to his plan of

historical work to study not only books and records but Indian life from

the inside. Therefore, having graduated from college and the law-school,

he felt that the time had come for this investigation, which would

enable him to gather material for his history and at the same time

to rest his eyes. He went to the Rocky Mountains, and after great

hardships, living in the saddle, as he said, with weakness and pain, he

joined a band of Ogallalla Indians. With them he remained despite his

physical suffering, and from them he learned, as he could not have

learned in any other way, what Indian life really was.

The immediate result of the journey was his first book, instinct with

the freshness and wildness of the mountains and the prairies, and called

by him "The Oregon Trail." Unfortunately, the book was not the only

outcome. The illness incurred during his journey from fatigue and

exposure was followed by other disorders. The light of the sun became

insupportable, and his nervous system was entirely deranged. His

sight was now so impaired that he was almost blind, and could neither

read nor write. It was a terrible prospect for a brilliant and ambitious

man, but Parkman faced it unflinchingly. He devised a frame by which

he could write with closed eyes, and books and manuscripts were read to

him. In this way he began the history of "The Conspiracy of Pontiac,"

and for the first half-year the rate of composition covered about six

lines a day. His courage was rewarded by an improvement in his health,

and a little more quiet in nerves and brain. In two and a half years he

managed to complete the book. He then entered upon his great subject of

"France in the New World." The material was mostly in manuscript, and

had to be examined, gathered, and selected in Europe and in Canada.

He could not read, he could write only a very little and that with

difficulty, and yet he pressed on. He slowly collected his material and

digested and arranged it, using the eyes of others to do that which he

could not do himself, and always on the verge of a complete breakdown

of mind and body. In 1851 he had an effusion of water on the left knee,

which stopped his outdoor exercise, on which he had always largely

depended. All the irritability of the system then centered in the head,

resulting in intense pain and in a restless and devouring activity

of thought. He himself says: "The whirl, the confusion, and strange,

undefined tortures attending this condition are only to be conceived

by one who has felt them." The resources of surgery and medicine were

exhausted in vain. The trouble in the head and eyes constantly recurred.

In 1858 there came a period when for four years he was incapable of the

slightest mental application, and the attacks varied in duration from

four hours to as many months. When the pressure was lightened a little

he went back to his work. When work was impossible, he turned to

horticulture, grew roses, and wrote a book about the cultivation of

those flowers which is a standard authority.

As he grew older the attacks moderated, although they never departed.

Sleeplessness pursued him always, the slightest excitement would deprive

him of the power of exertion, his sight was always sensitive, and at

times he was bordering on blindness. In this hard-pressed way he fought

the battle of life. He says himself that his books took four times as

long to prepare and write as if he had been strong and able to use his

faculties. That this should have been the case is little wonder, for

those books came into being with failing sight and shattered nerves,

with sleeplessness and pain, and the menace of insanity ever hanging

over the brave man who, nevertheless, carried them through to an end.

Yet the result of those fifty years, even in amount, is a noble one, and

would have been great achievement for a man who had never known a sick

day. In quality, and subject, and method of narration, they leave little

to be desired. There, in Parkman's volumes, is told vividly, strongly,

and truthfully, the history of the great struggle between France and

England for the mastery of the North American continent, one of the

most important events of modern times. This is not the place to give

any critical estimate of Mr. Parkman's work. It is enough to say that it

stands in the front rank. It is a great contribution to history, and

a still greater gift to the literature of this country. All Americans

certainly should read the volumes in which Parkman has told that

wonderful story of hardship and adventure, of fighting and of

statesmanship, which gave this great continent to the English race and

the English speech. But better than the literature or the history is

the heroic spirit of the man, which triumphed over pain and all other

physical obstacles, and brought a work of such value to his country

and his time into existence. There is a great lesson as well as a lofty

example in such a career, and in the service which such a man rendered

by his life and work to literature and to his country. On the tomb of

the conqueror of Quebec it is written: "Here lies Wolfe victorious."

The same epitaph might with entire justice be carved above the grave of

Wolfe's historian.

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