Francis Parkman, one of the first serious historians to study the American West, arrives at Fort Laramie and prepares for a summer of research with the Sioux.
Parkman was an unlikely frontiersman. The son of a prominent Boston family, he was an impeccably proper gentleman of independent means who was more at home among the ivory towers of Harvard than the tepees of the Sioux. Yet, after graduating from Harvard in 1846, Parkman set out to write the definitive history of the French and Indian Wars of 1689 to 1763. To set the stage for the wars, he wished to discuss the life of the Northeastern Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans, but could find few useful sources on the subject. Parkman reasoned that the still relatively untouched tribes of the Western plains would provide him with insights into pre-Columbian Indian life. In 1846, he headed west to spend a summer among the Plains Indians.
Traveling with an experienced trapper named Henry Chatillon as a guide, Parkman followed the Oregon Trail west for three months. On this day in 1846, he arrived at Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming. Parkman was overjoyed to learn that a party of Oglala Sioux was gathering nearby in preparation for a summer war with their enemies, the Snake. Certain that all Indians were bloodthirsty savages eager to fight, Parkman viewed the approaching war as an opportunity to witness the Indian’s true nature. Soon after, though, he heard that the Sioux had decided to abandon the warpath for that summer. For the first time, Parkman began to question the accuracy of the stereotypical white view of the Indians.
If he was fully to understand the Sioux, Parkman believed, he would need to “become, as it were, one of them.” Luckily, his guide Chatillon was married to a daughter of a Sioux chief, and the trapper managed to persuade the chief to allow Parkman to travel with the Sioux for a summer. A prominent warrior named Big Crow (Kongra-Tonga) agreed to share his tepee with Parkman and watch over the inexperienced Bostonian.
In the months that followed, many of Parkman’s preconceived notions about Indians melted away. Though Big Crow and other warriors proudly described their often-brutal fights with enemy tribes, Parkman also discovered the Sioux were a warm and generous people. “Both Kongra-Tonga [Big Crow] and his squaw,” he noted, “like most other Indians, were very fond of their children, whom they indulged to excess and never punished except in extreme cases.” Observing that they would at times give away all of their possessions, he concluded that the Sioux, “though often rapacious, are devoid of avarice.”
After six months in the West, Parkman returned to Boston and wrote a compelling account of his summer with the Sioux. Published in 1849, The Oregon Trail was both a fascinating travel book and an important work of ethnography. Initially, Parkman thought of his first book as little more than a preface to the works of history he subsequently produced. Only later in life did he realize it was an important work, an “image of an irrevocable past.” Indeed, Parkman’s portrait of the Sioux continues to be a valuable window into Plains Indian life before it was changed by the advancing front of Anglo-American settlement.