Francis Parkman (September 16, 1823 – November 8, 1893) was an American historian, best known as author of The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life and his monumental seven volume France and England in North America. These works are still valued as history and especially as literature, although the biases of his work have met with criticism. He was also a leading horticulturist, briefly a Professor of Horticulture at Harvard University and the first leader of the Arnold Arboretum, originator of several flowers, and author of several books on the topic.
Parkman was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Reverend Francis Parkman Sr. (1788-1852) and Caroline (Hall) Parkman. As a young boy, 'Frank' Parkman was found to be of poor health, and was sent to live with his maternal grandfather, who owned a 3000 acre (12 km²) tract of wilderness in nearby Medford, Massachusetts, in the hopes that a more rustic lifestyle would sturdy him up some. In the four years he stayed there, Parkman developed his love of the forests, which would animate his historical research. Indeed, he would later summarize his books as "the history of the American forest." He learned how to sleep and hunt, and could survive in the wilderness like a true pioneer. He later even learned to ride bareback, a skill that would come in handy when he found himself living with the Sioux.
Parkman enrolled at Harvard University at age 16. In his second year he conceived the plan that would become his life's work. In 1843, at the age of 20, he traveled to Europe for eight months in the fashion of the Grand Tour. Parkman made expeditions through the Alps and the Apennine mountains, climbed Vesuvius, and even lived for a time in Rome, where he befriended Passionist monks who tried, unsuccessfully, to convert him to Catholicism.
Upon graduation in 1846, he was persuaded to get a law degree, his father hoping such study would rid Parkman of his desire to write his history of the forests. It did no such thing, and after finishing law school Parkman proceeded to fulfill his great plan. His family was somewhat appalled at Parkman's choice of life work, since at the time writing histories of the American wilderness was considered ungentlemanly. Serious historians would study ancient history, or after the fashion of the time, the Spanish Empire. Parkman's works became so well-received that by the end of his lifetime histories of early America has become the fashion. Theodore Roosevelt dedicated his four-volume history of the frontier, The Winning of the West (1889-1896), to Parkman.
In 1846, Parkman travelled west on a hunting expedition, where he spent a number of weeks living with the Sioux tribe, at a time when they were struggling with some of the effects of contact with Europeans, such as epidemic disease and alcoholism. This experience led Parkman to write about American Indians with a much different tone from earlier, more sympathetic portrayals represented by the "noble savage" stereotype. Writing in the era of Manifest Destiny, Parkman believed that the conquest and displacement of American Indians represented progress, a triumph of "civilization" over "savagery", a common view at the time.
A scion of a wealthy Boston family, Parkman had enough money to pursue his research without having to worry too much about finances. His financial stability was enhanced by his modest lifestyle, and later, by the royalties from his book sales. He was thus able to commit much of his time to research, as well as to travel. He travelled across North America, visiting most of the historical locations he wrote about, and made frequent trips to Europe seeking original documents with which to further his research.
Parkman's accomplishments are all the more impressive in light of the fact that he suffered from a debilitating neurological illness, which plagued him his entire life, and which was never properly diagnosed. He was often unable to walk, and for long periods he was effectively blind, being unable to stand but the slightest amount of light. Much of his research involved having people read documents to him, and much of his writing was written in the dark, or dictated to others.
Parkman married Catherine Scollay Bigelow on May 13, 1850; they had three children. A son died in childhood, and shortly afterwards, his wife died. He successfully raised two daughters, introducing them in to Boston society and seeing them both wed, with families of their own. He died at age 70 in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.
Parkman has been hailed as one of America's first great historians and as a master of narrative history. His work has been praised by historians who have published essays in new editions of his work, including Pulitzer Prize winners C. Vann Woodward, Allan Nevins and Samuel Eliot Morison, along with Wilbur R. Jacobs, John Keegan, William Taylor, Mark Van Doren, David Levin, among others. Famous artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Frederic Remington have illustrated Parkman's books. Numerous translations have spread the books around the world.
Parkman's biases, particularly his attitudes about nationality, race, and especially Native Americans, has generated criticism. As C. Vann Woodward wrote in 1984:
Too often Parkman could ignore evidence that was not in accord with his views, permit his bias to control his judgment, or sketch characterizations that are little better than hostile caricatures.... Modern sensibilities will be nettled by his casual stereotypes of national character and by the sharp distinction he draws between "civilization" and "savagery." Even more difficult to take is his portrayal (not always consistent or invariably negative) of the Indian as a beast of the forest, "man, wolf, and devil, all in one," and as a race inevitably and rightly doomed.
The English-born and Sorbonne-educated Canadian historian W. J. Eccles harshly criticized what he perceived as Parkman's bias against France and Roman Catholic policies, as well as what he considered Parkman's misuse of French language sources. Eccles believed that Parkman's biases "resulted in a depiction of colonial society and events that bears little relation to fact," and that Parkman wrote "thoroughly bad history, judged by present-day professional standards." Eccles argued that 20th century American historians and Anglophone Canadians continued to find Parkman appealing because they shared his anti-French prejudices.
However, Parkman's most severe critic was the American historian Francis Jennings, an outspoken and controversial critic of the European colonization of North America. In 1988 Jennings wrote:
Parkman's work is fiction rather than history.... Parkman was a liar. He fabricated documents, misquoted others, pretended to use his great collection of sources when he really relied almost entirely on a small set of nastily biased secondary works, and did it all in order to support an ideology of divisiveness and hate based on racism, bigotry, misogyny, authoritarianism, chauvinism, and upper-class arrogance.
Unlike Jennings and Eccles, many modern historians have found much to praise in Parkman's work even while recognizing his limitations. For example, historian Michael N. McConnell wrote that, because of the historical inaccuracies and racial prejudice in Parkman's book The Conspiracy of Pontiac:
...it would be easy to dismiss Pontiac as a curious—perhaps embarrassing—artifact of another time and place. Yet Parkman's work represents a pioneering effort; in several ways he anticipated the kind of frontier history now taken for granted.... Parkman's masterful and evocative use of language remains his most enduring and instructive legacy.
Francis Parkman School in Forest Hills, Boston, Massachusetts and Parkman Drive in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts bear his name. On September 16, 1967, the United States Post Office Department issued a 3¢ stamp honoring Parkman.