The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman (September 16, 1823November 8, 1893) was born in Boston, Massachusetts and died in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.

He is best known as a historian, and particularly as author of The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, and his monumental eight volume France and England in North America. These works are considered masterpieces of both history and literature.

He was also a horticulturalist, 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.

In 1846, Parkman travelled west on a hunting expedition. His guide happened to be married to a Sioux woman, and this connection led to Parkman spending a number of weeks living with the Sioux tribe, at a time when they were still more or less following their traditional way of life. This experience permitted Parkman to write about the American Indian with an informed honesty that set him apart from many other commentators, especially those seduced by the noble savage myth.

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.


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 in Harvard University at age 16, and in his second year conceived the plan that would become his life's work. In 1843, at the age of 20, he travelled 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 would become so well-received, that by the end of his lifetime histories of early America has become the fashion.

Parkman was married once and 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.

Last updated: 05-11-2005 08:14:36
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04