The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life (also published as The California & Oregon Trail) is one of my favorite works of history. Combining adventure, readability and history into a true work of literature, this book pulls the reader into it’s setting like few works of history ever accomplish. The book is Francis Parkman’s account of his two month tour through the American West (I should say ‘west’ at the time of his writing, midwest today, as his travels were through Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas). Much of the book centers on three weeks he spent with the Oglala Sioux hunting buffalo.
Francis Parkman (1823-1893) is one of the great writer/historians in American history. Besides The Oregon Trail, he is also well known for his seven volume France and England in North America. While his works are still valued as history, they have crossed the realm into being especially known first and foremost as great literature. Parkman was also a leading horticulturist, even was a professor of such at Harvard. Parkman’s accomplishment are impressive; more so when you realize that he had a neurological illness which he suffered from his entire life. This illness often made walking impossible, and for long stretches at a time he was more of less blind. He often wrote without being able to see, dictating to others to do the writing for him. Similarly, research was often done by having people read to him.
Previous to The Oregon Trail, to be a serious historian in America meant studying and writing about European or classical history. Parkman’s work was so successful that by the end of his life writing history of America itself became the ‘in’ thing to do. When reading Parkman, remember that it was a time in America where Manifest Destiny was paramount. Like most American’s at the time, Parkman believed that the conquest of the West and over American Indians represented the march of civilization. Perhaps not ‘PC’ in today’s day and age, but it is refreshing to get pulled within the national confidence that drove so much of American history; confidence that is sorely lacking today.
The Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition of The Oregon Trail is fantastic, one of their true outstanding pairings of book subject and artist. Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) was a great twentieth century American artist, whose work often depicted the American West. Though his early work was impressionist, he soon developed a modern style, with lots of color, emphasis on design, and only including essential elements in his compositions. Yet, he retained a realism and a sense of landscape that is perfectly reflected in his work for this edition. The book itself, with it’s rustic full leather binding and sturdy pages, feels like it could have come right out of Parkman’s saddlebag when returning from his adventure!
About the Edition
- Illustration and signed by Maynard Dixon
- Edited from Parkman’s notebook’s by Mason Wade
- Printed at Braddleboro, Vermont by E.L. Hildreth & Company
- Limited to 1500 copies, this one being #660
- I do not have the Monthly Letter so am lacking other information on this volume; if you have a copy please contact me.