Authors: Francis Parkman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian

Author Works


The California and Oregon Trail, 1849 (travel)

History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada, 1851

Pioneers of France in the New World, 1865

The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

The Discovery of the Great West, 1869 (revised as La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, 1879)

The Old Regime in Canada, 1874

Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, 1877

Montcalm and Wolfe, 1884

A Half-Century of Conflict, 1892

Long Fiction:

Vassall Morton, 1856


Francis Parkman was born into a wealthy and cultured Boston family; his father was a clergyman, and his mother came from a socially prominent New England family. Even when Parkman later became an invalid, he was able to live comfortably on his grandfather’s fortune. Few writers have so carefully and sensibly prepared themselves for their life’s work. Although he showed moderate aptitude in his studies and some skill at writing, his most pleasurable hours were spent tramping through wooded country. In 1840 he entered Harvard University, where he joined several clubs and was popular with his fellow students. He always did well in courses he liked–he was quite fond of poetry–and he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Even then he was intensely interested in American Indians and frontier life. He often went on extended expeditions into wild country on foot or by canoe, and he was a sportsman and a good shot.{$I[AN]9810000439}{$I[A]Parkman, Francis}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Parkman, Francis}{$I[tim]1823;Parkman, Francis}

Francis Parkman

(Library of Congress)

In 1843, while still a student at Harvard, Parkman went to Europe and toured the Continent. On his return he graduated and entered law school. His first publication, in 1845, was a series of five sketches of his rambles during vacations, published in The Knickerbocker, or New York Magazine. His most important trip took him west as far as Wyoming, and from there he returned by way of the Southwest. On this trip he gathered much material about American Indians and the Oregon Trail.

Upon his return Parkman was struck by the nervous disorder that was to plague him for the rest of his life. In 1846 he retired to Boston to regain his health. Instead he had a major breakdown and went to Brattleboro, Vermont, to cure himself. There he started to write The California and Oregon Trail, and in 1848 he started his History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada, the first of a series of volumes on his main historical topic, the struggle between France and England for the possession of the North American continent. In this controversial account Parkman declared American Indians to be an inferior race who had hindered the European development of the American continent. He wrote this and his other histories while suffering severely from his ailment, which he hints at in his one novel, Vassall Morton.

The book that definitely established his reputation as a great American historian was Pioneers of France in the New World. In this work, as in his others, Parkman is scrupulous in documenting his statements with primary sources. His last two books, Montcalm and Wolfe and A Half-Century of Conflict, completed his historical survey of the titanic conflict of the two great European powers for control of North America. Parkman’s account of this conflict produced a better understanding and recognition of French settlements in North America. His praise of such French heroes as René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon was unusual at the time for a historian with his deep New England roots.

For much of his life Parkman was beset by ill health and its depressing mental effects, but he was never morbid, and he always felt he must have an occupation. The historical value of some of his work has been lessened by his ethnological errors and his inability, particularly in the social context of his time, to be historically objective. Nevertheless, his diligence in trying to document a past time and his ability to capture the spirit of that time in a rich and colorful narrative secure his reputation as a great early American historian.

BibliographyFarnham, Charles. A Life of Francis Parkman. 1900. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1969. An early biography.Gale, Robert. Francis Parkman. New York: Twayne, 1973. Discusses Parkman’s life and his importance to American historiography. Includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.Jacobs, Wilbur R. Francis Parkman: Historian as Hero, the Formative Years. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. A biography; contains a useful and extensive bibliography.Schama, Simon. Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Noted historian Schama explores the death of General James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759 and the murder of Boston Brahmin George Parkman in 1849; the two deaths are linked by the fact that Francis Parkman was the nephew of the latter and the biographer of the former.Vitzthun, Richard. The American Compromise: Theme and Method in the Histories of Bancroft, Parkman, and Adams. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974. Discusses Parkman’s historical philosophy.Wade, Mason. Francis Parkman: Heroic Historian. 1942. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972. An adulatory biography.
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