When I was in school, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail was on my reading list. At the age of thirteen, the formal writing and the lengthy, detailed descriptions of a time, scenery and people who did not in the least interest me, turned me towards another choice of book. So here I am, some fifty years later, with other interests, more tolerance, and certainly a more receptive mind.
Francis Parkman was born into an aristocratic Boston family, son of a well-connected and wealthy Unitarian minister. Plagued by illness most of his childhood, he was often sent into the countryside in an attempt to make him more robust. This, combined with his own enjoyment of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, seems to have had a lasting effect on the young man whose walks in the woods always entailed carrying a rifle, just as his hero, Hawkeye, did. Continue reading
Posted in 19th C., American History, Historical Novels, History of the West, Literature, Literature of the West
Tagged Francis Parkman, Julius C. Birge, Mormons, Native Americans, The Awakening of the Desert, The Oregon Trail
There are many artists known for their paintings of the West, but the one whose work enthralls me the most is George Catlin. Working somewhat in the ‘naive’ style, Catlin’s life work was to capture the American Indian before they vanished, and this he did: his subjects came from over fifty nations.
Born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, later moving to upstate New York, Catlin’s fascination with American Indians started at an early age. His mother had regaled him with her tales of being a captive of the Iroquois during the Revolutionary War, and his cheek bore a scar from a ‘tomahawk’ thrown in a childhood game.
Ojibwa woman, ca. 1832
An encounter in 1805 with an Oneida may also have influenced him. Although he initially studied law, Catlin was accepted by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and started his career as a portraitist. Successful enough to be commissioned by clients such as Sam Houston and Dolly Madison, Catlin spent time in Philadelphia’s museums painting tribal costumes, weapons and ornaments brought back by Lewis and Clark. When a delegation of Native Americans came to Philadelphia in full regalia, his ambition took root. Continue reading