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April 16, 2015

Francis Parkman

(1823 – 1893)

Formal portrait, Francis Parkman Jr.

Formal portrait, Francis Parkman Jr.

During the 19th century, Francis Parkman became one of America’s most renowned historians, best known for The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life and his monumental 7-volume work France and England In North America. Today these works are valued as both historical sources and literature. Parkman was also a leading horticulturist, serving briefly as a professor of horticulture at Harvard University and authoring several books on the subject.

            In spite of serious, undiagnosed physical disabilities begun in his college years, Parkman travelled extensively in North America to see historic sites and made trips to Europe in search of original historic manuscripts.

While observing breath-taking scenery in his travels at home and abroad, Lake George remained a favorite destination for Parkman. He remarked that nothing was more beautiful than this lake. At Lake Como, Italy, he noted this Italian lake had “none of the shaggy untamed aspect in the mountains, none of those little islands, covered with rough and moss-grown pine trees which give a certain savage character to the beauties of Lake George…Give me Lake George, and the smell of the pine and fir!”

            Parkman was born on September 16, 1823 to Rev. Francis and Caroline (Hale or Hall) Parkman. From a distinguished Boston family of social position and influence, his father was minister of the Unitarian New North Church, and there was a long line of Puritan clerics on both sides of the family. His family members participated in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

            As a young boy, Francis was fidgety and restless (Would we call him hyperactive today?) At the age of eight, he began a long stay at the farm home of his grandparents in Medford, Massachusetts. Here, for four years, he enjoyed the 3,000 acre Five Mile Woods adjacent to his grandfather’s property, wandering the lands, exploring cliffs, ravines, and marshes while hunting with his bow and arrow. (This area today is known as Middlesex Fells Reservation).

            He entered Harvard at age 16. His college years were active with gymnastics, horsemanship, boxing, and marksmanship. He became interested in the French and Indian War in his second year at Harvard and developed a plan that would become his life’s work – the story of the Old French War. He ultimately published his grand work on the subject, France and England in North America. In 1843 at age 20, he traveled to Europe for eight months making trips to the Alps and the Apennine Mountains, climbing Mt. Vesuvius, and living for a while in Rome.

Parkman as a young man.

Parkman as a young man.


            In 1843, the fall of his senior year, Parkman suffered the first collapse of his health. This illness (possibly neurological in nature) persisted during the remainder of his life and was never properly diagnosed.   He was often unable to walk and suffered from recurrent headaches, arthritis, depression, and insomnia. For long periods he was effectively blind, being unable to stand the slightest amount of light. Much of his long research involved having people read documents to him and much of his writing was written in the dark, or dictated to others.

            Graduating in 1844, Parkman was persuaded to get a law degree. His father was hoping he would get rid of his idea of writing a history of the forests – considered ungentlemanly at the time, but Francis pursued his dream of writing. His works were very well received, and Theodore Roosevelt later dedicated his four-volume history of the frontier, The Winning of West (1889) to Parkman.

            At 23 he traveled on a hunting expedition west where he spent time living with the Sioux tribe when they were struggling with some effects of contact with Europeans such as epidemic disease and alcoholism. This led him to write from a different tone of earlier “noble savage” stereotype concepts. He believed that the conquest and displacement of American Indians represented progress, a triumph of civilization over savagery, a common view at the time.

            Parkman married Catherine Scollay Bigelow on May 13, 1850. In 1852, he purchased a summer home in Jamaica Plain where he built an expansive garden. He specialized in roses and lilies, cultivating hybrids that still bear his name.   He published The Book of Roses in 1866.

The couple had three children. A son, Francis, died in childhood from scarlet fever at age three and shortly afterwards, his wife, Catherine, died. He successfully raised his two daughters, Grace and Catherine, and introduced them to Boston society. He saw them both wed with families of their own.

A memorial built to Francis Parkman at the site of his last home in Jamaica Park, near Boston.

A memorial built to Francis Parkman at the site of his last home in Jamaica Park, near Boston.

 In 1865, Parkman purchased a house at 50 Chestnut Street in Boston that is now a National Historic Landmark. He summered at Jamaica Plain and wintered on Beacon Hill not far from The Athenaeum.

Francis Parkman was a trustee of the Boston Athenaeum from 1858 until his death in 1893. The Athenaeum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. In recognition of his talent and accomplishments, the Society for American Historians annually awards the Francis Parkman Prize for the best book on American history. Although making his mark as an historian of the colonial period, the Athenaeum is most indebted to Parkman for his special contribution to the American Civil War. In the final years of this war, Parkman played a crucial role in obtaining library books, newspapers and pamphlets printed in the Confederate States of America during the four years of the war for the library’s collection.   The library is now home to one of the most extensive collections of Confederate imprints in the world.


Parkman's gravestone near Boston.

Parkman’s gravestone near Boston.

Parkman never remarried and died from appendicitis on November 8, 1893 at age 70 in Jamaica Plain, Boston. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery at Cambridge, Massachusetts. On September 16, 1967, the US Postal Service honored Parkman with a Prominent American series 3-cent postage stamp.

The 3 cent stamp issued by the US Postal Service in the Prominent American series.

The 3 cent stamp issued by the US Postal Service in the Prominent American series.

             The Francis Parkman School in Forest Hills bears his name as does Parkman Drive and the granite memorial at the site of his last home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts (now a neighborhood of Boston).

Francis Parkman in his later years.

Francis Parkman in his later years.

            Some current historians chip away at the veracity of his work and his biases, while others laud the historic characterizations and his fictional prose style.


Article prepared by Dr. Marilyn Van Dyke for the Warren County Historical Society.


Bellico, Russell P. Chronicles of Lake George: Journeys in War and Peace. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1995

 Wikipedia. Francis Parkman


Wikipedia. Boston Athenaeum

“Francis Parkman as Horticulturist”
© April 16 2015, Warren County Historical Society.



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