Appreciations: George Catlin & Francis Parkman
First-hand accounts that enrich and enliven the historical understanding of life among American Indian peoples of the West in the early 19th century.
On George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1832–1839):
From George Catlin’s extended visit to the Mandan villages along the Upper Missouri River in the summer of 1832, we’re fortunate to have his sensitive in-depth description of the culture of the Mandans and the character of their esteemed leader Four Bears, as well as the only detailed written account of the torturous initiation ceremony inflicted on young Mandan warriors-to-be. According to Catlin, about 50 young men went through this horrendous ceremony in the large Mandan village in 1832 and perhaps half as many more up the Heart River at the smaller Mandan settlement. Tragically, these young worthies would be denied the fruits of their manhood and the full honors of a warrior’s career, as only five years after Catlin’s visit, in the late summer and fall of 1837, Four Bears and nine-tenths of the Mandans were destroyed by the scourge of smallpox, brought up the river by steamboat, as detailed in Bernard Devoto’s Across the Wide Missouri (1947).
On Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849):
Thank goodness Francis Parkman, age 22, somehow pushed himself through the debilitating rigors of dysentery to live and travel with a roaming tribe of the Oglala band of the Sioux up the Laramie River basin through the mountains and prairies of the Medicine Bow region in July and August of 1846 and was able to render, from an insightful outsider’s perspective, richly detailed and well-rounded observations on the life and manners of these iconic Plains Indians. Despite Parkman’s own personal quirks and cultural biases, which he was never shy about sharing, this account of his days embedded with the Oglala Sioux has given us a deeper and fuller sense of the ground truth of existence as lived in that time and place by those intrepid people.
Some may condemn any disposition to praise Francis Parkman’s observations of Sioux life on the ground that in his later career Parkman argued passionately against women’s suffrage. What an irrational, inane protest! Giving in to the current clamor to snuff out all appreciation of the positive contributions of a historical figure just because that figure held particular views or took certain actions that would violate some current notion of a progressive litmus test can only lead us toward vacuity. The number of consequential people of history who could satisfy all the evolving standards of contemporary progressive orthodoxies is rapidly approaching zero. The unwoke are people too, with rights and claims deserving of forthright consideration, and even our most unenlightened and narrow-minded forebears may nevertheless have done something of significance or expressed some idea of influence or merit that is well worth our recognition and appreciation today.