Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:55

Writers for Conservatives: 38, Francis Parkman, 1823-93

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Writers for Conservatives: 38, Francis Parkman, 1823-93

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

He is, I think our greatest historian, producing a monumental multi-volume work, France and England in North America, a prodigy of research at a time when the documents had, for the most part, not been published and had to be ferreted out in archives and private collections in France, England, and America, and Canada, a work written as a literary narrative, instinct with the life described. As the author says in his introduction to the first volume, Pioneers of France in the New World:

The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time . . . he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or spectator of the action he describes.

Insofar as was possible for one describing actions of 200 and more years before, he did make it seem as if he were a spectator of the action, as in this passage telling of Champlain's first ascension of the Ottawa river:

On the brink of the rocky basin where the plunging torrent boiled like a cauldron, and puffs of spray sprang out from its concussion like smoke from the throat of a cannon, Champlain's two Indians took their stand, and, with a loud invocation, threw tobacco into the foam, an offering to the local spirit, the Manitou of the cataract.

His ability to make his narrative life-like was due not only to the fact that he visited most of the scenes he wrote about, but also to his discriminating eye for landscape - he was a prominent member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and he wrote a book on roses. Reading his prose is a rich experience in itself.

Reading in the first volume about the early Spanish explorations of Florida and the later abortive French adventures there, the reader begins to get a sense of the significance of the continent to those who first encountered it, a significance that shifted in time and with the viewer. Thanks perhaps to the spectacular treasures gained from their Mexican and Incan conquests, the Spanish seem arrested in the treasure hunting mode, to which we owe the epic journeys of Coronado and DeSoto, and that seems also to have been the impulse behind the French expeditions to Florida. The pattern everywhere is the same: land on shore, parley with natives ("where's the gold?"), hastily build a stockade, head into the bush in search of the cities of gold and silver, followed by starvation, mutiny, repression, massacre, or abandonment of the enterprise. They did not grasp the idea of a continent at all; it was no more than a location for heaps of gold.

Meanwhile, practical men saw that it was a mine of humbler treasures: Breton and Basque fishermen were catching cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in Columbus' time, and there was a nascent fur trading station, Tadoussac, near the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Amazingly, buffalo hides were brought down the Potomac by Indians and thence in canoes along the Atlantic coast to be traded at Tadoussac. This was in the 1560s. But it was not until the appearance of Champlain and his associates in the early 17th century (Champlain founded Quebec city in 1608) that men began to see the fringes where they landed as the shores of a momentous fact that would in time become an idea.

The British colonies, beginning to be founded about this time, were neither exploitative (in the Spanish sense) nor nationalistic, as the French would soon prove to be: all founded under commercial auspices, they sent back to England dried fish and furs while they pursued the ways of life for which they had emigrated, the Puritans trying to erect a Godly commonwealth, the Virginians creating an aristocratic colony, the Pennsylvanians a Quaker society. Although the Virginians would later look beyond the Blue Ridge to the Ohio valley with an eye to land speculations, the continent did not begin to mean much to Americans until after the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was only the most remarkable French explorers like Champlain and later LaSalle, who had a continental vision.

The defining feature of the French effort was the rigid control from Versailles, a royal commission, and the French king's role in the 17th and 18th centuries was absolute. The plan rested on a triumvirate: Jesuit missionaries were to convert and pacify the Indians; soldiers were to protect them from their enemies (mainly the Iroquois) and the colony from the English; and traders would get furs, which would pay for all the outlay, from the Indians. Not exactly a continental vision, but at least it looked westward, believing that the western tribes bringing their furs to the Hurons would be converted and pacified in their turn. The first fallacy was that New France could be managed, without corruption and internal conflict, from Versailles, and the second fallacy was the projected conversion and pacification of the Indians. But the policy was pursued to the end, and it enabled LaSalle to lay before the king his plan and a description of the lands south and west of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi valley.

It is nearly all so beautiful and fertile; so free from forests, and so full of meadows, brooks, and rivers; so abounding in fish, game, and venison, that one can find there in plenty, and with little trouble, all that is needful for the support of flourishing colonies. The soil will produce everything that is raised in France.

The conflict and corruption in the colony, involving everyone, was caused by the blind authoritarianism of the distant government. For instance, officials were banned (vainly) from the fur trade, and monopolies abounded, granted to influential merchants in France who had their agents (corrupt) in New France. As a consequence, very little of the enormous profits of the fur trade got back to Versailles. Parkman points out one advantage of absolutism: it meant that the colonial governor could assemble and direct martial forces expeditiously without the delays of democratic debate and dissent, so prevalent in the British colonies. But in the long run, the absence of a thriving colonial base, precluded by the priority of the fur trade, meant that New France could not rally after military defeat.

Parkman's account, from its beginnings in the 1530s to its end in the 1760s, is minutely detailed, but is never boring or trivial, even when we are taken to France to explore the politics behind various royal decisions. There is one fault, and that is the overemphasis on the ideas and conscious motives of the actors, or the blind ferocity of the Indians, without considering underlying material causes. For example, when the Iroquois destroy the Hurons, Parkman ascribes it to their better organization and especially ferocious nature, when the truth is that, as a result of their trade with the Dutch (and later the English) at Albany, they had become dependent on the white man's tools and utensils, but their hunting area in New York was trapped out. They had to have access to the furs coming through the Huron's territory, and they made that claim explicitly to the French, who failed to understand them. Parkman alludes to this later, but he doesn't see its importance. He over emphasizes the savagery and inconstancy of the Indians, failing to see that they were not stupid and they had good reasons for their actions. For instance, many of the Indian allies of the French defected to the English simply because their trade goods were better and cheaper.

Many writers have tried to catch the spirit of America, that elusive concept, but only when I read Parkman do I really get a sense of the continent looming beyond the innocuous shore, unknown, full of promise and implacable menace, and then I see the men, tiny figures, pushing forward, making trails, spanning rivers, building cities, creating an idea of America, a web of thoughts and dreams woven from, in part, the visions of those first adventurers.

France and England in North America consists of these volumes: Pioneers of France in the New World, The Jesuits in North America in the 17th century, LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West, The Old Regime in Canada, Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman also wrote The Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac, both recommended, the first for its vivid picture of the western frontier in 1846, the second for another fine historical portrait of the wiliest Indian leader. *

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Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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