The California and Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life
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The California and Oregon Trail is Parkman’s thrilling account of a summer spent journeying from St. Louis through the Great Plains and Black Hills to the Rockies. Traveling with his guide, Henry Chatillon, Parkman comes to revere the French trappers and voyageurs who had originally opened the country while mastering an essential art of frontier survival—hunting buffalo.
Though plagued by a mysterious illness since childhood that left him weak and blind for long periods of time, Parkman was the picture of perseverance, eagerly covering vast stretches of the Great Plains with a roving band of Sioux for days on end. He returned home exhausted—almost entirely blind—and was forced to dictate the entire account, lending the book its breezy, conversational style.
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Without discipline or a spirit of subordination, they knew how to keep their ranks and act as one man. Doniphan’s regiment marched through New Mexico more like a band of free companions than like the paid soldiers of a modern government. When General Taylor complimented Doniphan on his success at Sacramento and elsewhere, the Colonel’s reply very well illustrates the relations which subsisted between the officers and men of his command: ‘I don’t know any thing of the manoeuvres. The boys kept
night, and clambering up the outside of one of the lodges, which are in the form of a half-sphere, he looked in at the round hole made at the top for the escape of smoke. The dusky light from the smouldering embers showed him the forms of the sleeping inmates; and dropping lightly through the opening, he unsheathed his knife, and stirring the fire, coolly selected his victims. One by one, he stabbed and scalped them; when a child suddenly awoke and screamed. He rushed from the lodge, yelled a
at La Bonte’s Camp. For that and several succeeding days, Mahto-Tatonka and his friends remained our guests. They devoured the relics of our meals; they filled the pipe for us, and also helped us to smoke it. Sometimes they stretched, themselves side by side in the shade, indulging in raillery and practical jokes, ill becoming the dignity of brave and aspiring warriors, such as two of them in reality were. Two days dragged away, and on the morning of the third we hoped confidently to see the
buffalo-bulls. The wind blew from them to the village, and such was their blindness and stupidity, that they were advancing upon the enemy without the least consciousness of his presence. Raymond told me that two young men had hidden themselves with guns in a ravine about twenty yards in front of us. The two bulls walked slowly on, heavily swinging from side to side in their peculiar gait of stupid dignity. They approached within four or five rods of the ravine where the Indians lay in ambush.
unless we wished to involve ourselves in the fray; so I turned to go, but just then a pair of eyes, gleaming like a snake’s, and an aged familiar countenance was thrust from the opening of a neighboring lodge, and out bolted old Mene-Seela, full of fight, clutching his bow and arrows in one hand and his knife in the other. At that instant he tripped and fell sprawling on his face, while his weapons flew scattering away in every direction. The women with loud screams were hurrying with their