April 9, 2012

Parkman: such a set of beasts

Francis Parkman was always fascinated by the forests and wilderness of the United States. Though born on the east coast in Boston, he had a great desire to travel west. Eventually, he did, and his most well-remembered work is The Oregon Trail, first serialized in 1847.

Just a year before that book was published, Parkman found himself in Cincinnati, Ohio on a hunting expedition and where he was studying Native Americans. A burgeoning western civilization of Americans of European descent was also developing, though he found it quite different from his New England experience. He wrote to his mother on April 9, 1846:

To-day I reached Cincinnati, after a two days' passage down the Ohio. The boat was good enough though filled with a swarm of half-civilized reprobates, gambling, swearing, etc., among themselves... The great annoyance on board these boats is the absurd haste of everybody to gulp down their meals. Ten minutes suffices for dinner, and it requires great skill and assiduity to secure a competent allowance in that space of time. As I don't much fancy this sort of proceeding, I generally manage to carry off from the table enough to alleviate the pangs of hunger without choking myself.

The case is much the same here in the best hotel in Cincinnati. When you sit down, you must begin without delay — grab whatever is within your reach, and keep hold of the plate by main force till you have helped yourself. Eat up as many potatoes, onions, or turnips as you can lay your hands on; and take your meat afterwards, whenever you have a chance to get it. It is only by economizing time in this fashion that you can avoid starvation — such a set of beasts are these Western men.

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