The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

Retroview: Francis Parkman’s Indian Problem

Reconsidering a great American historian who faced some familiar dilemmas.

Published on December 9, 2011

According to my entirely unscientific sample of friends and acquaintances, Francis Parkman’s multivolume history, France and England in North America, ranks near if not at the top of the list of the least-read American great books. Two reasons explain why Parkman’s history is currently neglected.

First, it is massive, consisting of seven separate volumes individually published between 1865 and 1892. There is also what amounts to an eighth volume, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada, published originally in 1851 and then in a revised and expanded edition in 1870. This book is what Hollywood would call a prequel: It describes the failure of a 1763–65 Indian war against the British, launched after the British had defeated the French in the French and Indian War. The two Library of America volumes devoted to France and England together exceed 3,000 pages; Pontiac adds another 600 pages to the total. In short, reading Parkman amounts to a serious commitment, on the order of reading Gibbon or Macaulay.

More substantively and probably more important, Parkman is largely unread because he seemingly deals with American prehistory rather than with American history proper. His seven-volume set also pays far more attention to France than to Britain, yet American history arguably begins only with the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War. That is what created the conditions that culminated in America’s declaration of independence a mere 17 years after British troops occupied Quebec.

That consideration, however, justifies reading Parkman all the more. Even if America’s history began only after its prehistory ended, we still need to understand how and why that prehistory concluded. Parkman himself makes the case:

The most momentous and far-reaching question ever brought to issue on this continent was: Shall France remain here, or shall she not? If, by diplomacy or war, she had preserved but the half, or less than the half, of her American possessions, then a barrier would have been set to the spread of the English-speaking races; there would have been no Revolutionary War; and for a long time, at least, no independence. 

Parkman is worth reading today not only because his history helps explain how the United States came to be, but also because he was a master of old-fashioned narrative history that speaks uncannily to our time. Parkman’s principal concerns in assessing 17th- and 18th-century North America happen to be surprisingly pertinent to certain political debates engulfing the United States today. In a nutshell, two of the central themes of Parkman’s history are opposition to a vast administrative state seeking to regulate individual behavior (what Tocqueville called “soft despotism”) and opposition to what we now call terrorism.

Parkman was born in Boston in 1823 to a distinguished and wealthy Brahmin family. As a 17-year-old Harvard sophomore, he decided to devote his life to writing the “story of what was then known as the ‘Old French War’—that is, the War that ended in the conquest of Canada.” He subsequently enlarged the plan “to include the whole course of the American conflict between France and England.” Because Parkman was independently wealthy, he had the time and leisure to complete his project, publishing the last volume a year before his death in 1893. His productivity is particularly impressive because he suffered for most of his life from an undiagnosed neurological disease, which often impaired his vision and mobility. Parkman conducted much of his research by having people read documents to him, and much of his history was either written in the dark or dictated to others.

Parkman was a man of his own time, to be sure. He opposed women’s suffrage, which was of a piece with his seeing himself as a Federalist after the fact, a proponent, in his own words, of “a conservative republic, where intelligence and character, and not numbers, hold the reins of power.” Parkman’s critics, during his lifetime and after, have rejected this benign self-presentation. In the words of the Parkman scholar Wilbur Jacobs, they have classed him instead as “a racist writer, who was . . . reactionary in his societal views. He has been accused . . . of being anti-Indian, anticlerical, and antidemocratic.”1 Of these charges, the claim that Parkman was an anti-Indian racist is the most serious in itself, and also as an attack on Parkman’s objectivity as an historian, since much of his history discusses military conflicts between the Indians and colonists of European descent.

Not even his critics, however, deny that Parkman was a great storyteller. His work abounds with deft characterizations, thrilling battle scenes and lyrical descriptions of nature. (The latter are enriched by Parkman’s extensive botanical knowledge; he wrote a book about roses, developed several varieties of flowers and was briefly a professor of horticulture.) For an example of Parkman’s skill at characterization, consider the dry wit he deploys in describing efforts by Jesuit missionaries to surreptitiously baptize dying Indian children against the wishes of their parents:

Now, while apparently fanning the heated brow, the dexterous visitor touched it with a corner of his handkerchief, which he had previously dipped in water, murmured the baptismal words with motionless lips, and snatched another soul from the fangs of the “Infernal Wolf.” Thus, with the patience of saints, the courage of heroes, and an intent truly charitable, did the Fathers put forth a nimble-fingered adroitness that would have done credit to the profession of which the function is less to dispense the treasures of another world than to grasp those which pertain to this.

Yet it is Parkman’s relevance today that impresses most. Parkman explains the British victory over France in North America as being due to the former’s habits of freedom, and especially the latter’s habits of servitude:

An ignorant population, sprung from a brave and active race, but trained to subjection and dependence through centuries of feudal and monarchical despotism, was planted in the wilderness by the hand of authority, and told to grow and flourish. Artificial stimulants were applied, but freedom was withheld. Perpetual intervention of government, regulations, restrictions, encouragements sometimes more mischievous than restrictions, a constant uncertainty what the authorities would do next, the fate of each man resting less with himself than with another, volition enfeebled, self-reliance paralyzed, —the condition, in short, of a child held always under the rule of a father, in the main well-meaning and kind, sometimes generous, sometimes neglectful, often capricious, and never very wise—such were the influences under which [French] Canada grew up. If she had prospered, it would have been sheer miracle.

The fact that this passage clearly encapsulates Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” critique is no coincidence: Parkman quotes Tocqueville, from The Old Régime and the French Revolution, as follows: “When I want to discover the spirit and vices of the government of Louis XIV, I must go to Canada. Its deformities are seen there as through a microscope.”

Parkman’s analysis of the failings of French Canada develops these Tocquevillian insights and provides numerous examples to buttress them. A 1709 government regulation discouraged Montreal residents from raising too many horses so that they would raise more cattle and sheep. Because Montrealers, the regulation explained, were “ignorant of their true interest”, they were commanded hereafter to “own no more than two horses or mares and one foal.” The subjects were required in the following year to kill any excess horses that remained in their possession.

Parkman also faults the French for “excess . . . benevolence”: Louis XIV “established a fund destined . . . to relieve indigent persons, subsidized nearly every branch of trade and industry, and in other instances did for the colonists what they would far better have learned to do for themselves.” And since he who pays the piper also calls the tune, the French subsidization of trade predictably went hand in hand with its restriction. For example, Parkman relates that local merchants were forbidden to sell retail goods except in August, September and October, or to sell ready-made clothing or housewares, in order to preserve markets for those back in the metropole. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs accustomed themselves to relying on government support for their endeavors. A certain Riverin, who in 1689 wished to become a whaler and cod fisherman, was aided by King Louis XIV himself. The king ordered that Riverin be sent “boats, harpooners, and cordage” for which Riverin was subsequently to pay. Four years later the king complained that “though Riverin had been often helped, his fisheries were of slight account.”

Canada’s chief export was beaver skins, and trade in the skins was heavily regulated. In 1687 a man named Oudiette had a monopoly on the fur trade giving him exclusive right to transport all Canadian beaver skins to France, but also compelling him to purchase all skins offered to him at a fixed price. Unfortunately, the price was well above what the market would bear, so Oudiette “soon found himself burdened with such a mass of beaver-skins, that the market was completely glutted.” Parkman elaborates: “The French hatters refused to take them all; and for the part which they consented to take, they paid chiefly in hats, which Oudiette was not allowed to sell in France, but only in the French West Indies, where few people wanted them.” In the end, Oudiette tried to use the skins to manufacture and sell hats in France, with another hatter fronting for him. But the rest of the hatters, unhappy about the entry of a new competitor, petitioned the relevant ministry, which shut down Oudiette’s factory and ensured his bankruptcy.

In short, Parkman criticizes the French government for multiple economic interventions through which “the action of the law of supply and demand was completely arrested.” In an early manifestation of free-market environmentalism, Parkman also bemoans the needless killing of beavers resulting from the artificially high price on skins set by the government: “One cannot repress a feeling of indignation at the fate of the interesting and unfortunate animals uselessly sacrificed to a false economic system.”

Thus Parkman portrays a government that overrode individual preferences in the belief that individuals are “ignorant of their true interest”; that was officiously benevolent, caring for people who should have cared for themselves; and that restricted trade and fixed prices, leading to economic distortions. He is writing of 17th-century Canada, but conservatives, at least, if not also open-minded others, would find his analysis remarkably applicable to debates about economic arrangements in 21st-century America.

Parkman offers one further thought about the Canadian economy that deserves notice, one in effect about foreign relations. Canada’s self-induced economic woes, he contends, also hindered French competition with the British to secure the allegiance of Indian tribes.

The English had one powerful attraction for all the tribes alike. This was the abundance and excellence of their goods, which, with the exception of gunpowder, were better as well as cheaper than those offered by the French. The Indians, it is true, liked the taste of French brandy more than that of English rum; yet as their chief object in drinking was to get drunk, and as rum would supply as much intoxication as brandy at a lower price, it always found favor in their eyes. In the one case, to get thoroughly drunk often cost a beaver-skin; in the other, the same satisfaction could generally be had for a mink-skin.

That unflattering comment on what Parkman regards as Indian proclivities brings us back to the subject of Parkman’s alleged racism.

To put it gently, Parkman did not admire the Indians. The superiority of civilization to savagery forms the basis of Parkman’s critique, a view hardly unusual for the time. He predicted that the settlers’ superiority meant that the Indians could not survive. The Indian, he wrote, “will not learn the arts of civilization, and he and his forest must perish together.” Because of their “wild love of freedom, and impatience of all control”, Indians are “utterly intolerant of military discipline.” More broadly, “where barbarism has been arrayed against civilization, disorder against discipline, and ungoverned fury against considerate valor”, barbarism, disorder and ungoverned fury have succumbed.

There is a moral, not just analytical, component to his critique: The Indians not only were bound to be defeated; it was good that they were defeated because they fought what today we would call a terrorist war. How was their terrorism manifested? First, Indians were sometimes guilty of torture and cannibalism, both of which Parkman graphically described. His explanation of Indian cannibalism is worthy of special note:

A hideous scene of feasting followed the torture of a prisoner. Like the torture itself, it was, among the Hurons, partly an act of vengeance, and partly a religious rite. If the victim had shown courage, the heart was first roasted, cut into small pieces, and given to the young men and boys, who devoured it to increase their own courage. The body was then divided, thrown into the kettles, and eaten by the assembly, the head being the portion of the chief. Many of the Hurons joined in the feast with reluctance and horror, while others took pleasure in it.

In speaking of the victim’s “courage”, Parkman implies that cannibalism was restricted to defeated warriors. But horrifying acts of war were also committed against defenseless civilians. Here Parkman describes tactics employed by the French and their Indian allies in the 18th-century wars against the British:

The French and Indian war-parties commonly avoided the true garrison houses, and very rarely captured them, except unawares, for their tactics . . . consisted, for the most part, in pouncing upon peaceful settlers by surprise, and generally in the night. Combatants and non-combatants were slaughtered together. . . . To attack military posts . . . was a legitimate act of war; but systematically to butcher helpless farmers and their families can hardly pass as such.

This surely defines what we think of as terrorism today.

As a matter of empirical fact, Parkman was right about Indian cannibalism and torture. Jacobs, who is far from being an uncritical admirer of Parkman’s, notes that, “modern authorities on the Iroquois and other woodland tribes . . . differ little from Parkman [on these matters]. . . . As Parkman stated, both [cannibalism and torture] were practiced among the Hurons, Miamis, and other eastern tribes.”2

As to the claim that the terrorist label can (anachronistically) be applied to the way the Indians waged war, consider the assessment by Rutgers historian Peter Silver, author of Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (2007):

The violence that provincial Americans found themselves first dreading and then experiencing was, in the most literal sense, terroristic. It had been carefully planned and carried out by the Indians with whom they were at war to induce the greatest fright possible. . . . All contemporary accounts of Indian attacks noted that they had fallen on exactly those people—children, women, farm folk obliviously going about their housework and harvesting, sleeping people ‘surprised and murdered in their Beds’—who could make no resistance.

Parkman’s history again mirrors the contemporary struggle against terrorism in his quoting (and rejecting) a defense of Indian terrorism that sounds eerily like contemporary multiculturalism. In 1757, France’s Ottawa allies participated in a successful siege of Fort William Henry, a British fort located at the head of Lake George. In the aftermath of the siege, a Jesuit missionary, Roubaud, observed the Ottawas celebrating their victory:

He presently saw a large number of [Ottawas] squatted [sic] about a fire, before which meat was roasting on sticks stuck in the ground; and, approaching, he saw that it was the flesh of an Englishman, other parts of which were boiling in a kettle, while near by sat eight or ten of the prisoners, forced to see their comrade devoured. The horror-stricken priest began to remonstrate; on which a young savage replied in broken French: ‘You have French taste; I have Indian. This is good meat for me’; and the feasters pressed him to share it.

Needless to say, Parkman rejects this Indian’s contention. He thereby resembles those today who reject the full-frontal relativism of the argument that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Cannibalism, like terrorism, is morally wrong because it is dehumanizing, and it is morally wrong for all people and all peoples.

Parkman also condemns what amounts to a “Stockholm syndrome” attitude that leads members of a terrorized community at times to justify the terrorism perpetrated upon it. There were colonial defenders of the Indians’ war against the colonies. Here Parkman focuses on the Quakers, whom he describes as a sect “set apart from the other colonists not only in character and creed, but in the outward symbols of a peculiar dress and a daily sacrifice of grammar on the altar of religion.” Parkman maintains that the Quakers “held it sin to fight, and above all to fight against Indians.” It was easy for the Quakers to deprecate war against the Indians, since the Indians’ attacks did not affect them, the limousine liberals of their day: “The appalling tempest, which, during the French war, had desolated the rest of the province, had been unfelt near Philadelphia; and while the inhabitants to the westward had been slaughtered by hundreds, scarcely a Quaker had been hurt.” Parkman thought the Quakers cared far more for the welfare of the Indians than for the welfare of the Presbyterians of western Pennsylvania. For Parkman, sympathy for those who are thought to be oppressed is selective and immoral when it leads to denying or condoning their transgressions.

Thus Parkman depicts for us a war in which noncombatants were the preferred prey, in which one of the parties denied that it should be bound by the restrictions imposed on the other party, and in which misguided benevolence led some colonists to extenuate vicious attacks on other colonists. Once again, Parkman’s vision of the past resonates with the present.

At the same time, Parkman’s critique of the Indians exemplifies something that troubles many Americans today, particularly liberals: the fear that a war on terrorism can morph into an unjust war on an entire people. That is a legitimate fear, and no one these days can deny that the settlers’ treatment of the Indians was on balance deeply unfair. A popular T-shirt that often shows up at contemporary Indian pow-wows features photos of famous chiefs under the inscription: “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” The implied argument is not easily dismissed.

As Jacobs rightly notes, too: “Good evidence supports the argument that Parkman overemphasized the violent side of the Indian personality.” For example, the historian Francis Jennings showed that Parkman distorted his sources to downplay the initiative taken by Delaware Indians in 1758 to re-establish peace between western Pennsylvania’s British and Indian inhabitants. (The French had previously pressured the Delawares to fight against the British.)

Parkman’s disdain for the Indians in part reflected his epoch-bound understanding of the significance of biological differences among peoples. Like many 19th-century thinkers, Parkman was misled by the pseudo-science of his day, arguing from phrenology, for instance, that the Iroquois and Hurons were superior to other Indians because their brains were larger. And Parkman’s lurid rhetoric does at times dehumanize the Indians. Consider this description of an encounter between a 17th-century French explorer and a group of Iroquois warriors:

It was a frightful spectacle: the contorted forms, bounding, crouching, twisting, to deal or dodge the shot; the small keen eyes that shone like an angry snake’s; the parted lips pealing their fiendish yells; the painted features writhing with fear and fury, and every passion of an Indian fight; man, wolf, and devil, all in one.

Parkman’s tendency to dehumanize the Indians aroused opposition even in his own time. His first book, The Oregon Trail (1849), an account of his 1846 voyage to the West, was favorably reviewed by none other than Herman Melville. But Melville nevertheless took exception to Parkman’s evident contempt for Indians: “When . . . we are informed that it is difficult for any white man, after a domestication among the Indians, to hold them much better than brutes . . . we beg leave to dissent.” Melville did, however, join Parkman in affirming the superiority of civilization to savagery: “The savage is born a savage; and the civilized being but inherits his civilization, nothing more. Let us not disdain then, but pity.”

Parkman’s critique, however, was not racist in any simple sense. The behavior for which Parkman takes the Indians to task was truly horrific. He denounces acts of war—torture, cannibalism and attacks on defenseless settlers—that were grossly immoral. Furthermore, Parkman’s explanation for what he saw as Indian proclivities was cultural, not racial:

Barbarism is to civilization what childhood is to maturity; and all savages, whatever may be their country, their color, or their lineage, are prone to treachery and deceit. The barbarous ancestors of our own frank and manly race are no less obnoxious to the charge than those of the cat-like Bengalee; for in this childhood of society brave men and cowards are treacherous alike. 

In addition, Parkman demonstrably judges all men—whites as well as Indians—by the same standard. He criticizes despicable Indian behavior, but it was the behavior, not the fact that it was Indian behavior, that evoked his opprobrium. He is no less critical of such behavior when whites were the guilty parties. He thus condemns the Canadian governor Louis Frontenac, who “caused an Iroquois prisoner to be burnt alive to strike terror into his countrymen; and Louvigny, French commandant at Michillimackinac, in 1695, [who] tortured an Iroquois ambassador to death, that he might break off a negotiation between that people and the Wyandots.” Parkman also condemns the white settlers from Paxton, Pennsylvania, who, reacting to Indian “perfidy and cruelty”, murdered six harmless Indians in 1763. As he put it, “Some of the more violent class were inflamed to the commission of atrocities which bear no very favorable comparison with those of the Indians themselves.” Parkman also speaks of many other examples “in which the worst acts of Indian ferocity have been thrown into shade by the enormities of white barbarians.”

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Parkman comes very close indeed to justifying the Indians’ military tactics as an understandable response to their plight: “We cannot refrain from sympathizing with the intolerable hardship to which the progress of civilization subjected the unfortunate tenants of the wilderness . . . which goes far to extenuate the perfidy and cruelty that marked their conduct throughout the whole course of the war.” Clearly, Parkman knew that there was nothing simple or straightforward about conflict among different cultures, but he also knew that complexity ought not to supply a pretext for facile moral relativism.

Whatever else a reading of Parkman is worth today, it most assuredly helps us to better understand America’s deep past. We can relish Parkman’s brilliance as a narrator and as a researcher, and we can learn as well from his ordinariness as a man of his own time. That these two qualities can animate the heart and soul of the same person ought to encourage us, for it means that genuine progress is possible despite the inevitable limitations of our perspective. It is also encouraging to see that some of the dilemmas we face today are so hard to manage because they are so basic to the human condition. Reading Parkman sensitizes us to the reality that, sometimes at least, it is not what is new about social life that should beg our attentions, but what is true about it.


1Wilbur R. Jacobs, Francis Parkman, Historian as Hero: The Formative Years (University of Texas Press, 1991), p. 124.

2For example, Jacobs cites the anthropologists Thomas Abler (author of the scholarly article “Iroquois Cannibalism: Fact Not Fiction”), Elisabeth Tooker and Bruce Trigger. Jacobs, Francis Parkman, pp. 64–5, 191.


Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.