Francis Parkman (1823 – 1893)

January 16, 2012

A historian and horticulturist, Francis Parkman was born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 16, 1823.

Parkman’s family enjoyed wealth thanks to the inheritance of grandfather Samuel Parkman’s fortune, earned in the China trade. His father, also named Francis, was a Unitarian pastor; his mother was a descendant of noted Reverend John Cotton, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Reverend Edward Brooks of Medford.

He was sent to live with his grandparents in West Medford (on the wooded land later known as the Middlesex Fells) at the age of eight, due to weak health. Parkman’s surroundings immediately impacted him, and he developed a great passion for nature, natural history, and reading. He entered Harvard in 1840 and studied with Edward Tyrell Channing (Lot 1145 Greenbrier Path) and Jared Sparks, but took every opportunity away from school to immerse himself in wilderness. He frequently hiked and paddled through the White Mountains, and later traveled to Lake George and Fort Ticonderoga, favoring places where wild, untamed nature intersected with history.

The constant rigor of physical activity eventually wore on Parkman’s health, and after suffering “heart strain” (now known as hypertension) in 1843, he left Harvard. Later that same year, he took to the sea and traveled to Europe to restore his health. After seven months he returned to America and completed his degree at Harvard. In 1846 he completed a degree from Harvard Law School; at the same time, his health again declined.

Despite his health challenges, Parkman persevered and embarked on the most demanding trip of his life: a journey along the Oregon and Sante Fe Trails, accompanied by his cousin, Quincy A. Shaw. He recorded the adventures of the journey along with firsthand accounts of the culture of the Plains Indians, gleaned from several weeks spent living with the Oglala Sioux. Upon his return to Boston, Parkman’s health took its final downturn and he dictated his notes to Shaw while in treatment; the stories told would become his most popular book, The Oregon Trail. He later published his most renowned book, History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac, about the battle between the French and English for possession of the American continent.

Parkman lived an intellectually- and romantically-fulfilling life, marrying Catherine Scollay Bigelow – daughter of Dr. Jacob Bigelow, in 1850. He became interested in horticulture later in life and began propagating new varieties of roses and lilies. Parkman was so successful in this endeavor that he caught the attention of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which appointed him as their President; later, he also earned the appointment of professor of horticulture at Harvard.

Francis Parkman is buried in Lot 2919, Indian Ridge Path.


Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson and Cathy Breitkreutz, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Francis Parkman, 1999.

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