Francis Parkman, while still an undergraduate student at Harvard University in the 1840s, conceived of an academic project it would take nearly his entire life to execute. The result, published over almost thirty years, was a seven-volume history of the ongoing conflict between France and England for control of the United States. The first volume, France and England in North America, appeared in 1865, and the final volume, A Half Century of Conflict, was not published until 1893, by which time a degenerative neurological condition made it incredibly difficult for Parkman to read and write.
Parkman’s health suffered for much of his life. As a child, he was sent to live on a large farmstead in western Massachusetts to build strength and there he fell in love with the New England forest. Though he went on to study at Harvard, tour Europe, and earn a law degree, his interest in the American wilderness persisted, eventually leading to an expedition through much of what is now Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas. This journey inspired his first major work, The Oregon Trail, which included descriptions of his time with the Sioux, who he described as “thorough savages.”
Returning to Boston, Parkman married, built a garden in Jamaica Plain, and began work as an amateur horticulturist. It was not until after the death of his wife in 1858 that Parkman built a house on Beacon Hill and began his history of the Anglo-French conflict. At that time, his eyesight had begun to deteriorate and he had an intense sensitivity to light, though he continued to travel for his work.
Despite Parkman’s many achievements, his work has fallen out of favor due to some of his more controversial opinions, including the belief that westward expansion was the triumph of civilization over “savage” Native Americans, and his strident opposition to women’s suffrage.
Parkman died in 1893, though many of his books remain in print. The house he built at 50 Chestnut Street is marked with a plaque.