Francis Parkman set out West from St. Louis in order to see the prairie for himself and “to observe the Indian character”. Along the way he encountered some “unexpected impediments”. In fact, Parkman's whole journey seems to be one long misadventure, which he describes with dry good humor and a charming ability to laugh at himself. The series of minor disasters makes The Oregon Trail a very amusing story, but it is also a valuable narrative of life on the prairie and has some wonderfully detailed descriptions of Indian villages and customs.
The author is clearly impressed with native sportsmanship:
A shaggy buffalo bull bounded out from a neighboring hollow, and close behind him came a slender Indian boy, riding without stirrups or saddle, and lashing his eager little horse to full speed. Yard after yard he drew closer to his gigantic victim, though the bull, with his short tail erect and his tongue lolling out a foot from his foaming jaws, was straining his unwieldy strength to the utmost. A moment more, and the boy was close alongside. It was our friend the Hail-Storm. He dropped the rein on his horse's neck, and jerked an arrow like lightning from the quiver at his shoulder.
Parkman has a boundless fascination for all he sees, and he seems to fall in love with the prairie itself over the course of the book. He transfers this enthusiasm into his descriptions, which often verge on the poetic:
Emerging from the mud-holes of Westport, we pursued our way for some time along the narrow track, in the checkered sunshine and shadow of the woods, till at length, issuing into the broad light, we left behind us the farthest outskirts of the great forest, that once spread from the western plains to the shore of the Atlantic. Looking over an intervening belt of bushes, we saw the green, ocean-like expanse of the prairie, stretching swell beyond swell to the horizon.
Unlike many other explorers of the West, Parkman lacks hard-edged cynicism, and while he is generally accurate, he is also somewhat romantic. The Oregon Trail is not saturated with the violence that characterizes much literature of this genre, and, while his analyses of the people are not always flattering, they seem good-spirited:
Kettles were hung over the fires, around which the squaws were gathered with their children, laughing and talking merrily. A circle of a different kind…was composed of the old men and warriors of repute, who sat together with their white buffalo robes drawn close around their shoulders; and as the pipe passed from hand to hand, their conversation had not a particle of the gravity and reserve usually ascribed to Indians. I sat down with them as usual. I had in my hand half a dozen [fireworks], which I had made one day when encamped upon Laramie Creek, with gunpowder and charcoal, and the leaves of “Fremont's Expedition,” rolled round a stout lead pencil. I waited till I could get hold of the large piece of burning bois de vache which the Indians kept by them on the ground for lighting their pipes. With this I lighted all the fireworks at once, and tossed them whizzing and sputtering into the air, over the heads of the company. They all jumped up and ran off with yelps of astonishment and consternation. After a moment or two, they ventured to come back one by one, and some of the boldest, picking up the cases of burnt paper, examined them with eager curiosity to discover their mysterious secret. From that time forward I enjoyed great repute as a 'fire medicine.'
The Oregon Trail is not a scientific or anthropological treatise, but Parkman has a passion for these subjects that, coupled with his unique adventures, makes this a very appealing narrative.