Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2003 Issue

The Collaborative Project:How Much For The Oregon Trail ¡V

Mike1

Image of Parkman's Oregon Trail taken from the AE Database.


By Michael Stillman

It is a classic and extremely important picture of the Old West I set out to find. Francis Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail recounts his trip into Indian territory in the summer of 1846. It is an invaluable account of Indian life before it was greatly altered by America’s Westward Expansion. However, it must be read with a shaker full of salt as Parkman’s account is heavily colored by his own prejudices and beliefs. The Indians are frequently described as “savages,” though they surely must have thought the cavalry and settlers who conquered and took their land were the savage ones. And the title itself is a bit misleading, since Parkman never got anywhere close to California or Oregon. He ventured about as far as what is today eastern Wyoming.

You and I can obtain copies of this seminal work of western Americana on the Abebooks website (www.Abebooks.com) today. In fact, this should be very easy, because at this writing there are 1,425 copies available on this website alone. They range in price from a low of $.01 to a high of $7,500. And this brings us to the Americana Exchange Database or AED for short. Before we purchase that $7,500 copy, we had better make sure we understand the difference between it and the one offered for a penny.

As my interest was in a specific title, I was able to immediately move beyond the broader “Keyword Search” offered by the AED and directly to the more targeted searches offered by either the “Primary Search” or “Advanced Search” screens. However, keyword searches of “Oregon Trail” and “Francis Parkman” provide interesting material for another day. “Oregon Trail” displays numerous other titles about this brief but amazing period of movement westward, while “Francis Parkman” offers other titles written by or about him.

Entering “Parkman” for author and “Oregon Trail” for title using a “Primary Search” seems like it should be sufficient to appropriately target our search, and so it is. Thirty-one listings appear, all for the correct title. We are interested in a first edition, and immediately we see why there are so many listings on “ABE.” This book was reprinted many times. We check a record in the AED from the 2000 Laird Park auction (selling price of $360) and find the 1892 edition’s preface from an older Parkman to be interesting. “The Wild West is tamed, and its savage charms have withered,” says the author. Indeed they had by 1892, but not at the time Parkman wrote his book. This is certainly no first edition. We quickly determine from the printing dates that 1849 must be the year for the first edition.

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