The Oregon Trail: Illustrations from Francis Parkman’s Book

September 13, 2011 – March 18, 2012 —

The Oregon Trail was a pathway to the west that began around 1843 when more than 350,000 pioneers headed west during a 25-year span. As the harbinger of America’s westward expansion, the Oregon Trail was the route to the Pacific for fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries, and others. Today, more than 2,000 miles of trail ruts and traces can still be seen in the vast undeveloped western lands – reminders of the sacrifices, struggles, and triumphs of early American travelers and settlers. The Museum of Nebraska Art celebrates this visual story with two exhibitions honoring this significant journey through Nebraska’s history.

As a young historian, in a young country, Francis Parkman set out to explore the West and write the history of this nation as it was happening. In so doing, he set the standard for historical narratives both in terms of research and writing. His style has a powerful sense of immediacy and eloquence, is occasionally unsettling, and often has a cinematic scope. Parkman is best known as the author of The Oregon Trail, published in 1849. The book is a vivid account of his frontier adventures and his encounters with Plains Indians in their final era of nomadic life.

Parkman has been hailed as one of America’s great historians and as a master of narrative history. Over the years, The Oregon Trail book has been reprinted many times, each generation of publishers choosing a different illustrator. Some of the most talented and well-known artists of each era have illustrated the pages of this enlightening and gripping account of Parkman’s journey along the Platte River, up into the Rocky Mountains, and back along the Arkansas River.

Visitors to the Museum of Nebraska Art can relive Parkman’s adventure through the exhibition, The Oregon Trail: Illustrations for Francis Parkman’s Book, featuring all 28 original watercolor illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton for the book’s 100th year edition, which are part of MONA’s permanent collection. The exhibition also features borrowed works that were created to illustrate other editions including N.C. Wyeth’s portrait of Francis Parkman, 9 illustrations by Maynard Dixon, 3 from William Henry Jackson, and 1 from Frederic Remington.