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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Historian Francis Parkman Jr. summers in Portsmouth

February 15. 2017 7:55PM

Historian Francis Parkman, Jr. (1823-1893), shown in an engraving from a photograph taken in 1889. 

ASPIRING HISTORIAN Francis Parkman Jr. graduated from Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass., in 1844. Because his father wished for him to engage in a respectable profession, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, graduating in 1846. He never had to practice law, however, as he inherited a handsome income from his grandfather, Samuel Parkman, who had accumulated a fortune as a successful merchant.

After returning to Boston from a long journey to the West in 1846, Parkman began suffering from severe headaches, eye problems and other debilitating symptoms. These difficulties persisted for several years, slowing down his work. In 1847 Parkman was able to publish the journals from his westward trip as “The California and Oregon Trail” but his great ambition was to chronicle the struggles for the control of North America that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1851 Parkman published his first work on this subject, “The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada.” Pontiac was a chief of the Ottawa tribe who led his people into war against the British in the Great Lakes region in 1763-1765. Parkman then ventured further back in time to write the earlier history of the colonial wars involving the French, the British, and their Native American allies. His series of seven books titled “France and England in North America” was published between 1865 and 1892.

Parkman’s lively narrative style brought history to life for the reader. His books were popular with the general public and they earned respect amongst academics as he based his narratives on his original research in primary documents. Parkman was able to create a sense of authenticity in his descriptions by visiting the forts, battlefields and other sites in the United States and Canada where the major historical events had taken place. He also got to know firsthand (as he did in the New Hampshire woods) the types of terrain that had existed on the colonial frontier.

In 1850 Parkman married Catherine Scollay Bigelow, daughter of Boston physician Jacob Bigelow. The Parkmans established themselves in a fine home on Beacon Hill in Boston, and they also owned a cottage in the semi-rural Jamaica Plain section of the city. The couple had three children, Grace, Francis and Katherine. Francis died in 1857 when he was around 2 years old, and Catherine died in 1858. Grace and Katherine were both married in 1879 — Grace to Charles P. Coffin, a Boston attorney, and Katherine to John Templeman Coolidge III, an artist from a wealthy Boston family.

In 1886 the Coolidges bought the Wentworth mansion, located on Little Harbor in Portsmouth, N.H. They rehabilitated the dilapidated house, which had been built in 1753 by Benning Wentworth, New Hampshire’s royal Governor (now the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion).

Francis Parkman spent several pleasant weeks at the house in the summers of 1888 to 1893. His granddaughter Mary “Molly” Coolidge Perkins wrote fondly of her grandfather in her memoir, “Once I Was Very Young.”

“He used to write History in his bedroom a good part of the day, but each day, when the tide was right he would row off to go fishing in the decked boat that my father had built for him,” she wrote. She often went with him, helping with the rowing. They would “anchor off a rocky point where the perch and flounders were most likely to bite.” She described how, one day, she dropped Parkman’s white bone-handled knife into the harbor. When they returned to the house she cleaned up her old knife and gave it to him as a replacement. The next day Parkman sent a servant into town to buy two new knives similar to the one that had been lost — one for each of them. She wrote, “I had never hoped for such a lovely thing.”

On Nov. 8, 1893, the eminent historian Francis Parkman, Jr. died at his home in Jamaica Plain at the age of 70. One of the pallbearers at his funeral was his dear friend and Harvard classmate Daniel Denison Slade, who had accompanied him on the eventful New Hampshire trip of 1841. Slade was a doctor and a prolific writer on scientific, horticultural and historical topics.

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Next week: Benning Wentworth, New Hampshire’s royal Governor.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester. Contact her at or at

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