By Richard Heath
In the great council house stood the wisdom and valor of the confederacy, sachems; tall and stalwart figures limbed like Grecian statues.
Francis Parkman, The Old Regime of Canada
A majestic Iroquois stands witness on the shores of Jamaica Pond. He emerges from a single shaft of granite twenty feet high. The head and torso are cut deep into the stone while the legs, wrapped in a robe, appear to be the stone itself because of the low-cut relief. His thick left hand holds his robe and the pipe of peace. The stern face is often in shadow; the head is thrown back and his hooded eyes stare into time.
This is the memorial to Francis Parkman, American historian and summertime Jamaica Plain resident. It was designed by Daniel Chester French and carved partly on site in 1906.
Francis Parkman was born on September 16, 1893 on Beacon Hill; he spent his early years at number five Bowdoin Square. Together with the historian William H. Prescott (1796-1859), Parkman introduced American letters to the field of history written in Romantic prose, based on careful research from original manuscripts and documents.
It was as a student at Harvard that Francis Parkman determined to write about the American wilderness – the struggle for power in North America between the empires of Britain and France. “Here it seemed to me,” Parkman wrote in 1886, “the forest drama was more stirring and the forest stage more thronged … the course of the American conflict between France and England [was] the history of the American forest.”
Parkman’s fascination with the American forest was also with its people, the Eastern Woodlands Indian. This led him to read James Fenimore Cooper, the earliest American writer who, in the words of Parkman biographer Mason Wade, “recognized the importance of the Indian and the forest in the development of the nation.” Parkman’s histories took the romanticism of Cooper much further: for the historian, the Indian was a political and military power that had to be understood if the conquest of North America was to be accurately written. In that titanic struggle for continental hegemony – which was a dress rehearsal for the Revolutionary War a decade later – there were three centers of power: the French, the British, and the American Indian, principally the Iroquois Confederacy.
Parkman’s first book in the seven-volume history, Pioneers of France in the New World, was published in 1865, followed two years later by The Jesuits in North America. Jesuits opens with a chapter on the first continental power, titled “Native Tribes.” It is a 47-page study of all facets of American Indian life: tribal divisions, arts, festivals, medicines, women and families, religion, government, and most importantly to Parkman, an examination of the mighty Iroquois. In its struggle with Britain, France enlisted as allies the most significant tribe in the Northeast, the Iroquois. Of all the eastern tribes, the Iroquois were the most politically and militarily organized, and therefore to Parkman, they came closest to resembling the Europeans. This introduction, opening as it does the history of the beginning of New France, recognized that the Indian was the first of the three powers for mastery of North America. The concluding volume, A Half Century of Conflict, was published in 1892, a year before Francis Parkman’s death.
Parkman spent his life on Beacon Hill; in 1865 he moved to 50 Chestnut Street, where he kept a Sioux war bonnet, war clubs, and other Indian relics from his 1848 trip to the great West. In 1852 he bought three acres on Prince Street overlooking Jamaica Pond, and on the crest of the slope he built a summer cottage nestled among trees. In 1874 he rebuilt this house in bracket farmhouse style with truncated gable, bay windows and a veranda. The entrance drive came off Prince Street, and the grounds swept down to the pond where he had a boat dock. Flanking the pathway to the pond were lush flower beds of roses and lilies that he was famous for propagating. Francis Parkman celebrated his 70th birthday at the Jamaica Pond house on September15, 1893, but less than two months later he died there on November 8, 1893. He was buried on Indian Ridge at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
In 1875 the Boston Park Commissioners, with the advice of Frederick Law Olmsted, began to plan for a great system of parks for Boston. There was no doubt that Jamaica Pond had to be preserved as a public park because of its unique natural beauty, quickly being lost to icehouses and private estates. By January 1893, 65 acres had been purchased surrounding the pond for a park. Parkman’s estate was included in the acreage, but the city would not take his house and grounds while he was still alive (Parkman was offered $24,300 for his property).
In 1894 a few months after Parkman’s death, his cottage, carriage house and greenhouse were razed and the grading begun for Parkman Drive. The shoreline below the cottage was not changed, but the boat dock was removed. The 555-foot long supporting wall for Parkman Drive was built, and by the end of 1898 the Drive itself and the footpath through the old estate grounds were complete and opened to the public.
In 1895 a committee including Charles Sprague Sargent, founder and first director of the Arnold Arboretum, and Parkman’s eldest daughter Grace Parkman Coolidge, was formed and proposed a memorial to Francis Parkman on the site of his cherished summer home. The American Architect and Building News reported in its April 13, 1896 issue that “friends of the late Mr. Parkman are raising money for a monument … nothing would be more appropriate than such a memorial erected on the very scene of his labors.” It noted that $15,000 had been raised. The committee consulted with Frederick Law Olmsted, then at the end of his great career, for advice on the site. (Olmsted preferred that public art in his parks harmonize with the landscape). The committee turned to the architect Charles McKim (who had just completed the Boston Public Library) to design the memorial, but Mc Kim thought that it was one of sculpture not architecture, and he turned to his friend and library collaborator Daniel Chester French (who had designed the bronze entrance doors to the Library). McKim and French collaborated through several false starts until 1902, when McKim withdrew from the project and French proceeded alone to design the memorial.
Born in 1850 in Exeter, New Hampshire, Daniel Chester French in 1895 was in the forefront of American sculpture, largely for the acclaim he received for the Milmore Memorial of 1893 at Forest Hills Cemetery, and for The Republic, the 65-foot statue at the Court of Honor, which he designed for the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (This is where he first met Charles McKim. French also collaborated with architects on six statuary groups for the Exposition). His first major public sculpture was the iconographic Citizen Soldier – the “Minuteman Statue” – at Concord, Mass. (1875). In 1884 his seated bronze statue of John Harvard was unveiled at Harvard Yard. When he accepted the commission for the Parkman Memorial, French was nearing completion of the John Boyle O’Reilly statue in the Back Bay Fens. Designed with the architect C. Howard Walker, it was placed in 1896 at the corner of the Fenway and Boylston Street. This was the first piece of public statuary in the Olmsted Park system. The Parkman Memorial would be the second.
The Parkman Memorial sculpture is that of an Iroquois sachem staring north across Jamaica Plain. Nothing survives to suggest that any image other than that of an American Indian was proposed to honor Parkman. Francis Parkman himself described what the proper monument should look like and no doubt his daughter Grace pointed out the words in the chapter he wrote on Indian tribes in the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851): “Some races of men seem molded in wax, soft and feeble… but the Indian is hewn out of rock. It is in the native wilds alone that the Indian must be seen and studied. Thus to depict him is the aim of the ensuing history: and if, from the shades of rock and forest, the savage features should look too grimly forth it is because of the tempestuous clouds of war.”
The basic design we see today of a standing chief set in deep relief in a single block of granite had been roughed out by French by 1901. The concept of the figure emerging literally out of living rock was a unique sculptural style for French and in American sculpture, but it seemed to be almost an intuitive idea for him as he considered the life work of Francis Parkman. Grace Parkman Coolidge approved the bronze relief of her father that French designed and cast for the base of the shaft.
In her 1947 biography of her father, Margaret French Cresson (1889-1973) wrote about the memorial: “In the center [was] a shaft twenty feet in height with a figure of an Indian cut into the stone, the upper part in the round and projecting hardly at all beyond the face of the granite. It was a rather a new idea and very effective.” (D. C. French would carve only one other monument in deep relief, the majestic Melvin Memorial at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, dedicated in 1908 and clearly inspired by the Parkman.) The original design had both a male and female figure standing in deep relief on separate slabs of stone connected by a stone lintel, but this idea was discarded by early 1905 for the single Indian. The model of this was approved in June 1905. The thirty-foot-long foundation for the memorial was dug on the same site as Parkman’s cottage. In 1906 the huge block of gray granite was quarried at Quincy and shipped to Boston to be carved by the master artisan Francesco C. Recchia (1859-1921) in his studio at 359 Boylston Street1. French did the final carving in October 1906, on site after it had been erected, and the memorial was completed on November 20, 1906.
When it was finally erected in 1906 after nine years of effort, the Parkman Memorial was the first public sculpture in Boston to portray a Native American. One has to literally walk up to within a few feet of the monument to see the relief and the name of Francis Parkman. This was certainly the intention; it is a monument more to the achievements of the man, than to the man himself.
In 1912, a second statue using the American Indian was designed by Cyrus Dallin. The Appeal to the Great Spirit, a great equestrian Indian sculpture, was set up at the entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Parkman Memorial and Appeal to the Great Spirit remain the only two statues to the Native American in Boston to this day. But they are two different Indians: Dallin’s Plains chief astride his exhausted horse is doomed as he lifts his arms for deliverance. But the Iroquois that French carved for the Parkman Memorial is proud and defiant, exactly the way Francis Parkman portrayed the Indian in his histories.
Neglect and vandalism plagued Boston public art in the 1970s, and in 1973 the bronze relief of Francis Parkman was stolen. In September 1988 this writer asked the Henderson Foundation if it would underwrite the restoration of the monument and replace the plaque. In response, Henry Lee, chairman of the Adopt-a-Statue program, visited the Memorial with John Galvin of the Henderson Foundation and Mary Shannon, Executive Secretary of the Boston Art Commission. Funds were approved in 1989 and the granite was cleaned and repointed. Replacing the bronze plaque required skill and ingenuity. The original plaster cast of the plaque was lost, and the only reference was a single photograph in the archives at Chesterwood, the summer home and studio of D. C. French in Stockbridge, Mass. (owned and managed since 1969 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation).
The outline of the original plaque was still plainly visible on the base of the shaft and this was carefully traced. The photograph of the plaster cast was enlarged until it fit exactly the outline drawing. Using that as a reference, Addio de Bascari made a new plaster mold cast by sculptor Robert Shure. The new bronze plaque was installed on September 14, 1990. Mary Shannon guided all the work every step of the way.
The Parkman Memorial did not have a dedication ceremony. To correct that mistake, the Jamaica Plain Historical Society rededicated the Memorial on Francis Parkman’s birthday, September 16, 1990.
Note: 1. Davis Monuments, Roslindale, Massachusetts.