Candy Moulton: On the Trail 2-11-13
February 19, 2013
Alfred Jacob Miller was 27-years-old when Scotsman Capt. William Drummond Stewart visited his Baltimore studio in 1837. Stewart thought his upcoming journey into the American West might be his last so he wanted an artist who could travel with him and record the scenes they would see together.
With strong support from his family and wealthy residents of Baltimore, Miller had freedom to work on his art unhindered with the concern about how to pay his bills.
After some discussion, Steward and Drummond decided to set off in the spring of 1837 from Independence, Mo., headed for the fur traders' rendezvous that would occur on the Green River in what would become western Wyoming. Their route would later be used by travelers to Oregon Country over the Oregon Trail.
Independence and the Wayne City Landing (also called Independence Landing) saw thousands of emigrants embark on their own journeys west on the trails to Oregon and California. Here, too, tons of goods were unloaded from steamboats and transferred to wagons for transport over the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1849 Pardon Dexter Tiffany wrote to his wife from Wayne City Landing, "After waiting several hours in the rain we got an open waggon [sic] to go up to Independence in and arrived there about dark." After sleeping on a "very dirty straw pallet" at the Noland house, Tiffany didn't have much good to say about Independence, noting, "All the day Saturday it rained and the streets are so muddy you cannot get about."
When Miller traveled through what is today Kansas, he encountered Indian tribes that had been relocated here during the period of Indian removal beginning in 1825. Among Miller's works is his drawing of Pawnee Indians watching the caravan. The artist once wrote, "Of all the Indian tribes, I think the Pawnees gave us the most trouble."
Miller created paintings of Pawnee Indians such as Pawnee Indian Camp and also left behind stunning portraits of American Indians: Ma-wo-ma "Little Chief; A Young Woman of the Flathead Tribe; and Sioux Indians at a Grave among them.
The Platte River, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff are all Nebraska sites that Miller captured in his colorful watercolors. Chimney Rock, arguably the most famous landmark on the Platte, and one that Miller captured in one of his stunning images. Of more import to Miller though may have been the geologic formation farther west: Scotts Bluff, named for fur trapper Hiram Scott, an employee of the fur trading firm of Smith, Jackson and Sublette, who, with a partner, was responsible for transporting supplies to the Green River Rendezvous in 1828.
Scott's health was deteriorating even before he and his companions turned east, en route to St. Louis. He could no longer ride a horse by the time they were in present-day eastern Wyoming, and he was near death when the party reached the major rock outcrop. Here, they abandoned Scott, who soon died. The following year his remains were located and buried by William Sublette, and the geologic feature was subsequently known as Scott's Bluff.
The rock outcrop is now a National Historic Site, offering a hiking trail linking the visitors' center at its base with the top of the outcrop (you can also drive to the top of the bluff and hike along its rim to overlook the area). At the visitors' center, be certain to view the original paintings by William Henry Jackson, a contemporary of Miller's.
At the time Miller was in the area Fort Laramie did not exist, but the artist stopped at Fort William, operated by the American Fur Company, which he sketched. Later he used that drawing to paint a view of what he imagined Fort Laramie (the post that replaced Fort William), to be. Fort Laramie also started as a fur trade post, but the U.S. Army purchased it in 1849.
While near the confluence of the Laramie River, where it joined the North Platte, Miller sketched An Early Dinner Party near Larrimer's Fork. (Although the post was not yet named to memorialize Jacque Laramee, who had been killed in the area in 1821, some geological landmarks had been named for the French-Canadian fur trapper.) Miller's pencil drawing had brown and yellow washes to give it texture, and the general scene was later colorized in a watercolor on paper titled Breakfast at Sunrise.
One of Miller's best-known works is The Trapper's Bride, which inspired Walt Whitman to include it in his "Song of Myself," his poem published in 1855. The original painting is owned and displayed by the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.
The common element in the paintings Miller eventually created following his travels with Stewart is a white horse; Stewart had ridden one during their expedition together. This trademark horse is placed in almost every piece of art Miller developed as a result of the 1837 journey to the mountain rendezvous. The horse is in the background of Trappers Bride (part of a series of paintings), but is prominent in The Thirsty Trapper, which is in the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Clearly the immense vistas, wide-open spaces, and the grandeur of the West affected Miller. The landscapes he painted following his journey with Stewart show that vastness with big, colorful skies, layers of mountains and people or animals that are small, almost insignificant, as though they are barely specks in the landscape.
The mountain man — trapper — images Miller created are outstanding, and often seen. They have been used to illustrate books and magazines, and in exhibitions about the fur trade. Some are stunning portraits; others, almost cartoon-like (a pack mule kicking supplies hither and fro as it follows a trade caravan, or a man racing from a charging bear). Here, too, he uses the white horse as an element in his paintings, such as In the Rocky Mountains, where the horse drinks while standing in a lake of water as men cook a meal over their campfire. The original is at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb. Also at the Joslyn is A Trapper in His Solitary Camp, where the rangy horse used by the trapper dominates the center of the image as the man, clad in mountain man garb.
That he so successfully captured the images of the mountain men — including their gear, clothing, weapons and horses — is due to the fact that Miller saw these trappers and traders firsthand.
He did not need to research what their appearance would have been because he took part in the 1837 rendezvous itself. ❖