Miller once described this scene as one requiring “a large body of Indians, and when everything is in readiness (the distant plain being literally black with Buffalo), the ‘runners’ are called, mounted on fleet horses and well-armed, who move cautiously toward the herd, keeping out of sight of the animals by traversing ravines and hollows.
On reaching a proper distance, a signal is given and they all start at once with frightful yells, & commence racing around the herd, drawing their circle closer and closer, until the whole body is huddled together in confusion. Now they begin firing, and as this throws them into a headlong panic and furious rage, each man selects his animal, wheeling and coursing through the affrighted herd;–the dexterity and grace of the Indians and the thousands upon thousands of Buffalo moving in every direction over an illimitable prairie form a scene altogether, that in the whole world beside, cannot be matched.” (Ross, 200)
There are two distinct versions of Miller’s surround scenes. One variation was produced for Stewart as one of the grand canvases created to decorate Murthly Castle. It has a lower vantage point and pictures Indians attacking buffalo in a large wallow (CR# 353). The second variation, represented here, derives from another scene that was sketched on site in 1837 (CR# 352). It pictures the hunt from a bird’s eye view, looking down on a broad plain with the drama unfolding across the prairie. An Indian woman with an infant in a baby carrier watches the scene from the right hand margin of the canvas.
Peter H. Hassrick
Artist George Catlin, who painted numerous images of traditional Indian buffalo hunts, watched the surround technique used by the Minatarees in 1832: “The plan of attack, which in this country is familiarly called a "surround", was explicitly agreed upon, and the hunters who were all mounted on their "buffalo horses" and armed with bows and arrows or long lances, divided into two columns, taking opposite directions, and drew themselves gradually around the herd at a mile or more distance from them; thus forming a circle of horsemen at equal distances apart, who gradually closed in upon them with a moderate pace, at a signal given … the horsemen were seen at full speed, gathering and forming in a column, brandishing their weapons and yelling in the most frightful manner, by which means they turned the black and rushing mass which moved off in an opposite direction where they were again met and foiled in a similar manner, and wheeled back in utter confusion; by which time the horsemen had closed in from all directions, forming a continuous line around them, whilst the poor affrighted animals were eddying about in a crowded and confused mass, hooking and climbing upon each other … a Cloud of dust was soon raised, which in parts obscured the throng where the hunters were galloping their horses around and driving the whizzing arrows or their long lances to the hearts of these noble animals; which in many instances, becoming infuriated with deadly wounds in their sides, erected their shaggy manes over their blood-shot eyes and furiously plunged forwards at the sides of their assailants' horses, sometimes goring them to death at a lunge, and putting their dismounted riders to flight for their lives … obliged to leap for security, leaving their horses to the fate that might await them in the results of this wild and desperate war. Many were the bulls that turned upon their assailants and met them with desperate resistance; and many were the warriors who were dismounted, and saved themselves by the superior muscles of their legs; some who were closely pursued by the bulls, wheeled suddenly around and snatching the part of a buffalo robe from around their waists, threw it over the horns and the eyes of the infuriated beast, and darting by its side drove the arrow or the lance to its heart … and in the space of fifteen minutes, resulted in the total destruction of the whole herd, which in all their strength and fury were doomed, like every beast and living thing else, to fall before the destroying hands of mighty man.”
Trapper Joe Meek participated in a buffalo surround with a village of Nez Perce and Flathead in 1838: “The old Nez Perce chief, Kow-e-so-te had command of the village, and we trappers had to obey him, too. "We started off slow; nobody war allowed to go ahead of camp … the whole plain around the lake war crowded with buffalo … In the morning the old chief harangued the men of his village, and ordered us all to get ready for the surround. About nine o'clock every man war mounted, and we began to move … A thousand men, all trained hunters, on horseback, carrying their guns, and with their horses painted in the height of Indians' fashion. We advanced until within about half a mile of the herd; then the chief ordered us to deploy to the right and left, until the wings of the column extended a long way, and advance again … we had come to within a hundred yards of them. Kow-e-so-te then gave us the word, and away we went, pell-mell. Heavens, what a charge! What a rushing and roaring–men shooting, buffalo bellowing and trampling until the earth shook under them! … It war the work of half an hour to slay two thousand or may be three thousand animals. When the work was over, we took a view of the field. Here and there and everywhere, laid the slain buffalo. Occasionally a horse with a broken leg war seen; or a man with a broken arm; or maybe he had fared worse, and had a broken head … Now came out the women of the village to help us butcher and pack up the meat. It war a big job; but we war not long about it. By night the camp war full of meat, and everybody merry.”
German-born American physician and naturalist, Frederic Wislizenus, who traveled in the Rocky Mountains in 1839, two years after Miller, expressed his observation of Indians wearing blankets: “Indians came to our camp; but only a few, for most of them were off on a buffalo hunt. Their clothing was such as is customary with Indians. Some of them had only an apron around the loins; but most also wrapped themselves in a buffalo robe or woolen blanket.”
Based on genetics, true white is the rarest color in the general population of horses. Yet in Miller’s paintings, as in those of other painters of the period such as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, the number of white horses is surprising. Throughout history, many cultures considered white a sacred color and white horses were often mythologized. Similarly, Miller may have used the color as an artistic technic to give the painting greater appeal.
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Catlin, George, Letters & Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
Evans, J. Warren, Horses, A Guide to the Selection, Care and Enjoyment
Victor, Frances, River of the West
Wislizenus, Frederic, A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839
LL: A Miller
The artist; Charles Harvey, Baltimore, MD; [?]; Private Collection, Paris, France; [Wildenstein and Co., New York, NY, 1973]; William E. Weiss, New York, NY; present owner by gift, 1976