This was one of Miller’s favorite themes to paint. It was originally sketched in the field or in New Orleans in 1837 and included his patron, Stewart, as one of the hunters and a fellow strategist, probably Antoine, disguised as a wolf. They creep up on a pair of buffalo from behind a group of bushes (CR# 371A). Stewart’s gaze seems more on his fellow hunter than on the prey, thus emphasizing the unique ruse involved.
Suggesting that Stewart learned this technique from Indian hunters, Miller elected to substitute his patron and Antoine with Indians in other, later versions of this scene. In addition, the hunter on the right, the one replacing Stewart in the composition, is generally the primary character in the drama as he has his bow drawn and ready to fire. The wolf-clad figure is merely a distraction for the prey, and no longer the essential focus of the action.
Peter H. Hassrick
North American Buffalo:
Buffalo inhabited many parts of North America for thousands of years before Euro-American settlement began. The largest herds lived in the Great Plains however smaller herds ranged from Northern Georgia to Hudson’s Bay and from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies. Estimates on the number of buffalo in the Great Plains region prior to Euro-American contact ranges from sixty to seventy-five million animals. The Plains buffalo was not the largest of this species, however. The woodlands buffalo, which inhabited parts of the eastern United States and Canada, lived in small herds and was slightly larger. Artist George Catlin’s observations of the buffalo herds led him to this conclusion: “These animals are, truly speaking, gregarious, but not migratory—they graze in immense and almost incredible numbers at times, and roam about and over vast tracts of country, from East to West, and from West to East, as often as from North to South; which has often been supposed they naturally and habitually did to accommodate themselves to the temperature of the climate in the different latitudes.” Because the buffalo is a grazing animal, the herd’s movements are actually dictated by the need to constantly obtain fresh pasturage and large quantities of water. There was also a seasonal movement or migration of the herds to warmer winter range areas, then a return to the fresh green grass of the summer range.
In this painting, Miller presents a scene in which a trapper wearing a wolf-eared hood and an Indian have stealthily crawled within “arrow” range of a small group of grazing buffalo. Prior to the introduction of the horse and firearms, the Plains Indians’ hunting methods relied exclusively on the bow and the spear, combined with stealth to harvest buffalo. The trapper’s hood made with wolf-like ears would present the outline of a prairie wolf to the poor-sighted buffalo. Because packs of prairie wolves constantly followed the herds, the buffalo were used to seeing this animal lurking about on the perimeter of the herd. Studying the buffalo herds taught a Native American hunter that disguising himself in the image of a prairie wolf usually allowed the hunter to approach the quarry within the effective range of his hunting bow.
While this stealth method of stalking is quite old and effective, it was not near as efficient in harvesting buffalo as employing the buffalo jump. For more than 1,000 years, prehistoric Native peoples of the Great Plains hunted bison by driving them over cliffs. Meriwether Lewis provided a good description of the effects and buffalo jump procedures used by the tribes: “Today we passed on the Stard. side the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; … in this manner the Indians of the Missouri distroy vast herds of buffaloe at a stroke; for this purpose one of the most active and fleet young men is scelected and [being] disguised in a robe of buffaloe skin, having also the skin of the buffaloe's head with the years and horns fastened on his head in form of a cap, thus caparisoned he places himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffaloe and a precipice proper for the purpose, which happens in many places on this river for miles together; the other indians now surround the herd on the back and flanks and at a signal agreed on all shew themselves at the same time moving forward towards the buffaloe; the disguised indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently nigh the buffaloe to be noticed by them when they take to flight and runing before them they follow him in full speede to the precepice, the cattle behind driving those in front over and seeing them go do not look or hesitate about following untill the whole are precipitated down the precepice forming one common mass of dead an mangled carcases; the [Indian] decoy in the mean time has taken care to secure himself in some cranney or crivice of the clift which he had previously prepared for that purpose. May 29, 1805.”
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
Moulton, Gary E., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Vol. 5
LR: AJMiller. LC mat: Approaching Buffalo / AJMiller
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; Peter Decker, 1947; [Hammer Galleries, New York, NY, 1961 – 1963]; [Edward Eberstadt and Sons, New York, NY]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1964