This is an unsigned watercolor sketch from Miller’s mature years that does not tie directly to any known finished work. Two men kneel before a fire as one adjusts with some kindling or attempts to cook some meat. It is probably a summer’s morning as the right side of the teepee is rolled up and the grass is green. The two have pitched their lodge at the edge of some woods with a meadow and hills receding in the distance. The man who fusses with the fire has taken off his quiver. His companion, however, still wears his and, seated erect with bow in hand, keeps a vigil against unexpected visitors.
Peter H. Hassrick
The scene in this Miller painting presents a common sight in Plains Indian camps during warm weather. Cooking fires were built outside the lodge and the tipi cover was raised on one or both sides to permit the cool night air into the sleeping area. Most of the upper Missouri River tribes spent the winter in their lodges, relocating their camps to favorite wintering areas. In preparation for the cold months, many Indian women installed an interior liner. The liner, usually made of lighter, tanned hides sewn together, was attached about four or five feet up the poles, and hung to the floor, forming a seal along the floor. This liner allowed air to move along the cover of the tipi without creating a draft in the living area of the lodge. Thus, smoke from a fire within the tipi could be drawn out the top of the lodge keeping the interior air free of smoke. Other wintertime lodge enhancements included constructing a wind barrier around the outside of the lodge. Made of brush or pine boughs, these barriers were a foot or two thick, about chest high, set two feet back from the tipi’s edge, and went completely around the lodge.
While temporarily residing with a Frenchman and his Flathead wife, trapper Osborne Russell recorded a detailed description of tipi dining in his journal: “ About 1 oclk we sat down to dinner in the lodge where I staid which was the most spacious being about 36 ft. in circumference at the base with a fire built in the center around this sat on clean Epishemores all who claimed kin to the white man (or to use their own expression all that were gens d'esprit) with their legs crossed in true Turkish style – and now for the dinner The first dish that came on was a large tin pan 18 inches in diameter rounding full of Stewed Elk meat The next dish was similar to the first heaped up with boiled Deer meat (or as the whites would call it Venison a term not used in the Mountains) The 3d and 4th dishes were equal in size to the first containing a boiled flour pudding prepared with dried fruit accompanied by 4 quarts of sauce made of the juice of sour berries and sugar Then came the cakes followed by about six gallons of strong Coffee already sweetened with tin cups and pans to drink out of large chips or pieces of Bark Supplying the places of plates. on being ready the butcher knives were drawn and the eating commenced at the word given by the landlady as all dinners are accompanied with conversation this was not deficient in that respect.”
Prior to the widespread use of sulfur-ignited matches in the 1840s, fires were ignited by sparks created from a piece of tempered steel striking against the sharp edge of a flint chard. These fire steels or “strikers” were common trade items during the Rocky Mountain fur trade and just about every mountain man and Indian carried one. Many shapes and sizes of strikers were made by blacksmiths, but the “C” shape and the oval were the most common. In some of his paintings, Alfred Jacob Miller shows fire strikers tied to a trapper’s belt. Another method the mountain men often employed to create fire was using the flintlock on their rifle or pistol. Instead of putting powder in the pan of the gun, a piece of charred cloth would be substituted. The lock was cocked and fired as normal with the piece of char cloth catching the sparks and creating an ember. The glowing piece of char cloth was then placed in a tinder bundle, which consisted of dry grass or birch bark, and blown on to ignite the fire.
The bow drill method of making fire relies on the friction created when two pieces of wood are rubbed together in a rapid fashion. This method has pre-historic origins and has been found to be used by Native peoples all over the world. This method of making fire was used by many Plains tribes until contact with traders introduced steel strikers and guns. A bow drill is fashioned from three pieces of wood. The first piece of wood, called a spindle, is carved to reduce friction at one end and maximize it at the other. The second piece is the hearth board, which has a hole cut along its edge. The final piece, the bow, is made from a long, sturdy stick with a string or leather wang tied to it at each end. The string of the bow is wrapped once around the spindle and the friction end of the spindle placed in the hole of the hearth board. The fire maker then applies downward pressure on the spindle while simultaneously spinning the spindle by quickly moving the bow back and forth. The friction of this rapid movement creates smoke coming from the hole in the hearth board and eventually a hot, red glowing ember. The ember is then dropped into a bundle of fine tinder, blown on, and the fire is ignited.
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
Russell, Osborne, Journal of a Trapper
Hanson, James A., Mountain Man Sketch Book Vol. 1
Laubin, Gladys and Reginal, The Indian Tipi
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; [Eberstadt and Sons, New York, NY]; [John Howell-Books, San Francisco, CA, 1961]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1964