Miller’s travels along what would become the emigrant route west, the Oregon Trail, brought him and his group past the shoulder of an iconic geological wonder, Chimney Rock. It was about a day’s ride short of Fort Laramie, and was regarded by the artist as a truly “remarkable formation” (Ross, 54). An artist who followed Miller by five years, Charles Preuss with John C. Fremont’s 1842 expedition, was not so impressed. He referred to the feature simply as part of “a chain of dirt hills,” diminished in importance because it was not made of granite (Gudde, 22). Nonetheless, Preuss took time to draw the site for Fremont’s report.
There survives what is considered a field study for this watercolor (Warner, 67; CR# 99). In both of the finished works of the subject, this watercolor and another done for William Walters, Miller sets the spire off dramatically against the sky. Here Chimney Rock is centered in the composition though, whereas in the Walters work it is offset to the left where its verticality contrasts with the horizontal sweep of the plains. In both watercolors, tiny riders in the foreground provide scale to the feature, lending support to Miller’s assessment that it was indeed remarkable.
Peter H. Hassrick
Chimney Rock or Elk Brick
Miller painted what was already a well-known landmark on the trail along the North Platte River to the Rocky Mountains – Chimney Rock. Nathaniel Wyeth’s 1832 journal referred to this geographic feature as “the Chimney or Elk Brick the Indian name.” Such an innocuous reference to the Indian name may indicate either delicacy or humor since other fur traders described it in slightly more graphic terms. William Drummond Stewart, in his novel Edward Warren, wrote that Indians called it “Penus cervus” and artist Alfred J. Miller included a French translation on his watercolor “Returning from Hunting Near Puine du Cerf” – both sly references to a deer penis. Zenas Leonard declared that Natives called it “Elk Peak” while William Marshall Anderson wrote “E. P., or Chimney Rock, a solitary shaft.” Warren Ferris would contribute yet another moniker, “Nose Mountain.”
About 20 miles west from Chimney Rock, along the North Platte trail, were geologic formations described by Nathaniel Wyeth in 1834 as “some remarkable bluffs resembling old castles, ancient cities fortifications, domes, etc.” One of these features, Scotts Bluff, was destined to later become a celebrated landmark on the emigrant trails. The name derived from fur trader Hiram Scott who died in the vicinity in 1828. The legend of Scott’s death is found in several fur trade accounts, including that of Warren Ferris, Benjamin Bonneville and Matthew Field. Missionary Jason Lee told that:
“A Mr. Scott superintendent of General Ashley’s fur Company, was taken delirious in the Black Hills but at lucid intervals expressed a great desire to go home to die and the[y] thought it best to make a boat of skins and send him down the Platte some distance by water where the Com. If the arrived first were to await their arrival. Two men were sent with him but they were upset in rapids and narrowly escaped being drowned and lost their guns and everything but one knife and a horn of powder. The leader of the Com. did not stop for them and it was with the greatest difficulty that the men could find enough to subsist on until they overtook the Com. Their report was that he died and they buried him but his bones and blanket were found a 100 mi. from the place they said he had died near the Bluff.”
Oregon Trail Landmark
Chimney Rock became one of the most memorable landmarks on the Oregon Trail for westbound emigrants in the mid-1800s. Appearing in their view thirty to forty miles ahead, which entailed two days of travel, the towering geological formation decisively signaled the end of the prairies. However, the renowned spire also indicated a steepening of the trail for an estimated 350,000 Oregon-bound emigrants headed into the Rocky Mountains. The slim stone shaft was likened not only to a chimney but also to a minaret, a church steeple, and a funnel turned upside down. Forty-niner David Cosad measured his shadow against the rock's to estimate its height as 360 feet from base to top. Today the tower is approximately 325 feet high. Wind and erosion have reduced the formation an estimated 30 feet lower than it was in the mid-1800s. Located near modern Bayard, Nebraska, Chimney Rock was designated as a National Historic Site on August 9, 1956.
Anderson, William M., The Rocky Mountain Journals of William Marshall Anderson”
Ferris, Warren, Life in the Rocky Mountains
Field, Matthew, Prairie and Mountain Sketches
Irving, Washington, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A.
Wyeth, Nathaniel, The Correspondence and Journals of Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1832-36
LL: The ‘Chimney’ Rock near Jess’s [?] Bluff
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; The Boatmen’s National Bank of St. Louis, MO; Bank of America, New York, NY; present owner, 2013