The Pawnee Indians, who lived most of their lives in semi-permanent dwellings along the larger rivers of the West like the Missouri, found it necessary to venture onto the Plains from time to time in search of buffalo. At that point, they accepted the peripatetic life of the nomadic tribes and were forced by the erratic movements of their prey to wander about as the herds did.
Miller completed several versions of this scene over the years. This is the only watercolor of the group. Where this fits within the chronology of Miller’s oeuvre is unknown.
Peter H. Hassrick
The survival of most Northern Plains Indian tribes depended on the annual buffalo harvest. As a grazing animal, the buffalo herds moved across the vast prairies following the greening of its nutritious grasses. These circumstances caused most tribes to live a nomadic existence and required that all persons in the band take part in moving the goods and possessions. Miller termed this situation as a “stern necessity” of Mother Nature which “rules her children.” This painting captures a moment in time during one band’s travel to new bison hunting ground. One warrior is shown on horseback and carrying only his weapons always at the ready to defend his people,
Prince Maximillian of Wied visited the Pawnee villages on his 1833 trip up the Missouri River. He commented on the migration of these bands, providing some details of this semi-nomadic life style:
In September the Pawnee, Otoes and Omahas usually return from their hunting expeditions and then harvest the maturing corn. At the end of October, they leave again, hunt during the winter, and come back to their villages in March. Then they sow corn and stay until the middle of May or middle of June, when they again leave. They take most of their possessions with them. The rest they place “en cache”; that is, in the earth they make round cellarlike excavations with narrow necks. Into these go wood and straw, the things they want to preserve, and earth on top, which they tread down firmly.
Pagentry of a Moving Village:
Trapper Warren Ferris observed an Indian band on the move in 1832 and included this account:
Fancy to yourself, reader, three thousand horses of every variety of size and colour, with trappings almost as varied as their appearance, either packed or ridden by a thousand souls from squalling infancy to decrepid age, their persons fantastically ornamented with scarlet coats, blankets of all colours, buffalo robes painted with hideous little figures, resembling grasshoppers quite as much as men for which they were intended, and sheep‑skin dresses garnished with porcupine quills, beads, hawk bells, and human hair. Imagine this motley collection of human figures, crowned with long black locks gently waving in the wind, their faces painted with vermillion, and yellow ochre. Listen to the rattle of numberless lodgepoles trained by packhorses, to the various noises of children screaming, women scolding, and dogs howling. Observe occasional frightened horses running away and scattering their lading over the prairie. See here and there groups of Indian boys dashing about at full speed, sporting over the plain, or quietly listening to traditionary tales of battles and surprises, recounted by their elder companions. Yonder see a hundred horsemen pursuing a herd of antelopes, which sport and wind before them conscious of superior fleetness,- there as many others racing towards a distant mound, wild with emulation and excitement, and in every direction crowds of hungry dogs chasing and worrying timid rabbits, and other small animals. Imagine these scenes, with all their bustle, vociferation and confusion, lighted by the flashes of hundreds of gleaming gun‑barrels, upon which the rays of a fervent sun are playing, a beautiful level prairie, with dark blue snow‑capped mountains in the distance for the locale, and you will have a faint idea of the character and aspect of our march.
To facilitate moving their camp gear and personal possessions, this group of Indians, as did most Plains tribes, are using both dog and horse sleds called travois, as well as many men, women and children carrying individual parcels. Although the French name for this sled, travois, is in common use today, the term does not appear to have been used during the 1830s. The travois was made entirely from wood and rawhide and owned by the women. The shafts of this sled were made of poles typically cut from lodge pole pine trees. They were generally four to five inches at the base and larger than poles used for a tipi. Rawhide strips secured the poles to the horse’s pack saddle. A platform behind the horse on which the goods were transported was also made from rawhide. Prior to obtaining the horse, Plains tribes used dogs and a smaller version of the travois to transport their possessions.
For Further Reading:
Ewers, John C., The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture
Ferris, Warren A., Life in the Rocky Mountains
Witte, Stephen S. and Marsha V. Gallagher, eds., The North American Journals of Prince Maximillian of Wied, Vol. 2
UR: Migration [illegible]
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