Bill Burrows was a most eye-catching figure among a host of prepossessing characters in the western fur trade business of the 1830s. In the several portraits that Miller painted of him, he always looks straight out at the viewer, as if to announce his self-satisfaction and self-reliance. Here, in contrast to other likenesses of him, he is dressed down for travel. He wears his favorite calico shirt, heavily fringed buckskin britches and plumed hat, but has packed away a heavy white wool capote that generally adorns him in camp scenes. A lighter weight, fringed buckskin jacket now covers his shoulders. Two mules, one for packing and the other for riding, are pictured with the colorful mountain man. What is probably the broad Green River Plain spreads out behind him, illustrating the vast domain that he appears to control.
Williams met Stewart at the rendezvous and traveled with him and Miller to the high country north and east of the Horse Creek gathering spot after the trading session closed (Strong, 2008, 168). He must have been a favorite of the Scotsman, as one of the large paintings that Miller finished for Murthly Castle, originally called Trappers’ Camp (CR# 120), was among the first that Miller completed and exhibited by 1839, and then had sent to Scotland.
Peter H. Hassrick
Not much is known about the old Bill Burrows that Miller met in 1837. He is probably the William Burroughs who first shows up in Fort Hall ledgers on January 16, 1835, hoping to find work at the post, apparently having deserted from Jim Bridger’s brigade. He was eventually hired on as a hunter with a party led by Joseph Gale. He married a Shoshone woman in the fall of 1835. He also appears in the record with the last name Burris, and the first name Wm, James, or John. Eyewitnesses place Burrows at Fort Davy Crockett after trapping in the Brown’s Hole area in 1839. He eventually settled in the Willamette Valley in the 1840s.
Trapper Bill Burrows is seen with his loaded pack mule while his saddled riding mule waits a short distance behind him. The saddle mule is probably hobbled to ensure it does not wander off and leave Old Burrows on foot or forced to ride his pack mule. The style of pack saddle shown is still in use today and is called a “sawbuck pack saddle.” These saddles were a simple wooden construction, usually of six parts. The two “bars” are wide, smooth boards about eighteen inches long that rest on the animal’s back, one on either side of the backbone. These bars are joined front and rear by a set of boards attached to form an “X.” Only a couple of inches thick, and 12 to 14 inches long, the top of these “crossbucks” form the V-shaped appendage shown in front of the load on the mule’s back. Other Miller paintings, such as “Taking the Hump Rib,” include pack saddles in more detail. The origins of this simple style of saddle can be found in the frontier regions of Colonial America and have been in use since the late 1700s.
Trapper Bill Burrows is dressed in standard trapper attire for this period: a round-crown felt hat, cloth shirt, fringed buckskin coat, red cloth vamped moccasins, and fringed leather pantaloons. Miller also drew an earlier on-the-spot sketch of Burrows entitled “A Rocky Mountain Trapper, Bill Burrows.” In that sketch, Burrows wore a frock-styled blanket coat instead of a fringed buckskin one.
The term “pantaloons” refers to a garment in use from 1790 to 1850, originally made as close-fitting tights shaped to the leg and ending just below the calf. During the transition period, in which breeches were being lengthened to below the knee and calf-length tight-fitting pantaloons were becoming fashionable, it seems that, at least for a short time, these two garments were of the same basic construction. Sometime before 1820 pantaloons were lengthened to the ankles, usually made with short side slits at the cuff and held taut in the legs by straps that passed under the foot. During the period of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, most of the pantaloons and breeches used by American trappers would have been constructed with a narrow front fall panel. The broad fall front opening on men’s pantaloons and trousers did not become vogue until the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Round Crown Felt Hat:
The mountaineer hat style of choice, and the easiest to document, is the round-crowned, broad-brimmed wool felt hat. William Ashley’s 1825 records show that brigade leaders Gardner and Williams ordered and received “2 doz naped Hats.” William Stewart referred to a “Broad-Brimmed un-napped white hat” being worn in 1833 by the lead character in his novel. The word “nap” refers to the small fibers, in this case, wool, which sticks out of the fabric and gives it a fuzzy appearance. John Kirk Townsend gave the best description of these hats, writing that “white wool hats with round crowns fitting tightly to the head, brims five inches wide,” were among the clothing items selected for him by Nathaniel Wyeth just prior to their 1834 trek to rendezvous. Fort Union records include orders for “mens’ black wool hats” as well as the white hats described by Townsend, and an inventory of “90 Black fur hats, 24 Black wool hats, and 48 drab wool hats,” in 1832 and 1834, respectively.
“Engaged trappers” entered the trade as fur company employees and trapped for wages. Their 18-month contract required them to trap when and where directed, and that all fur taken be turned over to the company. The standard wage of $200 for that period was tendered in the form of credit on the company books. Six traps, three horses with necessary tack, a gun, knife, and tomahawk were furnished by the company, however powder, shot, and other supplies had to be purchased via a charge against the man’s wages. Because the goods were sold at “mountain prices,” i.e. 100% to 1,000% markup, many engaged trappers ended up in debt to the company. The fur company leader would then use the debt to coerce the man into engaging for another 18 months in order to pay the debt. Another name used in the mountains for these hired trappers was “skin trapper.”
Considered a step above the engaged trapper or company employee, was the “share trapper.” These men contracted with a fur company to trap for a percentage of the fur they took, usually 50%. They traveled with the company’s trapping party and took orders from the party leaders. For horses, tack, traps, and arms furnished by the employer, this trapper was required to sell his fur to the company at a contracted price and buy all his supplies from the company at mountain prices. Just about all of the trappers under General William Ashley’s employ were “share trappers,” with the more experienced men receiving $5 per pound for beaver while less experienced men contracted at $3 per pound. The large number of prominent mountain men who got their start with Ashley’s company would seem to indicate that this incentive program worked quite well for both the General and his men.
The economic class of trapper that most men sought to attain was obliged to no fur company and therefore called a “free trapper.” A free trapper owned his horses, tack, traps, gun, and other accoutrements, trapped wherever he chose, and sold his fur to and bought supplies from whatever company offered the best deal. Captain Benjamin Bonneville recorded this description of free trappers in 1833:
They come and go when and where they please; provide their own horses, arms and other equipments; trap and trade on their own account, and dispose of their skins and peltries to the highest bidder. Sometimes, in a dangerous hunting ground, they attach themselves to the camp of some trader for protection.
Lecompte, Janet, “John J. Burroughs” in The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, vol. 3
Chronister, Alan and Clay Landry, “Clothing of the Rocky Mountain Trapper, 1820 to 1840,” Book of Buckskining 7
Devoto, Bernard A., Across the Wide Missouri
Ferris, Warren, Life in the Rocky Mountains
Irving, Washington, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A.
Morgan, Dale L., The West of William Ashley
Townsend, John K., Across the Rockies to the Columbia
Hanson, Charles E., The Appalachian Pack Saddle, Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, 23:3, 1987
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