Miller knew this range as "The Mountains of the Wind," and when the artist painted this grand scene many years after his trip west, he made every effort to recall the epic scale of that distant panorama. The mountain men, diminutively portrayed in the foreground, discharge their rifles in celebration of nature's splendor.
As was popular at the time, Miller’s trappers are clad in dramatic crimson shirts and cloaks. The rush of the two horsemen on the left and the Hawken rifle salutes with the puffs of powder smoke coming from the riders in the center of the composition vivify the scene. As was the artist’s want when featuring characters in his western legacy, the two prime celebrants are posed on a high outcropping of rock. Situated as such, they gain a position referred to by modern art history scholars as a “magisterial gaze,” suggesting that they command, as in Manifest Destiny’s dicta of the day, ownership and control of all they see and glorify. Miller has presented a divine moment here, one that embraces not only God’s wonders but also Anglo America’s aspirational claims to the title of all they surveyed.
Peter H. Hassrick
Wind River Range Geography:
John Fremont claimed the Indians named these mountains for the prevailing strong winds coming downriver from the northwest, between what today is known as the Shoshone and Wind River Ranges. Mountain men gained a keen understanding of the lay of the land. In this description of the Wind River Range, Warren Ferris, described the South Pass that would make the overland migrations of the 1840-50s a reality: “We were in view of the Wind Mountains, which were seen stretching away to the northward, their bleak summits mantled over with a heavy covering of snow … [we] ascended an irregular plain, in which streams have their rise, that flow into both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, halting at night on the Sandy, a small river that takes its name from the barren country through which it runs. It has its source in the south?eastern point of the Wind Mountains, where also the Sweet Water, Platte, and Wind River of the Bighorn, take their rise … From the dividing plain or ridge, we saw vast chains of snow?crowned mountains, stretching far away to the west and northward, and revealing but too plainly the toil and hazard that await our future progress. The southern point of the Wind Mountains, rose bluffly to the northeast, distant fifteen miles, and, strangely contrasting their snowy summits with the dark forests of pines that line and encircle their base, were seen stretching away to the northwestward the looming shapes of this range or spur of the far-reaching Andes, until their dark forms and dazzling crests were lost in the distance, blending in the haze and mingling with the clouds … From the southern point of the Wind Mountains, one or two snowy peaks rise, dimly visible, far to the southward: – within the intervening space, a broken, sandy plain, perfectly practicable for loaded wagons, which may cross it without the least obstruction, – separates the northern waters of the Platte, from those of the Colorado.”
Impact of Initial Mountain View:
Travelers were often quite impressed with their first view of the Wind River Mountains. Trapper David Brown, who accompanied the supply caravan that William Drummond Stewart rode with, reported initially seeing the Winds on July 30, 1837: “Towards evening we came in sight of Wind River Mountain. This is one of the loftiest of the chain; and, as it loomed up vast and distinct on our north-western horizon, encompassed by a blue and gauze-like atmosphere, with the rays of the level sun burnishing with indescribable splendor the eternal snows that rested on its summit, we involuntarily checked our horses to gaze at leisure upon this august and magnificent spectacle.”
Author Washington Irving wrote a romantic version of what western explorer Benjamin Bonneville described upon first seeing the Wind River Range: “Captain Bonneville first came in sight of the grand region of his hopes and anticipations, the Rocky Mountains. He had been making a bend to the south, to avoid some obstacles along the river, and had attained a high, rocky ridge, when a magnificent prospect burst upon his sight. To the west rose the Wind River Mountains, with their bleached and snowy summits towering into the clouds. These stretched far to the north-northwest, until they melted away into what appeared to be faint clouds, but which the experienced eyes of the veteran hunters of the party recognized for the rugged mountains of the Yellowstone … To the southwest, the eye ranged over an immense extent of wilderness, with what appeared to be a snowy vapor resting upon its horizon … We can imagine the enthusiasm of the worthy captain when he beheld the vast and mountainous scene of his adventurous enterprise thus suddenly unveiled before him. We can imagine with what feelings of awe and admiration he must have contemplated the Wind River Sierra, or bed of mountains.”
When naturalist John Kirk Townsend encountered the range, he declared: “We had a striking view of the Wind?river mountains. They are almost wholly of a dazzling whiteness, being covered thickly with snow, and the lofty peaks seem to blend themselves with the dark clouds which hang over them. This chain gives rise to the sources of the Missouri, the Colorado of the west, and Lewis' river of the Columbia, and is the highest land on the continent of North America.”
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Brown, David L., Three Years in the Rocky Mountains
Ferris, Warren A., Life in the Rocky Mountains
Irving, Washington, Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A.
Townsend, John K. Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River
Urbanek, Mae, Wyoming Place Names
LR: AJM [monogram]
The artist; John Cassard, 1864; [?]; [M. Knoedler and Company, New York]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1970