What’s with all the Blue Coats?

Alfred Jacob Miller was one of several artists who had the opportunity to portray Native Americans in the West of the 1830s, but he was the only professional artist to travel to rendezvous and depict fur traders and mountaineers in their element. While Miller’s stylistic lens requires caution from researchers using his images for material culture reference, sometimes Miller’s visual details can be compared to the written record. An example of this is an item of clothing that appears repeatedly in Miller’s trapper images: a roughly knee-length coat with a hood. In the Fur Traders and Rendezvous online collection it can be seen in image numbers 61, 62, 73A, 92, 290, 417A, 459, and with 54 showing a variation without a hood. They were called, with various spellings, capotes, and it is a style of coat appearing in two of Miller’s most iconic images, “The Trapper’s Bride,” and, “Setting Traps for Beaver.” The word, derived from French, described the hooded coats early habitants of Quebec copied from sailors during the French settlement of Canada. They were either ready-made of heavy weight wool, or could be made in the field from blankets. The popularity of capotes spread with the French influence on the North American fur trade, and they were a common trade item throughout the West of the rendezvous era. Accounts by mountaineers Warren Ferris and Osborne Russell, each mentioned blanket coats as typical trapper’s clothing, and blue, green and gray capotes can be found in historic inventories of trade goods headed west. Miller’s repeated choice of blue may have reflected a predominant color he saw in 1837, or it may have been a visual accent for his compositions.