“A Corpus Round as a Porpoise…” Miller’s Descriptions of Fur Men

The artwork of Alfred J. Miller provides historians with images of men who appear in the journals of the trappers and traders who ventured into the Rocky Mountains during the latter years of the region’s fur trade era. His portraiture skills were a key factor in William D. Stewart hiring him to illustrate adventures in which the nobleman engaged. Certainly, the artist’s portrayals of his patron are among the most frequently seen persons on Miller’s canvas.

Miller’s record includes several more formal portraits of individuals, such as Stewart’s principal hunter Antoine Clement, as well as less remarkable trappers such as Bill Burrows. Several likenesses of Native Americans, Shoshone chief for example, offer the only recorded images of these important leaders.

On-site sketches and paintings of trappers such as Joseph Walker illustrate typical activities of daily fur trade life, in addition to offering a likeness of the man. Other images tantalize the viewer with only the given name of the person portrayed, such as Louis or 

Some paintings and accompanying notes by Miller give less exact images of individuals. For example, Threatened AttackCatching Up, identify Etienne Provost, described by Miller in his notes as a “subleader, with a corpus round as a porpoise,” making the “rotonde,” heavy-set man easily recognizable. Miller also sketched the only known image of Lucien Fontenelle, who is being chased by a grizzly bear. Though it might not be the trapper’s best side, it is certainly his back side.
Without Miller’s sketches and paintings, images of numerous fur trade dignitaries would be unavailable.