Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

Alfred Jacob Miller wrote captions for the paintings he made for William Walters in 1858, however no extensive verbal descriptions from the time of his 1837 trip west have come to light. Since Miller’s images, made in the field and shortly thereafter, were the primary source for thirty years of Miller’s own duplication of western images, it would be valuable to have contemporary text to accompany those earliest images.

Detailed primary sources do exist, written in the 1830s by people who, like Miller, travelled west, attended the trapper’s rendezvous, and were familiar with the scenes Miller portrayed visually. Compare the sketch above to what trapper and trader Warren A. Ferris wrote in 1836:

The space within the square, was dotted with the iron heads of nearly two hundred hard wood pins, each one foot in length, and one and three-fourths inches in diameter, drove into the ground, to which our horses and mules were fastened. Each man was provided with a wooden mallet to drive the pins with, and when, just before sunset, all were put into requisition, such a din as they created, would be a caution to Paganini. Immediately after sundown, the words “catch up,” resounded through the camp, all hands flew to the horses and all was noise and bustle for some minutes.

In Miller’s image, the figure in the left foreground swings a mallet at an iron-banded picket pin, and on the right are the horses being brought in for the night. Ferris mentions Paganini, an early 19th century violinist, whose violin was nicknamed “The Cannon” because of its explosive sound.

By pairing Miller images created in the 1830s with written primary sources from the same period, an apples-to-apples compliment increases the information to be gained from each. Comparisons between contemporary primary sources also highlight cultural, artistic and literary influences on those sources.

To determine which images are currently accepted as Miller’s earliest, Ron Tyler’s Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, and Lisa Strong’s Sentimental Journey, The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller are helpful. The website has high resolution scans of some of Miller’s earliest work.

Accounts of the rendezvous-centered fur trade written during the 1830s can be found either online, or from used book sites. Among the best are:

Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Warren A. Ferris. Ferris spent from 1830 to 1835 in the mountains working as a trapper and trader. Penned in 1836, his account is well written and readable.

Narrative of a Journey, by John Kirk Townsend. Townsend, an ornithologist and keen observer, went west with Nathaniel Wyeth in 1834.

Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains, Samuel Parker. Parker was a missionary who traveled west in 1835, documenting what he saw from his particular point of view.

Oregon; A Short History of a Long Journey, John B. Wyeth. Published in 1833, this account stands out for its generally sarcastic take on western adventure.