When Alfred Jacob Miller agreed to accompany William Drummond Stewart on a trek to the Rocky Mountain West, it is likely he had no idea what he was in for. Raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and trained as an artist in the finest cities of Europe, Miller was undoubtedly far more accustomed to civilized life. The idea of joining this Scottish nobleman who wanted him to sketch the remarkable scenery and incidents of such a trip into the wilderness must have seemed like the adventure of a lifetime.
The two men had met while in New Orleans, Louisiana, in early 1837. Stewart, who would soon ascend to become laird of Murthly Castle in Dunkeld, Scotland, was impressed with Miller’s art and arranged to have the artist go west with him. They reunited in St. Louis in early April where they joined an American Fur Company (AFC) caravan taking goods and equipment to the trappers’ rendezvous on Green River. More than a thousand miles across the continent, it would be Stewart’s fifth such visit to the annual gathering. Led by experienced mountaineer Tom Fitzpatrick, the supply train included thirty wagons and a couple of two-wheeled Charette carts. Stewart had a pair of wagons of his own, filled with personal gear and specialty items such as gifts, fine wines and exotic delicacies that he was taking to the rendezvous.
The first leg of the journey was a five-week jaunt from the Missouri River to Fort William (soon to be known as Fort Laramie). They traveled to Westport, a primary jumping off station for such west-bound treks, and then, near the confluence of the Kaw or Kansas River, the convoy of pack mules and wagons left the Missouri to follow the Kansas. Only a few days out of Westport, Fitzpatrick appointed Stewart, an experienced army officer and veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, as second in command of the brigade.
Each day started at 4 o’clock in the morning so that by sunup the outfit was loaded and ready to hit the trail. At noon, there was a short halt to rest the livestock and give the men a break for dinner. About half an hour before stopping for the day, scouts were sent ahead to select a campsite with an abundance of water and grass. With luck, the site would have plenty of firewood, otherwise dry buffalo dung would be used as fuel for cooking. At the designated location, the wagons formed a circular barricade to protect the camp, then the horses were watered and allowed to graze. Towards sundown, the animals were driven within the circle of wagons and picketed for the night. Guards were posted to watch over the camp throughout the hours of darkness. Such a daily routine was followed with little deviation.
They visited several Indian villages along their route, most notably those of the Kansa and Pawnee. Veering up the Blue River, they soon struck the Platte near Grand Island in present-day Nebraska, then followed the North Platte River westward. Whenever the caravan stopped, Miller took advantage of the scenery along the route, making several sketches and paintings, mostly water colors. The artist rendered images of prominent landmarks such as Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. He made notes to accompany many of his depictions of life on the trail, and from these memoirs historians have gained valuable knowledge about the West during this period of history. He described hunting buffalo and grizzly bears, crossing streams by bull boat, and various interactions with trappers. Miller commented on the lifestyle of Crow, Sioux, Shoshone, Pawnee, Flathead, and countless other Native American tribes, adding substantially to the ethnological history of these people. Of great material culture value is Miller’s depiction of clothing and accoutrements worn or used by the mountaineers, as well as images of equipment such as saddles, tents, and campsites.
While at Fort William, about 800 miles west of St. Louis, Miller painted the wilderness bastion, and thus provided one of the earliest descriptions of the trading post, then under the command of Lucien Fontenelle. A large party of forty-five men left the fort around June 27, leaving the larger wagons behind and loading the merchandise onto twenty carts. Continuing up the North Platte, they soon arrived at Independence Rock on the Sweetwater River. Following this watercourse past Devil’s Gate and they crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass before descending the Big Sandy River onto the drainages of the Green River.
Near modern Daniel, Wyoming, the cavalcade arrived at the confluence of the Green River and Horse Creek on July 18, to find the rendezvous already in progress. The bottoms of the valley were packed with trapping parties and numerous bands of Native Americans, primarily Shoshone or Snakes, as the mountaineers called them, all who had come to trade as soon as the AFC store opened. Miller was the first and only artist to ever attend a Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, which makes his portrayals of the event stand as the only pictorial record from a firsthand perspective. Today’s historians have come to rely on the accuracy of Miller’s art, especially his earlier works, in order to understand, describe, depict, and portray the costume of the trappers and traders of the 1830s Rocky Mountain West.
Trapper Osbourne Russell had ridden into rendezvous two days earlier and,
found the hunting Parties all assembled waiting for the arrival of Supplies from the States. Here presented what might be termed a mixed multitude. The whites were chiefly Americans and Canadian French with some Dutch, Scotch, Irish, English, halfbreed, and full blood Indians, of nearly every tribe in the Rocky Mountains. Some were gambling at Cards some playing the Indian game of hand and others horse racing while here and there could be seen small groups collected under shady trees relating the events of the past year all in good Spirits and health for Sickness is a Stranger seldom met with in these regions.
At the rendezvous, the Shoshone, perhaps upwards of two thousand by Miller’s count, organized a grand procession in honor of Stewart’s attendance. Miller met many mountaineers whose names are familiar to those acquainted with the Rocky Mountain fur trade – Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Joe Walker, Etienne Provost, Andrew Drips, Black Harris, Antoine Clement, and Bill Burrows, just to name a few. Also present was a contingent of Hudson’s Bay Company traders, under the direction of John McLeod and Thomas McKay. In addition, Joseph Thing, second in command of the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company, came over from Fort Hall to attend. Several of these men, as well as a number of Indian chiefs, appear in the paintings done by the artist.
Miller watched and painted scenes of the shenanigans happening throughout this bacchanalian holiday as men gathered to trade their annual catch of beaver skins for astronomically high-priced supplies and trade goods. Traps, gun powder, lead for bullets, blankets, tobacco, knives, kettles, and more filled the shopping lists of the trappers who did business with Fitzpatrick. Ribbons, beads, mirrors, calico, and other such finery was purchased as gifts or as trade items. Then, whatever money was left over was used to indulge in a liquor-powered Saturnalia. Horse races, games, wrestling matches, shooting contests, storytelling, and plenty of gambling games were all noted by Miller. Stewart gifted Bridger with pieces of armor, including a polished steel cuirass and helmet as worn by the Queen’s Life Guards, which Miller also depicted.
The rendezvous wound down between August 5 and 10, but Stewart, having previously been in the mountains for several seasons, had already taken his entourage on a hunting trip into the Wind River Mountains, one of Stewart’s favorite places in all of the West. Today’s Fremont Lake was visited at this time and christened Stewart Lake in honor of the host. Their tour of this picturesque range lasted several weeks, camping primarily around the headwaters of the New Fork River. Miller was awed by the grandeur of Fremont Peak and painted several landscapes of the Wind River Range.
Details of the return trip are scarce, but Miller was back in St. Louis in mid-October and returned to New Orleans a short time later where he began to prepare many of his paintings that would soon decorate the walls of Stewart’s Murthly Castle. Although Stewart ventured to the mountains again in 1838 and 1843, Miller never returned.
Auld, James C., “Murthly, Castle of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade,” in Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal, vol. 7
Gowans, Fred, Rocky Mountain Rendezvous
Porter, Mae Reed and Odessa Davenport, Scotsman in Buckskin; Sir William Drummond Stewart and the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade
Ross, Marvin C., The West of Alfred Jacob Miller