A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing!

Human nature can be very irritating.  It seems when we learn a little something about a subject all of a sudden we become experts!  These “experts” not only will tell you what they have learned about a subject (usually without you even asking them), they will also tell you what it isn’t.  I am always amazed at people who can tell you definitively how things were/are simply because they have learned a little about a certain subject.

Take for example the artwork of Alfred Jacob Miller.  It seems we see a few of his pictures and right away we become experts on the Mountain Men and the Rocky Mountain fur trade.  We readily accept the style and manner of dress that we see, as well we should.  We learn about the tools and equipment, the materials used and the way things were done.  All of this is a very good thing.  The problem comes when we start to make judgments upon what we don’t see.

The first thing you know we are making definitive statements about what they didn’t have and how “it” couldn’t or wouldn’t be found in the mountains.  We readily demonstrate our wonderful ignorance.  What we should do is take all of the first hand sources and roll them together to get a cohesive picture of the life of the Mountain Men.  We should try to refrain from explaining away things we don’t understand and or the things that don’t fit our preconceived ideas.  We should take great care in any definitive statements we make.  Words like “never” and “always” should be used with great care or not used at all.

To use a hypothetical example:  Let’s say that in the future all automobiles are gone.  Very few exist in museums and the most we know about them is from an album of pictures that has survived the centuries of the Miller family reunion in Detroit, MI.  The photo album depicts an Edsel, a Cadillac and a 1957 Chevrolet two door coupe parked in the distance at the 1960 family reunion.  We have read about pick-up trucks, sports cars, SUVs, etc., but the only automobiles we have seen pictures of are the three in this album.  Some of us like to try and re-enact this 1960 barbecue and so we use Miller’s album of pictures to recreate the cars, clothing, cooking gear, foods, etc.  If we use the items we see in the pictures we know we are accurately recreating the time period, right?  Our recreations are accurate representations of 1960’s America, aren’t they?  We are representing all Americans.  They all dressed the same as the Miller’s, didn’t they?  Or should we say we are accurately recreating the Miller family reunion in Detroit.  We know there were other kinds of vehicles but we don’t allow them because they are not pictured.  They were probably parked on the other side of the fence but since we can’t see them, “they weren’t there”.  The Miller family reunion took place in the summer, of course.  We know they experienced winter, spring and fall but all of Miller’s pictures are from the summer.  We don’t allow snow tires on the cars because we have never seen a picture on that kind of tire in Miller’s work.  We have long drawn out debates about what the people would have worn in the other seasons.  We have many books from the time period that describe the different coats and hats, shoes and boots, long pants, etc., but we just cannot accept these things as fact because Miller doesn’t show them.  We say “it is too bad Miller didn’t take any pictures in the winter”.  We can sure limit ourselves too easily with this mind set!

Another thing we have to remember is that we read and see through the filter of our modern education and experience.  There are so many words that have changed in meaning over the years.  Webster’s 1828 Dictionary is a great help when trying to decipher the writings of the early 19th century.  Technology gets in our way when we try to recreate the past.  Sometimes things are done because “that’s the way we have always done it”.  There may be new ways of doing things but many of us seem slow or reluctant to adopt the new and different.  Others are eager to implement the latest and greatest.  I would guess the Mountain Men were much the same.  Some did things the same way their fathers and grandfathers did them, while others grabbed onto the new ways they learned from the Indians and earlier mountaineers.  We should think variety and individualism when we think about the mountaineers.  We should refrain from painting everyone with the broad brush.  We should be careful about using generalities such as “All mountain men were clean shaven”.  My research proves otherwise.

For sure, the Rocky Mountain fur trappers were a subset of all the different groups involved in the fur trade.  But, I see a certain amount of overlap among the groups.  For example, many of the mountaineers came from the Canadian/Great Lakes fur trade.  These were men of French Canadian heritage.   They were on the Missouri River and in the mountains.  There were many half breeds, men from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and many other European countries involved in the American fur trade.  As they pushed into the Rocky Mountains many of them joined in for what could be the last un-trapped area on the continent.

I would venture a guess that what we see in Miller of Stewart’s hunting party, the caravan and rendezvous comprises less than 10% of the Rocky Mountain fur trade of 1837.

If you look at the Rendezvous period 1825-1840 his work is probably less than 1% of the activity, material and dress of the mountaineers.  If we look at the wider view of the Rocky Mountain era say 1803-1850, Miller’s snapshot becomes minuscule.  I am concerned by people who use Miller as the “end all & be all” of the mountaineer.  To me their focus is too narrow and they miss out by not including as much period material as possible.  The other mistake I see is using Miller to justify what was not out west.  Just because Miller did not paint or sketch something doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.  If an eye-witness wrote about an item, be sure it was there.  Why doubt our few sources just because Miller didn’t paint it?

I am the first to admit to making all of the mistakes listed above and the more I learn, about the fur trade in general and the Rocky Mountain fur trade in particular, the more I realize I don’t know.  If you don’t know what you don’t know you have no desire to learn anything new.  When you realize how much you don’t know, it becomes easier to learn new things.  Instead of saying “they didn’t have…” or “they never…” or “you shouldn’t…”  or  God forbid, “that’s wrong….” and “you can’t use….”,  I pledge to ask “where did you get the idea for that?” and “was that a common thing?”.   I will also not be afraid to say “I don’t know” and “tell me about that”.

Please join me.

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2 Responses to A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing!

  1. Ron says:

    Gabe,
    Point well taken. Mistakes I have made early on and I’m sure I have made them recently. The research is part of the intrigue of this time period in history. I enjoy your articles on seeing the other side.

    Ron

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