In studying the artwork of Miller, I have seen many wonderful references to the material culture of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. I will use his artwork and notes to develop and justify many of the items I use in my portrayal of a mountaineer. I am somewhat disappointed that many of his works are “fuzzy”. They lack the clarity of detail we are looking for. Others, especially his portraits, are extraordinary in their detail. We can be thankful of that.
It is my estimation that fully one-third of the white men he portrays are sporting beards. Most of the beards are short, indicating the men had shaved within a couple of months or kept them trimmed. As a beard wearer, I can tell you a long beard gets in the way and soon becomes a nuisance.
Miller portrays the Indians as the “Noble Savage”. He tells us in his notes that Stewart forbade him to depict them any other way. Does that mean he saw “worthless” Indians or was Stewart trying to prevent stereotypes and prejudices from entering in to the art?
Another thing to be aware of when studying Miller is that he was hired by and made most of his sketches of Stewart’s hunting party. He has a couple of overall, panoramic type pictures of the rendezvous, a few pictures of trappers at work and in camp and a few portraits of specific people. Capt. Joe Walker as example. Most of his pictures are of Stewart’s party with the caravan and after the rendezvous. He portrays the same men over and over. William Drummond Stewart was his employer and his main subject. Although Stewart spent much time in the west he should not be considered your average fur trapper. My guess is that 70% of the white men pictured by Miller are the same three men. Stewart, Antoine Clement and Pierre the mule rider. If you include Auguste the groom, Jean(John) the cook and “Black” Harris more than 80% of the white men pictured are these same six guys.
Miller depicts the wolf-eared cap very often. I see these worn by Antoine, Pierre, Auguste and “Black” Harris. With these four men depicted over and over it makes the use of the wolf-eared cap seem widespread. Does anyone else show this type of cap? Is it mentioned in the text of journals or other artwork? Was this type of hat peculiar to Stewart’s hunters? It will be interesting to see what I find as I continue my studies.
Miller portrays his subjects as wearing pucker toe or Ojibwa style moccasins. These were common in the Great Lakes area and parts east. According to the map on Nativetech.org [http://www.nativetech.org/clothing/moccasin/mocmap.html] pucker toe and center seam moccasins were used by the tribes in the north-east and south-east parts of North America, most tribes west of the Mississippi used a side seam or two piece with a hard sole. Rex Allen Norman in his 1837 sketchbook questions the depiction of pucker toe moccasins by Miller, as does Landry and Chronister in their article about mountain clothing from the Book of Buckskinning Vol.VII. From my study, I believe Miller shows the pucker toe because many of Stewart’s party were French-Canadians. Antoine, Pierre, and Auguste are all described as being French-Canadians or Canadians. Being on a hunting excursion from St. Louis they may have brought clothing and gear from back home rather than trade from the Indians. Even if they had to make new moccasins while on the trip it is reasonable to assume they would follow the pattern of their existing items with which they were familiar and comfortable.
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?
With a discerning mind Alfred Jacob Miller’s work will help us build a wonderful re-enactment of the Rocky Mountain fur trade era. When taken alongside the journals and letters of the eye-witnesses and participants we can put together a very accurate picture of the life of a trapper.