Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ears, Horns, & Peaks; The curios paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller- Part 1

Hello, it’s great to be back. I have been sitting on the back-burner, on my arse for a while, keeping busy with real life, building a living history program at work, and orienting myself with the history of my new home for nearly 2 years now. Colorado is quite different from “Oregon Country,” Hudson’s Bay history, and the “end of the trail,” and I have had to do a lot of re-reading of late on the Fur Trade here.  Here, I live within 25 mile radius of 4 major fur fort sites,  major historic trails (South Platte, Trappers Trail, and the Goodnight–Loving) and the hunting grounds of the Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux.  It’s great to live in a place so steeped in history and it is even better awakening visitors to this reality, which is largely forgotten by the general public.

One thing that has always bothered me and I have fallen willfully into myself is “reenactor fads.” The idea that someone else’s research establishes authenticity has always bothered me as a historic interpreter, museum professional, and reenactor. Somehow these popular ideas, being “cool,” and nifty looking accessories catch hold and then suddenly, we have an army of people in walnut shirts stomping around in places they never were and miss-quoting history “ad nauseum.”  This really gets to me when this is done before the public programs.

BEFORE I GO ANY FARTHER, I am not looking down my nose at anyone here. If you like what you have use it. After all, this is a hobby for most (an addiction for me). No skin off my head! For me, I attempt to portray what is typical not the unusual or out of unique about historic people. My training in “history school” made me look at the subject of documentation with scrutiny and intensity, where as many enthusiasts, stop short of its correct application, which leads to erroneous conclusions about historical material culture. I was taught long ago, that true historic research demands corroboration by two or more sources when possible and the sources need to be pure as you can find.

I watch pals strain themselves seeking and delving into “primary sources.” Like a quest for the Holy Grail, we all want to find that one reaffirming piece of historic data that seals the historic deal, absolutely.  These should be the pictures or accounts of those who lived a historical era/experience that occurred to them in the very recent tense and recorded soon after.  They are only primary because they wrote the account down or recorded history as it happened. This can also be a painting, drawing, photo, or other media that accurately captures the occurrence.

“Secondary,” indicates it was either relayed to the person recording the information second hand close to the time of occurrence, or the person lived it at a previous date and recorded or rendered it from recollection.  As far as tertiary goes, it has very little weight in my research but can still be valid. Basically, these would be summation of others research synthesized into major themes. That being said, don’t take my word here either, as this too you would be considered “tertiary.” In other words, just because you read someone’s book, doesn’t mean it was interpreted authentically.

For a long time now, I have wondered about the hooded hats and pointy head coverings depicted by Alfred Jacob Miller in his field paintings.  While I have no doubt they existed, I would wonder why very few artists depicted them on anyone but native people besides Miller. Where are the artifact equivalents in the dusty collections of museums?  How is it that the brigade of trappers newly headed to the summer rendezvous need to make hats when they recently left Missouri resupplied?

I keep hearing from fellow enthusiast the reasoning behind the lack of artifact evidence; “they dissolved in the field “or “who would want dirty old clothes?”  In my time as a museum staffer, I have handled two circa 1840 buckskin coats, one from the northern plains and the other of unknown provenance but attributed to overland pioneers. These two garments came to light after reading articles by well-respected historians saying “no frontier clothing has survived.” To assume something doesn't exist because it is not prominently displayed is a flawed assumption. Most artifacts of even a small museum collection, NEVER get displayed, and many museums have antiquated or undocumented donations.  So why no wolf-eared caps? I pondered this for some time.

Recently the question of “eared hoods” was brought up on other blogs concerning the eastern fur trade in Wisconsin ( and another dealing with the Middle -ground hunter (, brought this discussion once again to mind. Their thorough research brought to light for me the long native tradition of hooded and animal like hoods for hunting and winter use among native people of North America. Thanks to Ike and Nathan for great posts!

With the well-established native traditions across the continent of hooded headwear, what I have been suspicious of is the frequency and upon WHOM these hats resided during Miller’s 1837 trip. Are they on Metis? Are they on Yankees? Creoles?  Miller’s own words are helpful here:
“The hunter’s form for themselves a peculiar kind of cap:-it has two ears with flaps reaching to its shoulders…the peculiar caps on their heads are made by themselves, to replace felt hats, long since worn out or lost. “ AJ Miller 1837
Here is who we know is wearing them:
·         Auguste: Metis/Creole – Designated Hunter
·         Moses “Black” Harris: Mulatto-Dispatch rider/Trapper
·         LaJeneusse: Metis/Creole – Designated Hunter
·         Louis: Metis/Creole-Trapper

It is not only necessary to discover why they were worn, but also the frequency of wear to try and better understand their place in the trapper’s kit. By far, Miller is the primary source of the depictions of these on white trappers. Other artists related to the fur trade are largely discounted because they did not travel to the field and strangely these hats do not replicate in their art on white trappers.  Both Karl Bodmer and W.T. Ranney witnessed the fur trade.  Bodmer in his trip up the Missouri in 1834 and Ranney as a young artist with trappers involved in Texas independence who had returned from the frontier, depict nothing like AJ Miller on their non-Indian subjects.

Using Miller works solely as a documentarian source is flawed, UNLESS your use the correct pictures. Miller wasn't painting with the intent of being the only documentarian to witness the western fur trade; so much as he was doing so to make his boss’s adventures seem heroic and romantic for his reputation back home in Scotland.

The problem with this, is one must check the dates of the pictures as he generated works from this trip for the next 20 years!  For this purpose, I would only utilize his works from no later than, you guessed it: 1837! Many of his most romantically captivating pictures have multiple versions of the same subjects, some numbering into the hundreds. Many still have no dates, or dates of reproduction as late as 1858-1860 or even 1867!

The more I looked at the images with TRUE 1837 PROVENANCE, the fewer of these “peculiar caps” I saw represented.  In order for this to be genuine primary documentation, the pictures would have to be field renderings to be considered as valid as “Photographs.”  One of the best sources for this is, the book; The West of Alfred Jacob Miller by Marvin C Ross.  Composed only of 1837 sketches and watercolors rendered in the field, one can get a true, yet incomplete sampling of the material culture of the mountain men and the 1837 caravan to the summer rendezvous.

So here are the pictures in which the “wolf-eared caps” appear that I could find from the 2 books on Miller I own:
1.       Trappers starting for the beaver hunt
2.       Preparing for the buffalo hunt
3.       Auguste and his horse
4.       Trapper’s Bride
5.       Trappers
6.       The Grizzly Bear
7.       Roasting the Hump Rib
8.       Caravan en route
9.       Breakfast at Sunrise
10.   Shoshone Indian and his pet
11.   Escape from Blackfeet
12.   Storm: waiting for the caravan
13.   Approaching Buffalo
14.   The greeting
15.   Indian toilet
16.   The Scalplock
17.   Trappers and Indians communicating by sign
18.   Trapper in his solitary camp
19.   Louis Rocky Mountain Trapper
Mind you, there are approximately 100 plus field works by Miler. The vast majority of depictions with “wolf-ears” have no more than 2 individuals and mostly a singular individual among a group, wearing such hats. Two of the pictures are of native people.  

The OVERWHELMING hat preference in the field works is slouched hats of pale complexion. They are seen in numerous states of wear and cocked in many different rakish ways. Some apparently have the brims cut down or have worn to a more narrow and haggard shape.

Other artists lack such hats. Both Ranney and Bodmer depict hoods/hats of fur. Bodmer on an Assiniboine hunter in winter wearing a badgers skin hood and Ranney with simple “pill” style hats of what could be interpreted as beaver on his trapper subjects. In the journal of Isaac P. Rose, the hats of this nature are used for stalking buffalo. This man while recounting his exploits in the late 1870s hung out with Bridger, Carson, Wyeth, and Russell in the field from 1834-38 and while he is a secondary resource, was in the mountains during Miller’s appearance there.   He also mentions these “caps” being made from wolf skin specifically.  
Here is the corresponding journal entry from Miller’s 1837 journal from the hunting scene “approaching the buffalo:

“The hunters form for themselves a peculiar kind of cap—it has two ears with a flap reaching to the shoulders. This is worn with a double object in view, one of which is to deceive the buffalo in approaching—under such a guise, the hunter is mistaken for the animal as a wolf, and is suffered to approach quite near…” AJ Miller 1837

So what can we take away from this whole discussion? Firstly, is there are only about 14 guys out of 100 pictures with this head-wear I don’t believe the trappers relished wearing these hats. The vast majority of the group is portrayed wearing them as make-do head coverings some of blanket or cloth some of apparently buckskin.

It may also be quite possible that these are part of the hunting attire for just that specific task as 4 of the 17 images revolve around actual hunting. Miller quotes reflect the word “hunter” and “trapper,” each with singular significance in respect to duty. However, Antoine a fine hunter himself is depicted in a tan slouch a hat with broad brim.
1868 photo of Dakota Sioux hunters

For me personally, portraying the typical trapper, I find this hat very “non-typical.” However, this hat has a seemingly specific application among the native inhabitants and among the 1837 brigade as well….Which I will discuss next time……

Sunday, January 27, 2013

After a long absence and stimulating weekend of historical discussion among friends, I have decided to restart my blog.  Stay tuned for more interesting posts in the coming days, concerning Colorado's frontier history, the fur trade, and the period of westward expansion.  Also the blog will soon get a face lift.
Cheers- Bill

Saturday, January 1, 2011


Non-typical Rifles from Beyond 1840 (Top to Bottom): Illinois or Ohio built mountain rifle circa 1850, English percussion “Indian Gift” rifle circa1840, Lehman attributed circa 1845 longrifle

J.J. Henry, H.E. Lehman, and J.S. Hawken…All of these names as we think about them, flash an image of a classic fur trade era firearm across our mind's eye. Images of the half stock, heavy barrel of the Hawken rifle, the large English scroll trigger-guard of the J.J. Henry, the heavily tacked Lehman Indian trade rifle, all have become “branded” on our brains as classic guns associated with the fur trapper.

I will say that I am not a “gun expert,” but know enough to look at the traits of historic firearms and see the nuances in the different examples out there. My argument here is that a good fur trade rifle can easily be assembled to resemble the hundreds of “non-typical” examples out there form parts at dealers like “track of the wolf” or “the rifle shop.”  With careful attention to details on DOCUMENTABLE examples, you can easily make up an authentic and accurate rifle that surpasses many of those sold “off the rack” today that is just as historic as any custom gun builder can make for you.

A classic Rocky Mountain fur trade rifle (1820-40) should have a straight barrel or maybe even swamped. A resilient 19th century flintlock, a full stock is more prevalent for a classic, but as the era beyond 1840 progressed, half stock weapons gained favor with some. Furniture would be sparse and often of brass or a mixture of iron and brass. Patch and cap boxes began to be used interchangeably but, may have had none at all.  Older “colonial” features like wooden patch box covers, octagonal to round barrels, and heavy curvilinear carving would have been abandoned. Yet, as sure as I write this, one could find examples with beautiful carving and engraving work.  What is important is the style of the renderings.

I approach my hobby from my museum background. I guess that is a shortcoming to some, but I think it forces me to look outside the historical box when looking at artifacts. Having the privilege of handling and examining many real fur trade era guns, something struck me early on when viewing the collections. What struck me is that there were many non-typical fur trade associated weapons than those that fit the classic lines or at least that is what I am seeing in my work.

Whether field altered or cobbled together from parts to fill orders for fur posts and outfitters at "jumping off points," the artifacts I have seen so far seem to lack the classic compositions and components which we all aspire to carry. Don’t get me wrong, the classic are out there but they don’t seem to be reflected en masse in collections or exist in altered states of condition.

One exception to this which isn’t a rifle, is the pattern of the Barnett trade gun and its’ many copies. I have seen many altered specimens and classic percussion retro-fits. The traditional pattern demanded by indigenous clientele and made by several firms, doesn’t change much throughout the Fur Trade era and even beyond.

What I hope to look at here are examples from collections and some I have looked at available from brokers and auctions, that don’t jive with our perceptions of fur trade rifles.  We all strive to buy the best gun we can afford, just as the original frontiersmen did. But as the frontier opened up in the mid-1830’s the demand for firearms increased and made it possible for the market to be flooded with guns that don’t fit the classic “perception” of the fur trade.

The pieces that are examined here are examples of those rifles that don’t fit the “classic” lines of their production (pictured above)

The Illinois or Ohio built “mountain rifle” circa 1850, first in the line-up, is very similar to my original from the same area but from a decade earlier and mimics the classic “mountain rifle” of the Hawken clan. It seems pretty clear that in the “civilized” markets that the evolution in firearms technology contrasts the tastes and preferences of the traditional fur trader, who preferred flint weapons until much later. These percussion guns were more readily used in the east prior to 1840, while the trappers preferred the familiarity of the flintlock ignition system. There are many arguable reasons for this, but it is clear that in the east these guns were being produced in greater numbers by the mid-1830s and seeping onto the frontier. Similar rifles were still in production beyond 1860.

The very rugged and little known English “Indian Gift” percussion rifle circa 1840, was sold by the Canadian government and likely the HBc. from the 1840’s on.  Joe Meek, Oregon’s famous Mountain Man and Territorial Marshall carried one he received reportedly, at Fort Vancouver. He even named it!  What is fascinating is that these are altered specimens of the famous Baker Rifle, which have been shortened and fitted with new stocks, with military features removed and back-action locks. These were finished with sporting furniture and details.[i]  In 1842 these were listed as “rifles chiefs” and distributed throughout Canada and as “Indian Presents” along with hats, coats and ribbons.[ii]

Finally, H.E. Lehman apparently produced many guns for the trade under government contract[iii] that didn’t fit what we imagine as the classic “Indian rifle” style. I have been shopping for an original Lehman rifle to add to my own collection and there appears to be many variations in furniture and caliber. The specimens currently for sale range in odd calibers from .35-.42. The one pictured above has a “Henry” style patch box. I have seen 3 now without any toe, butt, or side plates as well as lacking nose caps.

Some rifle have no concrete provenance. Many of these working rifles have been converted from flintlock to percussion. Among these examples are converions from flintlocks to percussion which seems common as the rifles changed hands over time. One example I have looked at recently is marked “Barnett” and is clearly a retrofit from the original lock with remnants of the pan and the round faced trade gun lockplate with a new percussion hammer. Another is an example with a “Goulcher” lock. You can clearly see the old flintlock oriented touch hole and new lock placement.  Both weapons have a drum and nipple inserted into the original flintlock touch hole.[iv] 

So it would seem once again, that historic reality is stranger than fiction. The rifles that are out there for collecting and in the dark vaults of museums, often don’t reflect the classic designs that we all aspire to own as reeanctors. My opinion is that many simple rifles like these were wielded expertly on the American Frontier for a long period of time and changed hands and ignition systems as they survived or traded hands with various owners.  Just as significant, is that many of the "famous" rifle types which have been immortalized mostly by popular culture, are not typical of the working trapper but of the truly famous and affluent. I think of the various Jim Bridger and Kit Carson attributed rifles and guns, which exemplifiy their later careers beyond the rocky mountain fur trade era. The reality maybe that many more "non-typical" rifles were out there than are given credit for.

Next time, I will look at “guns” that are often overlooked in place of their more accepted styles. I will eventually look at examples in paintings, ledgers, and art from famous depictions of trappers, including some odd looking depictions of pistols.

Happy New Year to all far and wide!

[i] Egles, Ross,  Gifts for Indians Percussion Guns and Rifles Before 1842
[ii] ibid.
[iii] Russell Carl P.  Firearms traps and tools of the Mountain Men. U of New Mexico P. 1967. 2: 72-73.
[iv]  Rifles featured at John Gunderson Antique Militaria;