Catching the Horses
This is a scene of great excitement, one that occurred frequently along the trail. The company’s horses had been turned out to feed in the late afternoon after the day’s work. Just before supper time, they are brought back into camp. Each has a lariat around its neck, and the men are called to catch their own horse or horses and picket them for the evening. One of the travelers, the veteran mountain man and portly Etienne Provost, sees the incoming herd and alerts the camp with a call that is the title of this watercolor. His tent and Miller’s small portrait of him are seen in the lower left corner of the composition.
This is probably a study for the finished watercolor version that was part of the William Walters commission (CR# 59A).
Peter H. Hassrick
In this painting of Tom Fitzpatrick’s supply caravan destined for the 1837 Green River rendezvous, the men had unloaded their horses and wagons and had placed the bales of goods as the Captain indicated, which created a defensive fortification. When all the “messes” were arranged in this way, the camp formed a hollow square with the horses corralled in the center. The evening meal is being prepared, the men cooking in small groups, or “messes,” comprised of five to eight men. Camps were typically made early enough in the day to allow the livestock to fill their bellies before being picketed around dusk. Only the two-wheeled charrettes appear in this painting, which makes it likely a scene that occurred after the caravan departed Fort Laramie. The wagons had been left at that station with the trade goods loaded onto pack horses and carts for the remaining distance to rendezvous. At a signal from the leader, the party’s horses and mules are being driven in from the evening graze so the men can catch them and secure them for the night via picket pins and ropes.
Etienne Provost (1785 – July 3, 1850)
The central figure standing outside the tent with his hands to his mouth is the caravan “sub-leader” Etienne Provost (spelled by Miller as “Proveau” and pronounced “Provo.”) Provost’s call to the men, “Attrapez des Chevaux,” tells them it is time to catch up the horses and picket them within the security of the wagon circle. A French-Canadian by birth, his long-term participation in the Rocky Mountain fur trade began as a member of the Choteau-DeMunn 1812 party. He was already trapping the Green River country when William Ashley’s party arrived in 1825 and had earned the moniker “The Man of the Mountains.” The Provo River and the town of Provo, Utah, were named for him. Miller described Proveau as having “a corpus round as a porpoise.” The heavy –weight man appears in several of Miller’s images and is easy to spot.
Trapper Warren Ferris provides the specifics of picketing horses and mules in his 1833 journal: “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.”
Alfred Jacob Miller also captured a similar essence in the on-the-spot field sketch titled “Picketing Horses-Evening” and a painting made later from this sketch titled “Evening-Picketing Horses.
A nightly guard consisted of six to eight men, relieved three to four times each night. The captain of the guard, generally one of the day’s mess captains, collected his people at the appointed hour, posting them around the camp, ready to give the alarm in case of danger. The captain cried the hour regularly, and “all's well,” every fifteen minutes. Each man on guard was required to repeat the call in rotation, which if anyone should fail to do, it was concluded that he was asleep. Such infractions would adjudge to the delinquent the hard sentence of walking for the next three days.
Once the horses and mules were secured for the night, the men settled in around the campfires to partake of the evening meal, enjoy a smoke from their pipes, and regale one another with yarns of their experiences in the Far West. Simple tripods were often constructed from poles (as seen in the painting) from which cook pots hung over the fire. The caravan’s “organization” for feeding the men was described by John Kirk Townsend in 1834:“The party is divided into messes of eight men and each mess is allowed a separate tent. The captain of a mess (who is generally an “old hand,” i.e. an experienced forester, hunter, or trapper,) receives each morning the rations of pork, flour, &c. for his people and they choose one of their body as cook for the whole.”
Ferris, Warren A., Life in the Rocky Mountains
Ross, Marvin C., The West of Alfred Jacob Miller
Townsend, John K. Across the Rockies to the Columbia
Tykal, Jack B., Etienne Provost: Man of the Mountains
UR: (loquitur) Monsieur Proveau / Attrapez [sic] des Chevaux
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; The Boatmen’s National Bank of St. Louis, MO; Bank of America, New York, NY; present owner, 2013