This wash drawing is a depiction of one of Miller’s favorite themes, a buffalo hunt he witnessed near the confluence of the North Platte River and the Sweetwater River as the travelers approached Independence Rock (seen on the left side of the composition and referred to here as the Black Hills). It may also portray one of the first such hunts he was able to observe.
The primary figure in the work is a mounted Indian hunter whose horse gallops beside a fleeing buffalo. The buffalo’s hump and the hill to the right are shaped like the shoulder of Independence Rock, thus providing a counterpoising compositional element to the scene. The rest of the hunters are spread across the plain in random dashes of pursuit.
Peter H. Hassrick
Immense herds of buffalo were recorded in the early days of the fur trade. Plains tribes made large forays in the spring and fall, often traveling large distances to find their prey, and undergoing ritual ceremonies prior to undertaking the hunt. Arrows were shot at a buffalo so they entered under the last rib reaching the heart, liver or lung. A lance was similarly aimed with a short quick thrust in and out maintaining control for use on another pass.
Sergeant Patrick Gass, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, noted in early December 1804 while camped at Fort Mandan, that the men:
saw the prairie covered with buffaloe and the Indians on horseback killing them. They killed 30 or 40 … of them. They shoot them with bows and arrows, and have their horses so trained that they will advance very near and suddenly wheel and fly off in case the wounded buffaloe attempt an attack.
Trapper Osborne Russell pointed out that a good buffalo hunter:
requires experience to enable him to choose a fat animal the best looking Buffaloe is not always the fattest and a hunter by constant practice may lay down rules for selecting the fattest when on foot which would be no guide to him when running upon horseback for he is then placed in a different position and one which requires different rules for choosing.
Plains Indian tribes relied heavily on this animal for which they had multiple uses. Its meat, tongue and organs were a primary foodstuff with young cows preferred because the meat was more tender and hides more valuable. Its hair-on hide was used for warm robes; its tanned skin for lodge cover, clothes and footwear. Tools and utensils were made from various bones, horns or other animal parts. The buffalo bladder was used as a water container. A horn was carved to make a spoon. A shoulder blade was used as a plate. It is often said that these people had a use for nearly every part of the buffalo. However, not every part of every buffalo was used.
For Further Reading:
Moulton, Gary E., ed. The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition Vol. 2
Russell, Osborne, Journal of a Trapper
Terry, Michael, Daily Life in a Plains Indian Village 1868
Bad Hand, Plains Indians Regalia & Customs
UR: Buffalo Hunting in Herds. LR: Hunt of Buffalo Black Hills
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