Crossing torrents of water, raging down from the mountains during the summer runoff, provided the Stewart expedition with special challenges. This view of Stewart, inching his way down a steep defile on his way to navigate a rushing stream, provided a vivid narrative that the captain especially relished in recounting.
This field study became a part of the souvenir portfolio that Miller organized for his patron’s library. It also provided a study for at least one large canvas (CR# 266B, Unlocated) that was completed in Baltimore in 1838 or 1839 and was sent across the Atlantic to hang on the castle walls at Murthly. Titled One of the Sources of the Colorado, the canvas was displayed at the Apollo Gallery in New York in the spring of 1839 before being shipped to Scotland. The public never saw Miller’s studies like the wash drawing here, but they did find the large oils like the river crossing scene to be fascinating. Even the New York press, regardless of the raw coloring of the early canvas, felt that with them he promised “rich renown as a painter.” (Tyler, 1999, 25)
Peter H. Hassrick
Trails in the Wind River Range:
Trapper Warren Ferris described riding along a trail at the base of the Wind River Mountains: “We passed along the plain at the base of the wind mountains, a very extensive and lofty range, crossing several small creeks, which at some distance below us unite and form New Fork.”
As frequently as trappers followed streams, crossings were necessary. Many times, attempts to get all the equipment, men, and animals safely over a raging current proved to be true challenge. It could just as easily turn into a dangerous situation with loss of lives or equipment. Though a river crossing was a common procedure, there were options as to how to accomplish the task. In 1832, western explorer Benjamin Bonneville, was the first to take wagons over South Pass. Wagons provided an altogether different challenge of getting over a raging river whose sources: ”Lie among wild and inaccessible cliffs, and tumble and foam down rugged defiles and over craggy precipice … Finding it impossible … to cross the river in this neighborhood, he kept up along the south fork for two days, merely seeking a safe fording place. At length he encamped, caused the bodies of the wagons to be dislodged from the wheels, covered with buffalo hide, and besmeared with a compound of tallow and ashes; thus forming rude boats. In these, they ferried their effects across the stream, which was six hundred yards wide, with a swift and strong current. Three men were in each boat, to manage it; others waded across pushing the barks before them. Thus all crossed in safety.”
Trapper Warren Ferris described a number of different river crossings in his journal, which included a few novel approaches: “Stripping ourselves, and wading back and forth we transported our baggage on our backs, piece?meal, whilst our horses were forced to swim over at another place. The water was quite chill, and as if to make the toil of crossing doubly unpleasant. On another occasion; they prepared a raft for the purpose of crossing Lewis river; having before ascertained that it was not fordable, and when every arrangement was completed, they drove in their horses, which swam over safely, and landed on the shore opposite. Stripping themselves for greater security, they pushed off into the stream. The velocity of the current, however, capsized their raft, on which their guns, traps, saddles, blankets, beavers and clothes were fastened, and carried the whole under an immense quantity of floating drift wood, beyond the possibility of recovery; and they only saved their lives by swimming.”
Bull Boat vs. Rafts:
Young adventurer and the cousin of trader Nathanial J. Wyeth, John B. Wyeth recounted an unfortunate experience that was a good lesson for the newcomers: “While Captain Sublet and his company were binding the gunwale of the boat with buffalo-sinews, to give it strength and due hardness, our Captain was by no means idle. He accordingly undertook to make a raft to transport our own goods across the river. Sublet expressed his opinion that it would not answer where the current was strong; but Captain Wyeth is a man not easily to be diverted from any of his notions, or liable to be influenced by the advice of others; so that while Sublet's men were employed on their Bull-boat, Wyeth and a chosen few were making a raft. When finished, we first placed our blacksmith's shop upon it, that is to say, our anvil, and large vice, and other valuable articles belonging to blacksmithery, bar-iron, and steel traps, and alas! a cask of powder, and a number of smaller, but valuable articles. We fixed a rope to our raft, and with some difficulty got the other end of it across the river to the opposite bank by a man swimming with a rope in his mouth, from some distance above the spot he aimed to reach. We took a turn of it round a tree. Captain Sublet gave it as his opinion that the line would not be sufficient to command the raft. But our Leader was confident that it would; but when they had pulled about half way over, the rope broke, and the raft caught under the limbs of a partly submerged tree, and tipped it on one side so that we lost our iron articles, and damaged our goods and a number of percussion caps.”
Fontunately, Nathaniel Wyeth learned from this mistake and used bull-boats several times during his Rocky Mountain expeditions.
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Ferris, Warren, A., Life in the Rocky Mountains
Irving, Washington, Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A.
Wyeth, John, Oregon; or, A Short History of a Long Journey From the Atlantic Ocean to the Region of the Pacific by Land
UL: 8 [underlined]. UC: Crossing one of the Sources of the Colorado of the West, in the Mountains of the Winds. LC mat: Crossing one of the Sources of the Colorado of the West, in the Mountains of the Winds
The artist; Sir William Drummond Stewart (c. 1839); Frank Nichols; [Chapman’s, Edinburgh, 1871]; Bonamy Mansell Power; willed to Edward Power (1900); by descent to Major G.H. Power, Great Yarmouth, England; [Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, NY, 1966]; Joseph M. Roebling, Miami, FL; present owner by gift, 1980