After some three months on the trail, Stewart’s party reached the 1837 trappers’ rendezvous in the western shadow of the Wind River Mountains in mid-July. He was hailed by an enthusiastic crowd of mountain men who had remembered Stewart’s gracious presence at the rendezvous in the past, stretching back to his first encounter in 1833.
The date and origins of this spritely, fresh watercolor are not known, but it seems to have been created during Miller’s mature phase, possibly the 1850s. Two other versions exist, one a watercolor closely resembling this work, which was commissioned by William Walters in the late 1850s (CR# 169B), and, another, an oil painting of 1839 in the Gilcrease Museum (CR# 169A). The Gilcrease version, which became a decoration at Murthly Castle, pictures Stewart meeting a pair of Snake Indians instead of trappers.
In this version, one of the welcoming trappers wears a scarlet blanket that wraps his shoulders and flares out behind him. The brilliant splash of red enlivens the composition. Such chromatic highlights in crimson were a popular artistic device in the 1850s, and in the works of William Ranney and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait became signature devices in many of the paintings of mountain men that they made popular. Miller began in the early 1850s to focus more and more on the theme of the mountain man, partly in response to literature of the day and partly because of the successes encountered by Ranney and Tait.
Peter H. Hassrick
After several months of traveling the wilderness in search of beaver, trapper Warren Ferris described meeting up with another party of American Fur Company trappers encamped on the Bear River: “On the third day after we reached Bear River, the party dispatched for that purpose, returned with the contents of the cache, and on the fifth we arrived in sight of the camp, exchanged salutes, and hastened to grasp the honest hands of our hardy old comrades, glad to meet and mingle with them again after a long absence, and listen to their adventures, or recount our own.”
For both Natives and mountain men, firing a salute was also a way to exhibit peaceful intentions by means of letting the approaching party know that your guns were now empty. Ferris explained this aspect of “firing a salute” when as his party encountered a band of Nez Perce Indians: “When they had approached within fifty paces, they discharged their guns in the air, reloaded, and fired them off again in like manner. The salute of course, was returned by our party. The Indians now dismounted, left their arms and horses, and silently advanced.”
One of the best descriptions of trappers greeting one another at rendezvous comes from the diary of missionary Sara Smith. The wife of Asa Smith, she was a member of the group of missionaries who attended the 1838 rendezvous. On July 5, 1838, Mrs. Smith wrote: “Received a salute from some of Bridger’s party who have just arrived. This company consists of about 100 men & perhaps 60 Indian females & a great number of half breed children. Their arrival was attended with firing guns & noisy shouts … therefore came & saluted us with firing, drumming, singing & dancing. Their appearance was rude & savage, were painted in a most hideous manner.”
In this painting, Miller depicts both William Drummond Stewart and the trapper closest to him wearing complete buckskin outfits, while the trapper in the back is shown wearing a blue cloth shirt. The availability of cloth shirts for trappers in the mountains can be readily documented by existing business records of the fur trade. William Ashley’s account book lists the supplies and equipment traded at the1825 rendezvous along with a record of items ordered for the1826 gathering. While no shirts are shown in these records, pieces of cotton, flannel, calico, and assorted thread are included. Robert Campbell’s records for the 1832 rendezvous have numerous entries showing trappers purchasing shirts made from linen, calico, cotton check and plaid, and yellow flannel, as well as several yards of shirting type material.
Aside from the demand for good quality “English rifle flints,” high quality gunpowder was equally important to the trapper since his life depended on his rifle firing every time it was needed. The powder used during the fur trade era was made by combining charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. This combination of ingredients rendered a powder which readily ignited when touched by a spark created from the strike of the flint on the metal frizzen plate of a flintlock rifle. Any exposure to moisture could inhibit the burning of the power as the components of the powder readily absorbed moisture. Powder was typically shipped to the mountains in wooden kegs weighing 25 pounds. There were different size granulations of powder ranging from cannon grade-coarse to rifle or pistol grade –fine or medium. Powder was sold by the pound to the trappers. According to the business records of the fur companies, powder bought in St. Louis at 28 cents per pound was then sold to the mountain men at prices that ranged from $1.50 per pound to $2.00 per pound.
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
Ferris, Warren A., My Life in the Rocky Mountains
Drury, Clifford A., First White Women Over the Rockies, 3 Vols.
Gowans, Fred R., Rocky Mountain Rendezvous
Hanson, Charles E., The Wooden Powder Keg, Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly Vol. 4.2
LR: Greeting the Trappers / AJM
The artist; Lawrence A. Fleishman, Detroit, ca. 1960; [M. Knoedler and Company, New York]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1970