It is rather unlikely that these earthen lodges were recorded by Miller on the Missouri River, which the artist’s party traveled along only from St. Louis to Westport. Rather, they were probably seen along the lower Kansas River and inhabited by Osage, Omaha, or Pawnee Indians. (Conrads, 110) Such structures served as domestic accommodations and public meeting places and were, as seen by George Catlin and Carl Bodmer up the Missouri River to the north a few years earlier, impressive pieces of Native architecture. Miller must have made a field sketch of these buildings early in his travels. That sketch has disappeared but likely served as a preliminary work for this watercolor, which in turn was a study for two finished watercolors (CR# 414A and CR# 414B).
Peter H. Hassrick
Permanent Homes on the River
Some semi-nomadic tribes along the Missouri River constructed substantial shelters such as those illustrated in this painting. That was particularly true of Mandan and Arikara people on the upper waters of the river, though Miller is not known to have traveled far enough upstream to have witnessed lodges built by those nations. George Catlin is acknowledged to have painted the earth lodges of the Mandan villages, and it is possible that Miller may have viewed and been influenced by some of Catlin’s work. The caravan that Miller traveled with did pass through lands occupied by Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, and Oto, who sometimes built similar dwellings to what Miller painted. In the 1800s, villages with as many as fifty Pawnee earth lodges were found on the plains of what today is the State of Nebraska.
The elongated, barrel-roofed lodge in the middle ground of the image is akin to lodges built by the Omaha and Osage. Covered with bark or reed mats, these were primarily for summer lodging and generally had one fireplace and a smoke hole.
Building an Earth Lodge
Sergeant Patrick Gass, a member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, provided an excellent description of these upper Missouri tribes’ homes on October 10, 1804:
“In a circle of a size suited to the dimensions of the intended lodge, they set up 16 forked posts five or six feet high, and lay poles from one fork to another. Against these poles they lean other poles, slanting from the ground, and extending about four inches above the cross poles: these are to receive the ends of the upper poles, that support the roof. They next set up four large forks, fifteen feet high, and about ten feet apart, in the middle of the area; and poles or beams between these. The roof poles are then laid on extending from the lower poles across the beams which rest on the middle forks, of such a length as to leave a hole at the top for a chimney. The whole is then covered with willow branches, except the chimney and a hole below to pass through. On the willow branches they lay grass and lastly clay … and hang a buffaloe skin, at the entrance of the hut for a door.”
Missouri River, “the Big Muddy”
The Missouri River is the longest tributary of the Mississippi River, rising in the Rocky Mountains in today’s state of Montana and flowing over 2,300 miles before joining its parent stream. Since pre-historic times, people have depended on the river as a source of sustenance and transportation. Large tribal settlements of sedentary and semi-nomadic peoples lived along the river, some of them successfully raising corn and other crops.The Missouri was long believed by early Euro-Americans to be part of the Northwest Passage—a water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific— until the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled the river's entire length and confirmed such a claim to be false. Nevertheless, the water course became a main thoroughfare for transporting goods, supplies and furs to and from the mountains during the fur trade era. Generally speaking, the river is divided into upper and lower sections. The Upper Missouri River is upstream from Sioux City, Iowa and the Lower Missouri River is the 840 downriver miles to its confluence with the Mississippi, just above St. Louis. Canoes, rafts, flatboats, and keelboats were used extensively in the early days of the fur trade. Eventually, paddle-wheel boats steamed their way up the river, too.
Baldwin, Leland D., The Keelboat Age on Western Waters
Chittenden, Hiram M., The History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River
Moulton, Gary E., Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition
Vestal, Stanley, The Missouri
LL: AJM. LR: Indian Lodges near the Missouri
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