In this work, Miller presents his patron, Captain William Drummond Stewart, at a moment of great accomplishment as a sportsman and provider. Having just killed a large bull buffalo, he sits magnanimously upon his white stead, apparently receiving admiring adulation from one of his cohorts. Another busies himself taking the tastiest tidbit from the buffalo’s back, a morsel called the “hump rib.” Often, as was probably the situation here, this was the only cut of meat other than some side ribs that was used, though the man at Stewart’s knee may well have been a supplicant, and was to receive some part of the remainder of the carcass that was not left for the wolves.
This is thought to be the original sketch made for a large oil painting, titled Butchering the Buffalo (CR# 118), that was completed by 1839 and sent to Scotland for display in Stewart’s Murthly Castle. Another version, a wash drawing with Stewart standing beside his horse watching the procedure, was sent also to Murthly to be part of a bound portfolio for the patron’s library. It was thus a scene with which Stewart closely identified.
Peter H. Hassrick
Most Desired Cuts
The vast buffalo herds of the Rocky Mountain West provided Plains Indian tribes and mountain men with their primary source of meat. Miller’s painting portrays the final step of harvesting the most desired cuts of the animal’s carcass. It usually required the strength of two trappers to right the dead animal into a sitting position. This allowed the hide to be peeled over the shoulders and a knife cut made along both sides of the back bone, which separated the loin muscle from the backbone. A hand axe, or as in this painting, a tomahawk was used to detach the loin muscle and the supporting ribs from the spine. This butchering method was used by Indians and trappers alike, and rendered what the trappers refer to as the “hump rib” or as Miller stated “that most superlative morceaux.” Because of its use in making winter robes and tipi coverings, the next most important part of the buffalo was the hide, followed by the side ribs and meat. Considered a delicacy, the tongue was highly prized by trappers and Indians alike.
Poor Bull versus Fat Cow
Warrren Ferris presents the mountaineers’ ideas on “fat cow versus poor bull” in this passage describing the buffalo of the Bear River Valley in 1830:
“We killed here a great many buffalo, which were all in good condition, and feasted, as may be supposed, luxuriously upon the delicate tongues, rich humps, fat roasts, and savoury steaks of this noble and excellent species of game. Heretofore we had found the meat of the poor buffalo the worst diet imaginable, and in fact grew meagre and gaunt in the midst of plenty and profusion. But in proportion as they became fat, we grew strong and hearty, and now not one of us but is ready to insist that no other kind of meat can compare with that of the female bison, in good condition. With it we require no seasoning; we boil, roast, or fry it, as we please, and live upon it solely, without bread or vegetables of any kind, and what seems most singular, we never tire of or disrelish it, which would be the case with almost any other meat, after living upon it exclusively for a few days”
Pack Saddle (excerpted from Bill Burrows vignette)
The style of pack saddle shown is still in use today and called a “sawbuck pack saddle.” These saddles were a simple wooden construction, usually of six parts. The two “bars” are wide, smooth boards about eighteen inches long which rest on the animals back, one on either side of the back bone. These bars are joined front and rear by a set of boards attached to form an “X.” Only a couple of inches thick, and 12 to 14 inches long, the top of these “cross bucks” form the V-shaped appendages shown one the saddle worn by the pack mule.
For Further Reading
Bradbury, John, Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811
Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
Ferris, Warren A., Life in The Rocky Mountains
Ross, Marvin C. The West of Alfred Jacob Miller
LR: AJM. UL: 65 Taking the Hump Rib
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