The Lost Trapper; Lost on the Prairie
This appears to be a late version of Miller’s iconic portrayal of prairie vastness and poor human judgment. Its elegance of light, clarity of color and engagingly dramatic sky make this perhaps the finest of the many versions of this subject. It shares one detail with the William Walters commissioned watercolor of around 1859, in that the rider in this oil carries his quirt on his right rather than left wrist, a practice that would be both more convenient and also safer than the other way around. His left hand would be busy managing his reins.
In all the various interpretations, the story according to Miller is the same. One of the company’s employees, the main camp cook variously referred to as Jean or as an Englishman, John, has suffered ennui from the repetitive nature of his job. He dreamt of venturing out with the hunters on a thrilling chase of buffalo or antelope. One day the offer came and he was allowed his pursuit of excitement and reward. Unfortunately, John was led far from the camp by a herd of fleeing bison and ended hopelessly lost. Though eventually rescued, he forfitted stature with the group. His insistence that he would be up to the task was regarded as “wrong headed obstinacy,” so the experience resulted in the cook being shamed. (Rough Draughts, 115)
Peter H. Hassrick
The origin of the meaning and usage of the term “greenhorn” is not clear. The consensus among historians and wordsmiths is that the term comes from the newly formed horns of young oxen and cattle, which were described as “green, new, and tender.” Whatever the origin, the term was in common usage in America during the early 1800s. In the spring of 1827, young Phillip Covington signed on as a new recruit with William Sublette, “to go to the mountains for the purpose of packing goods on mules and trapping beaver … and anything else that was required for the term of twelve or fourteen months.” Covington explained that the more experienced, older hands picked out “the older and well broken mules for us ’greenhorns’ as we were called, which suited this boy very well.”
In this version of Miller’s depiction of a lost trapper, the bit used on the horse’s bridle is typical for the era. A basic style of a “snaffle bit” is made with a narrow metal bar attached on each end of the mouthpiece to keep the bit from sliding through the horse’s mouth. This English-style “cheek bar” is the only visible part of the bit. The iron mouthpiece of a “snaffle bit” is jointed in the middle, which allows it to flex. Because it flexes, the snaffle bit does not put as much pressure on the corner of the horse’s mouth as the solid mouthpiece found in a “curb bit.” According to various merchants’ advertisements in St. Louis newspapers of the time, riding bits could be purchased in plain iron, tin-plated, or japanned coated. Both individual bits and complete bridles were available to mountain men at the rendezvous and various trading posts. In 1832, Robert Campbell brought supplies to the Pierre’s Hole rendezvous, which included “6 common bridles curb.” The Fontenelle and Drips party left St. Louis for the mountains in the fall of 1831, outfitted directly from the American Fur Company store. The store’s records show that each of the thirty men in this party received a “snaffle bridle” at a cost of $6.20 each. Fort Union records for 1831 showed “4 super Bridles & martingales” and “5 common bridles curb” on hand, while the 1834 inventory included “1 doz. common snaffle bridles.”
The most common stirrup in the early days of the upper Missouri fur trade was the English-style iron stirrup. The wooden rawhide covered stirrups, made by many of the Indian tribes of the upper Missouri country, gained in popularity with the trappers and were ready replacements when iron stirrups were not available. In his paintings, “Lost Greenhorn” and “Indian Woman,” Miller portrayed the rider using an Indian made “platform” stirrup, patterned after the Spanish conquistador’s metal platform stirrup. Fort Union records of 1831 listed “5 pr. Stirrups,” in 1832 “iron stirrups,” and the 1834 list had “Tinned iron stirrup irons.”
In the painting “Lost Greenhorn,” the handle of a large knife and the top of the knife sheath protrudes over the left arm of the buckskin-clad rider. The knife was an important tool for mountain men and was used daily for eating, skinning, and butchering, many camp chores, and if necessary, fighting. Butchers and scalpers were the most common type of knives used by Rocky Mountain trappers. A butcher knife had a wide blade, no hilt or guard, and a wooden handle attached to the tang by iron, brass, or copper pins. Butcher knives came in blade lengths from 6 to 10 inches. A scalper knife was, for all practical purposes, a skinning knife. The name “scalper” originated with English traders just after the end of the French and Indian War. The blade of a scalper was narrower than the butcher, and its cutting edge terminated in a point that was more pronounced than that of a butcher. Blade lengths of scalpers range from 6 to 8 inches. Trade ledgers from Fort Hall recorded that trapper Osborne Russell purchased two “9 inch butcher knives” and one “Scalping knife” in 1835. These same records show that in 1837, Christopher “Kit” Carson traded a mule and traps for a large list of clothing and supplies, which included one “8 inch butcher knife.”
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
Hanson, James A., Fur Trade Cutlery Sketchbook
Hanson, James A., Mountain Man Sketchbook Vols. 1 and 2
Gray, John S., Young Fur Trapper, Phillip Covington Travels to the Rockies with William Sublette
The artist; William Warfied, Lexington, KY; [?]; W. McK. Gannon, Bremin, ME; [M. Knoedler & Co., New York, NY, 1970]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY, 1970; present owner by gift.