This watercolor, vivid, emotive, and cool, is thought to be a study for one of Miller’s largest landscape oils, what is known today as Stewart’s Camp, Wind River Range, Western Wyoming of 1865 (Lake Scene, Rocky Mts, CR# 262). Following the 1837 rendezvous, Stewart and Miller took a tour of the mountains, camping here to commune with the high country lakes and jutting peaks that form the backbone of the continent. It was perhaps in the vicinity of New Fork Lakes that he made sketches for this watercolor and later works for his patron, William Walters. Miller relished in the notion that this was the headwaters of the Green River that would feed eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond and above this lake were others similarly capped by a lofty “region of eternal snow.” (Ross, 161)
In this scene, evening sets in and the fires are lit for warmth and cooking. The light, which is more effectively rendered here than in either of the larger associated works, is “resplendent,” as Miller would say, and part of a divine and “rich bequest.” (Ross, 161) It would take Miller’s considerable mastery to replicate, years later, the essence of that cherished moment and place.
Peter H. Hassrick
Traversing the Range:
The first known Euro-American crossing of the Wind River Range came in 1811 when a party led by Wilson Price Hunt made their way through these mountains. This was the overland division of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company who were on their way to the mouth of the Columbia River. In his book about Astor’s fur trade venture, author Washington Irving conveyed: “The hunters who served as guides to the party in this part of their route, had assured Mr. Hunt that, by following up Wind River, and crossing a single mountain ridge, he would come upon the head waters of the Columbia ... It was determined, therefore, to make for a stream, which they were informed passed the neighboring mountains, to the south of west, on the grassy banks of which it was probable they would meet with buffalo. Accordingly, about three o'clock on the following day, meeting with a beaten Indian road which led in the proper direction, they struck into it … they came to a height that commanded an almost boundless prospect. Here one of the guides paused, and, after considering the vast landscape attentively, pointed to three mountain peaks glistening with snow, which rose, he said, above a fork of Columbia River … These remarkable peaks were known as the Tetons; as guiding points for many days, to Mr. Hunt, he gave them the names of the Pilot Knobs ... The travellers continued their course to the south of west for about forty miles, through a region so elevated that patches of snow lay on the highest summits and on the northern declivities. At length they came to the desired stream.”
Hunt’s party had crossed the Wind River Range over Union Pass from the north, into the Green River Valley.
Western explorer Benjamin Bonneville attempted a similar traverse of the range in the 1830s: “They were now advancing diagonally upon the chain of Wind River Mountains, which lay between them and Green River valley … could they force their way through them, they might proceed in a straight line. The mountains were lofty, with snowy peaks and cragged sides; it was hoped, however, that some practicable defile might be found. They attempted, accordingly, to penetrate the mountains by following up one of the branches of the Popo Agie, but soon found themselves in the midst of stupendous crags and precipices that barred all progress ... They gained the summit only to find themselves on another ravine, and now perceived that this vast mountain, which had presented such a sloping and even side to the distant beholder on the plain, was shagged by frightful precipices, and seamed with longitudinal chasms, deep and dangerous ... the travellers attained one of the elevated valleys locked up in this singular bed of mountains. Here were two bright and beautiful little lakes, set like mirrors in the midst of stern and rocky heights, and surrounded by grassy meadows, inexpressibly refreshing to the eye … [Bonneville] set out to climb a neighboring height, hoping to gain a commanding prospect, and discern some practicable route through this stupendous labyrinth. After much toil, he reached the summit of a lofty cliff, but it was only to behold gigantic peaks rising all around, and towering far into the snowy regions of the atmosphere ... As they ascended still higher, there were cool breezes that refreshed and braced them, and springing with new ardor to their task, they at length attained the summit ... He stood, in fact, upon that dividing ridge which Indians regard as the crest of the world; and on each side of which, the landscape may be said to decline to the two cardinal oceans of the globe.”
Native Americans trekked this high mountain pass long before the arrival of fur trappers and government explorers. Mountain men later utilized Union Pass to access the beaver rich waters of the Green River. In 1860, Jim Bridger guided Captain William Raynolds over this traversable point of the Continental Divide in the Wind River Range. Raynolds proclaimed, “that peak I regard as the topographical center of the continent, the waters from its sides flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. I named it Union Peak and the pass Union Pass.” In addition to affixing a place name that remains today, Raynold’s geographical proclamation proved to be correct. Three major river drainages have their source near Union Pass: the Wind River that flows to the Gulf of Mexico via the Big Horn, Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers; the Gros Ventre River that makes its way to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia rivers; and the Green River that is the main tributary of the Colorado River which empties into the Gulf of California.
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Banks, Steve, “Union Pass: A Mountain of Many Waters”
Irving, Washington, Astoria
Irving, Washington, Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A.
Raynolds, William F., Report of the Exploration of the Yellowstone River
Verso: [9 pencil sketches of faces and figures in various poses and level of completion]
The artist; [Hammer Galleries, New York, NY, 1961 - 1963]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1964