It is thought that Miller may have sketched this structure on the Plains as the Stewart troop moved west in 1837. (Conrads, 2010, 88) Its spontaneity as a drawing and the fact that it has no lengthy caption associated with it would support this contention. The drawing remained in the artist’s possession throughout his life.
Temporary structures like this were relatively common. They served as lodging for hunting forays and, as suggested by Miller’s title, as fortifications during times of warfare.
Peter H. Hassrick
Shelter for a Warrior on a Raid
In times of conflict with other Plains tribes or American trappers, it was quite common for Indians to “fort up,” i.e. build a breastwork of logs. In this on-the-spot sketch Miller captured the image of an abandoned defensive structure as the rendezvous caravan passed it on the prairie. Its crude construction from rough materials at hand was intended for short-term use.
Battle of Pierre’s Hole
An “Indian fort” was the center piece of a fight between the mountain men and Indians in July of 1832, known as the “Battle of Pierre’s Hole.” Warren Ferris provides this account of the deadly encounter: “At the same time the [GrosVentre of the Prairie] Indians, who perhaps numbered fifty men, besides women and children, entered a grove of cottonwood trees, and without loss of time proceeded to make a breastwork, or pen of trees impenetrable to balls. In the mean time an express [man on a fast horse] was despatched to inform us, and in a few minutes the plains were covered with whites and friendly Indians, rushing to the field of battle. On arrival, however, the enemy had completed an impenetrable fort, fifty feet square, within which they fastened their horses. A general fire was immediately opened upon the fort, and was warmly kept up on both sides until dark.”
Evidence of a War Party
Prince Maximilian described a war lodge he had seen on the Milk River in 1833: “We reached, on the south bank, an Indian fort ... it is a kind of breastwork, which Indian war parties construct in haste of dry trunks of trees. When such parties intend to stop for the night, they erect a breastwork, sufficiently large, according to their number, composed of trunks of trees, or thick branches, laid one on the other, generally either square or triangular. In thus bulwark they lie down to sleep, after having placed sentinels, and are there able to repel an attack.”
More information about Indian forts encountered along the trail to the rendezvous comes from William Marshall Anderson in 1834, “We see every day Indian forts, which are made of wood piled up in a circular form about as high as a man’s head. Sometimes they send their missiles in a defence of themselves and stolen property. Being of fresh evergreens, they are pretty and difficult to discover, when placed among, or in front of a thick grove.”
Anderson, William M., “The Rocky Mountain Journals of William Marshall Anderson”
Ewers, John, “The Blackfoot War Lodge, Its Construction and Use,” American Anthropologist (Apr-Jun 1944): 182-192
Ferris, Warren, “Life in the Rocky Mountains”
Maximilian, Prince Alexander, “Travels in the Interior of North America”
LR: Indian Fort
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