Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874) Part I

Alfred Jacob Miller

Alfred Jacob Miller

Alfred Jacob Miller was an American artist best known for his paintings of trappers and Indians in the fur trade of the western United States. He also painted various portraits and genre paintings in and around Baltimore during the mid-nineteenth century.

Alfred Jacob Miller was a young man of twenty-seven when he attended the celebrated meetings of trappers and traders along a tributary of the Green River in the southwest corner of present-day Wyoming. A western expedition, particularly one to the heart of the Rocky Mountains where no Euro-American artist had ever gone, was probably the farthest thing from his mind.

He had studied in Paris and Rome in his twenties and had moved to the Crescent City in hopes of establishing a successful portrait studio. But when presented with the opportunity to go West, Miller accepted the challenge, producing the only eyewitness visual record of some of American history’s most storied personalities and their celebrated gathering—the mountain men and the fabled Rocky Mountain meetings.

The meeting was a grand affair that St. Louis businessman and politician William H. Ashley devised in 1822 to keep the fur trappers from leaving the mountains to deliver the season’s catch. He advertised for one hundred “Enterprising Young Men” who would agree to remain in the mountains for two or three years.

Ever year, Ashley sent a caravan of traders from St. Louis to meet the men at a agreed place with supplies and trade goods to exchange for their pelts. Other companies followed his lead, and by the 1830s the meeting was made up of numerous camps involving hundreds of company trappers, free trappers, and sundry Indian tribes. Following several weeks of “High Jinks,” as Miller put it, and then some serious trading, the trappers and Indians would return to the mountains in time for the fall trapping season and the traders to St. Louis.

Miller found quarters on the second floor of L. Chittenden’s dry-goods store at 26 Chartres Street in New Orleans, exchanging a portrait of the landlord for his first month’s rent. Miller displayed several paintings in the ground-floor window, and they apparently attracted the attention of a stylishly-dressed gentleman, whom he took to be a Kentuckian, who came in, browsed around and watched him paint for a few moments, commented favorably on his technique, then exited. A few days later, the man returned, introduced himself as Captain William Drummond Stewart, retired from the British Army, and explained that he was planning to attend the annual meeting of fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mountains that summer and wanted an artist to accompany him to make a visual record of the trip.

From British Consul John Crawford Miller learned that Captain Stewart was the second son of Sir George Stewart, seventeenth lord of Grandtully and fifth baronet of Murthly. Born in 1795 at Murthly Castle on the River Tay, in Perthshire, approximately fifty miles from Perth, Scotland, Stewart, like many other sons of nobility, had found adventure and opportunity in the United States that had been denied him in Britain and Europe. Consul Crawford assured the young Miller that the captain, a veteran of the peninsular campaign and Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, would be able to fulfill any financial commitments that he made.

To be continued in part II

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