I’ve been enthralled by the paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller since I first started reading about the Mountain Men. His paintings are ubiquitous because they were derived from on-the-scene sketches and studies Miller made in 1837, in the last glory days of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade and rendezvous period. Reenactors study them for authentic details of kit.
Miller’s work is a good resource for that — as good a visual resource as we’ll ever get — but it bears remembering that he wasn’t a documentarian. Miller romanticized the work because he was working for a romantic: William Drummond Stewart, Scottish aristocrat, avid hunter and adventurer. His paintings would ultimately hang in Stewart’s ancestral Murthly Castle to remind the laird of days of high adventure.
I was lucky enough to catch an extensive display of Miller’s originals at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, in a limited-time special exhibit. I always get frisson chills from gazing at close range at original works that I’ve studied in beloved books since childhood.
The exhibit also featured artifacts of the fur trade.
The Alfred Jacob Miller Online Catalogue is a great way to view the artist’s work. His studies, which were small due to the space constraints imposed by overland travel in wild country, are probably the best historical resource. It was in the paintings he based off of them, the ones that would grace castle walls, that Miller waxed romantic.
Take, for example, the sketch of “Narrow Escape From Grisly Bear” against “Hunting The Grisly Bear.”
About a third of Miller’s paintings feature his patron.
Stewart was the real deal. He had served with the 15th King’s Hussars in combat at Waterloo, and craved adventure the way second sons of British aristocrats tended to do in the 19th Century. He was a crack shot and had some very fine English sporting rifles to wield. He first traveled to the Rockies in 1833, at the height of the Fur Trade, and he spent the next six years mostly in the American West. He was an avid hunter.
During that period, he established a very close relationship with another hunter — Antoine Clement, a young Metis-Cree who was regarded as one of the finest shots and best hunters in the mountains.
I tend to be leery of the school of history that seeks to identify historical figures as homosexual. The evidence is often thin, and sometimes badly stretched as we read into expressions of intimacy that may not be sexual at all. In the case of Stewart and Clement, the evidence is circumstantial, but strong. They met in 1833, at Rendezvous, and Clement became Stewart’s traveling companion for all of his years in the Rockies. When Stewart’s older brother died and he became Laird of Murthly Castle, Clement accompanied Stewart when he returned to Scotland, to be presented as the Laird’s valet or footman.
They maintained a very close bond over a period of many years, though Clement was not happy away from the prairies and mountains of North America and eventually returned to his homeland.
The exhibit features a reproduction of a Miller portrait of Clement that hangs in a facsimile of a sitting room in Murthly Castle.
Stewart wrote a couple of novels based on his experiences in the mountains, and he described Clement thus:
The figure which stood before us, was that of a youth under twenty, a half-breed, with light brown hair worn long, and the almond shaped hazel eyes of his mother’s race—the fine formed limbs and small hands, with a slightly olive tinge of skin. His dress was almost Indian, consisting of a leather shirt and leggings, coming a little above the knee, almost to meet it, and tied up to the waist belt by a small strip of leather, on the outside of each thigh. The skirt of the shirt, though full, did not reach far down, thus forming a short Scotch kilt and coat all in one, which may probably be the original shape of that species of attire.
Miller described Clement:
“The subject of the sketch is a half-breed (that is, his father was a Canadian, his mother an Indian) and one of the noblest specimiens of a Western hunter; — in the outward journey he killed for us about 120 Buffalo; his temper however, when aroused, was uncontrollable.”
Does it matter whether Stewart and Clement had a sexual relationship? Not really — but there is value in understanding the frontier as it was, and that surely included “queer” identities.
I read a book a few years back on the topic, titled Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. It was very well written and interesting, though one of those books that really should have been a shorter treatise. There’s some wild stuff in there. I got a particular kick out of the rolling RenFaire/Burning Man festival/Oregon Country Fair Stewart staged during his 1842-43 final trip to the mountains. The real-deal Rendezvous was over and the great beaver trade was collapsing under the weight of over-trapping and changes in fashion from beaver hats to silk toppers. Stewart opened his purse to finance one last fling — and boy was it a spectacle.
A German traveler and hunter named Friedrich Armand Strubberg ran across a crazy cavalcade in the wilderness in 1843. He could scarce believe his eyes:
The wild, weird and wacky West has a long pedigree….
Stewart was certainly a character, and the American West at the height of the Fur Trade gave him scope for his lavish and off-beat lifestyle. The true legacy of the man, though, is that he bequeathed to the world, through Miller, a glimpse of that era that we otherwise would not have had — and enriched us immeasurably in the doing.