Eiteljorg Musuem Blog

Sneak Preview into Out West™

by Jaq Nigg | Aug 16, 2012
[Editor’s note: On Saturday, Aug. 18, the Eiteljorg will host Out West, the first of several programs and exhibitions exploring the contributions of the GLBTQ community in the American West.]

Alfred Jacob Miller and the life of William Drummond Stewart
By Jim Wilke, independent curator and historian

In the spring of 1837, a young artist named Alfred Jacob Miller accepted the surprising commission to accompany that year’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company caravan from the Missouri River westward to the base of the Rockies. That summer spent traveling out and back permanently changed Miller’s career, and has left us with works of art that capture far more than the ferocious grace of a Western way of life.  

The caravan, laden with trade goods, company officials, account books and supplies, was bound for the annual rendezvous, a summer gathering of just about everyone for hundreds of miles around, where the goods were bartered for fur pelts trapped over the previous fall and spring.   

His host and patron was William Drummond Stewart, a captain of the British army and the second son of a minor Scottish baronet biding his time through extended hunting trips following a military career. His trips through North America’s western frontier could be considered the best years of his life, spent with the pleasures of a wilderness society far removed from the social constraints of society in Great Britain. The relish of this life was the genuine and present danger that met anyone wandering in the West, within a natural setting grand beyond compare. It was immediate, sharp, and added ginger to daily life in a way that had long passed from the polite aristocracies and traditions of the European hunting preserve.  

Stewart conducted his hunting trips as a gentleman, with the capacity of adopting regional habits when comfortable or necessary, in effect paralleling the adaptability of mountain men to the requirements of wilderness and its society. This duality of order and versatility was shared by other gentlemen traveling abroad, a habit that demonstrated taste as well the ability to retain one’s own sense of self while adapting to the fecundity of nature. “Going native” did not necessarily mean adopting the style of the locals – although some did - or becoming one of them – which some did too - but it did mean that gentlemen could adopt such habits as practical for intercourse and good relations, along with a few momentary and situational freedoms socially impossible in Great Britain. The process inevitably brought new ideas about what defined a gentleman, which seem to have been central to Stewart’s rediscovery of self during his years in America and the West. 

Miller’s drawings, rendered in quick light strokes reflecting a kind of ease and grace inherent to mountain society in the midst of summer, present Stewart as an aristocratic sportsman, entirely at home in the wilderness. Investments in the New Orleans cotton trade had provided enough revenue to increase the size and trappings of his retinue with each season, and he became known for a perfectly tailored hunting coat of white buckskin, a buff hat with a sharply cocked feather, and a severe discipline he imposed as easily as generosity. Miller seems to have been both impressed and disconcerted at the same time, writing that Stewart could be imperious, at times frosty and hard to deal with, a “military martinet” in terms of discipline, and a man who wore grandiosity somewhat thinly on his sleeve.

During the annual trips west Stewart dallied with Indian women at rendezvous, became fascinated by the “berdache tradition” of Two Spirit men and had a series of male relationships interspersed with women, initially with a handsome young packer the caravan men called “Beauty” and later with a German sport Stewart met while wintering in Cuba before heading West, taking a tent – for the first time in his travels - to offer them privacy. 

By the time Miller joined the party, Stewart was traveling extensively with Antoine Michel Clement, a young Métis, or half French and half Indian man he first met at the 1833 rendezvous. An expert shot and respected hunter, Clement seems to have been the closest to matching him on something akin to equal terms and it was probably in hunting that the two men paired up most closely, where all focus was upon their prey; the two men acting instinctively as one in pursuit of their goal. Yet Miller’s drawings were careful to show Clement and all others secondary to Stewart as the center of attention, and Stewart’s social prejudices regarding civilized and savage held sway even here. It created a deeply complex and ultimately unsuccessful relationship that Stewart idealized long after they last parted, in 1845.  

Over time, Stewart’s travels became less of an extended hunting trip and more of a way of life. Miller’s works from that summer offer a view of Stewart’s journey through that life. The leveling effect of plains life obliged Stewart to rise by his own efforts in the esteem of the men he traveled with, establish by his own efforts his rank, and ultimately enjoy his newly invented self. Time spent among the Indian aristocracy, trappers and traders established a comfortable setting that allowed him to define himself freely within the forthright society of the men he engaged with. 

1 Comment

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