Frontiersman Profile: Alfred Jacob Miller

Alfred Jacob Miller is one of the more important figures when researching the Rocky Mountain fur trade era.

Most historians agree that primary sources are a great way to learn about history. Primary sources are resources actually created by people of a time period. Common primary sources are journals, newspaper articles, photographs, and even video in more recent times. For more ancient time periods, archeologists can learn from tools, clothing, or utensils created by people. In the Stone Age, for example, archeologists can study artifacts uncovered at a Paleolithic campsite to better understand the lives of those people. If you study primary sources, you don’t always get the exact “right answer,” but you can develop a better sense of what it was like to be alive.

Historians interested in the Rocky Mountain fur trade use a variety of primary sources to learn about that time period. We are fortunate to have dozens of journals from men who traveled west during that time. Some of the most popular are the journals of Osborne Russell, Rufus Sage, and Zenas Leonard. All of these offer great glimpses into the lives of mountain men. We are also lucky to have museums like the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska, and the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming. These museums house many primary sources used by trappers. On the downside, there are not many visuals for this particular time period. It occurred long before any camera was invented, and since it took place far from civilization, few artists ever make the trip. One artist did make the trip though, and he was named Alfred Jacob Miller.

Alfred Jacob Miller was born in Baltimore in 1810, and grew up aspiring to be an artist. While struggling to make a living from the occupation, he happened to cross paths with a man named Sir William Drummond Steward. Stewart was a nobleman from Scotland, who had developed an interest in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. In fact, in 1833, Stewart traveled with the rendezvous caravan in experience life in the Rockies. By 1836, Stewart was ready to go back to rendezvous, only this time he was looking for more.

What Stewart wanted, was to bring along an artist to paint a visual record along the way. It was at this time, Stewart was introduced to A.J. Miller and invited him to come along as a paid artist and capture the adventure. Fortunately for us, Miller jumped at the opportunity and the two quickly departed for St. Louis in order to meet the pack train bound for the 1837 rendezvous. Over the course of the summer, Miller would make hundreds of field sketches he would later turn into the paintings we see.

This Alfred Jacob Miller painting is titled “Breakfast at Sunrise” and offers a rare glimpse at trapper life. Image via  wikicommons.

This Alfred Jacob Miller painting is titled “Breakfast at Sunrise” and offers a rare glimpse at trapper life. Image via wikicommons.

If you browse through the Alfred Jacob Miller collection, you will see a variety of scenes. He painted everything from nature scenes and the everyday life of trappers, to wildlife and Native American cultures. His works still stand out as one of the best ways to get a visual of what life in the West was like at the time. Historians study the paintings for clues about clothing, gear, utensils, and camp setup, and to learn things the diaries leave out. For example, you may wonder, “How did the mountain men carry their rifles?” You are unlikely to find out reading a journal entry because it was a detail they simply would not have recorded. If you study Miller’s paintings though, you will find he depicted this particular detail in several different paintings. It may not be the detail that totally changes the world, but it still records a part of history we would have otherwise lost.

If you are interested in learning more about Alfred Jacob Miller, take a few minutes to watch this brief video documentary created about his life.

If you are interested in the history of the mountain men, you will surely find the paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller interesting. Historians appreciate them as the prominent visual record of the time period, and living history participants can learn countless details not written down in journals.

If you are reading History of the West with Jemmey Fletcher; A Ride to Rendezvous you can hopefully now better understand how they story unfolds. You can also hopefully better use that knowledge to understand why researching Miller paintings can help you imagine the story more accurately. Although Alfred Jacob Miller may not have been like the frontiersmen he painted, he still remains one of the most influential men to go to the mountains in the rendezvous period.

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