Art is a tough mistress

While I enjoyed this past weekend’s art show, it definitely reaffirmed my belief that art is a tough mistress. People stop, visit and tell you they like – sometimes even love your work – but they don’t always buy. Here in Oregon the economy is still rough and money is tight – not to be spent on non-essential items. And, it was obvious this weekend that money wasn’t being spent.

Personally, though, I count the Shady Cove Art Walk a success. Not only did I get positive feedback, but I also sold a recent piece, “Ambush at Buffalo Gap”, along with prints of “Santa’s Last Stop”. Finally, my work “Where is He?” (not yet shown on the blog) was featured on the brochure. I can’t ask for better publicity than that.

I love creating art, experimenting with new techniques, refining my skills and telling a story through images. Art and history are my passion and I’m grateful that I now have the time, energy and yes, money to pursue those dreams. Artists are often their own toughest critics, and I am no exception, especially when I compare myself to others, as there are so many truly talented and creative people. And yet, as I look over the collection of my work, I’m happy – my skill is developing, stories are being told, and I’m starting to believe that yes, I am an artist.

I’m looking forward to my next show in November.

Self promotion: the story of two Mountain Men

Storytelling and self-promotion is nothing new and isn’t limited to this age of instant communication and reality TV. Storytelling and the ability to entertain and self promote, was a valuable skill to the early mountain men and fur trappers of the American West. To be known as a raconteur was a great compliment and so today, there are adventurers remembered more for the tales they told, than for their true exploits.

At least two of these men, Black Harris and Jim Beckwith (Beckwourth) we remember, not necessarily for their feats of bravery or outstanding leadership, but for their ability to reinvent themselves, tell great tales of their adventures and sometimes even take credit for the exploits of others.

Moses (Black) Harris

Moses or “Black” Harris is also known as the “greatest liar of them all”, the term probably meant as a compliment, based upon his ability to embellish his escapades to entertain fellow trappers and traders. History marks almost nothing about Moses Harris before he joined the fur trade. He was one of the many men who answered the call and became famous as a man of “great leg” – one who was able to walk great distances alone, for extended periods of time.

“Harris, the mountain men agreed, was the darnedest liar; lies tumbled out of his mouth like boudins out of a buffler’s stomach. But he was also a ‘man of great leg’, exactly suited to such a journey as this.” (“Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West” by Dale L. Morgan).

Alfred Jacob Miller, the artist, attended the 1837 rendezvous and documented Black Harris in the painting “Trappers”. Miller described Harris as “wiry of frame, made up of bone and muscle with a face composed of tan leather and whipcord finished up with a peculiar blue black tint, as if gun powder had been burnt into his face”. (“Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West” by Dale L. Morgan).

Trapper" by Alfred Jacob Miller depicting Moses "Black" Harris

Trapper” by Alfred Jacob Miller
depicting Moses “Black” Harris

While Harris survived his time as a mountain man and fur trader, circumnavigating the Great Salt Lake and visiting Yellowstone, later becoming a guide for wagon trains heading to Oregon, he was known among his compatriots for the story of the petrified birds, sitting in petrified trees with petrified leaves singing petrified songs in Yellowstone.

Click to access MosesHarris_1822.pdf

Jim Beckwith (James P. Beckwourth)

Jim Beckwith was the master of reinvention. Details of his life are shadowy, filled with myth and mystery, most inventions of his own. He’s believed to be the son of Jennings Beckwith and his slave – born in Virginia, but raised in Missouri where his father taught him to hunt and perhaps helped develop his sense of adventure. Apprenticed as a blacksmith, that skill that may have earned him entry into General William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company where he soon created a new name, a new image for himself – Jim Beckwith became James P. Beckwourth, hero extraordinaire.

James P. Beckwourth

James P. Beckwourth

He elevated himself to hero status in his stories, was described as the “gaudy liar” by his compatriots and adopted the persona of being the child of a Crow chief, stolen as a baby by raiding Cheyenne, sold to whites. Later on, Beckwourth claimed Crow Indians captured him while trapping in the border country, but because they thought he was the lost son of a Crow chief, they admitted him to the nation. Beckwourth lived with the Crow for at least eight years, rose to the status of Chief (respected man) and became leader of the “Dog Clan”. And, according to his book, he eventually ascended to the highest-ranking war chief of the Crow Nation.

While he elevates himself to hero by his words, many of his actions convict him of duplicity, robbery and perhaps worse. Beckwourth was with the Crow party when they robbed Thomas Fitzpatrick (Broken Hand) and the Rocky Mountain Fur company (a competitor his employer) of all their goods: guns, goods, horses and pelts. Other traders and mountain men believed he planned and instigated the robbery, although it wasn’t proven. Later, hired by Colonel John M. Chivington, he acted as a scout for the campaign against the Cheyenne and Arapaho, resulting in the Sand Creek Massacre. The militia killed an estimated 70-160+ friendly Cheyenne men, women and children camping in an area suggested by the previous commander of Fort Lyon, flying an American flag to show their status.

James Beckwourth left behind his story of his adventures in the book “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth”, by T.D. Bonner. An often-told story is that when the book appeared, a group of miners acquainted with Beckwourth asked a member to pick up a copy during a trip to San Francisco. The man, being careless got a copy of the Bible instead. That night he was asked to read aloud from it, opened it at random and read the story of Samson and the foxes. “That’ll do!” one of the men cried. I’d know that story for one of Jim’s lies anywhere!”

These men were compatriots and acquaintances, who traveled together on more than one occasion. The facts of their lives are impressive, their adventures numerous. Simply enduring in the unforgiving mountains, living by their wits, meant that their hunting and survival skills were excellent.

However, today we remember these mountain men as much for their skill in telling tall tales and their ability to self promote, than for their very real and impressive fortitude, bravery and skills.

The Greatest Mountain Man (and you probably never heard of him)

Mountain men were so much more than just fur trappers, they were explorers who traversed and traveled routes previously unknown, paving the way for future generations to move westward. Today, many view manifest destiny with a jaundiced eye, ashamed of the conquering and taming of the vast wilderness that is America; however, for good or bad, these men earned their place in history with their undaunted courage and zest for exploration.

Portrait of  Captain Joseph Reddeford Walker by Alfred Miller

Portrait of
Captain Joseph Reddeford Walker
by Alfred Miller

While a trip undertaken with any one of the approximately 400 known mountain men, would have made for an exciting, dangerous journey – there is one man who stands out for his leadership and bravery. This man isn’t as well known as Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith or Jim Bridger, but for miles traversed and men lost, his record stands above them all. He may well have been the greatest mountain man of all time.

The annals of history have given little credit to Joseph Rutherford (Reddeford) Walker for his achievements, but he is one man I would have followed to the Pacific and back. Walker was a tough but fair man whose heritage included extended family ties with Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston as well as a stint as sheriff in Jackson County, Missouri, while living in Independence – a major starting point for the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.

Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail

Walker lived with the Snake Indians for about fifteen years, later married a Shoshone woman, his almost constant companion for at least ten years (it is believed she and their children died from cholera) and his ties to the Shoshone and Snake Indians may well explain why he encountered few troubles with them. Walker was never one to embellish stories or tell wild tales, to the point of not taking credit for many of his discoveries.

Bourgeois and Squaw by Alfred Miller

Bourgeois and Squaw
by Alfred Miller

Daniel Conner, a member of the Walker party in Arizona, kept a journal detailing his experiences. This is what he wrote about Joseph Walker:

“I was with him [Walker] two years of his last explorations of our mountain country under the most desperate hardships and still I could never see any change in him. Always cool, firm, and dignified. “I never heard him tell any wonderful story. He was too reticent about his certainly bleak and wild experiences and he was never given to saying foolish things under any circumstance. Brave, truthful, he was as kindly as a child, yet occasionally he was ever austere. I was but a boy and he kept me out of dangerous places without letting me know it or even know how it was done. “. . . my greatest concern is the fear that his character will never be known as well as it ought to be. His services have been great and unostentatious, unremunerated and but little understood. Modesty was his greatest fault.”

His known achievements include:
1821 – Part of the first wagon train to Santa Fe
1826 – Guide and hunter for the Santa Fe Trail Survey
1832 – Led first wagons over South Pass
1833 – Was the first to cross the Great Basin via the Humboldt River
1833 – First to see Yosemite
1833 – Explored a large portion of the California Trail
1834 – Discovered Walker Pass across the Sierra Nevada Mountains
1834 – Created the first concept and outline of the Great Basin
1834 – Led the first wagons into Owens Valley, California
1845 – Guided the third Fremont Expedition into California
1861 – Discovered the gold fields in Prescott, Arizona (As a direct result President Lincoln, et. al. created the Arizona territory)

Some believe that Walker’s greatest achievement was in blazing the trail to California, a trail followed by hundreds of thousands of pioneers. However, to my way of thinking, his greatest achievement was that in over 34 years of leading countless trapping and exploring parties, Walker lost only one man to a skirmish with Indians.

Joseph Rutherford (Reddeford) Walker

Joseph Rutherford (Reddeford) Walker

Joseph Walker was one of the few mountain men to die of old age (74 years), and fittingly, he is buried in the Alhambra Pioneer cemetery near Martinez, California.

For further reading: try “The Adventures of a Mountain Man” by Zena Leonard and “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville” by Washington Irving