A great timeline from the Joslyn Art Museum.  The Joslyn Art Museum is the principal fine arts museum in the state of Nebraska, United States of America. Located in Omaha, it was opened in 1931 at the initiative of Sarah H. Joslyn in memory of her husband, businessman George A. Joslyn.

View the PDF here.

The Artist and the Laird


Fig. 1: Our Camp, ca. 1850–1860. Watercolor, 9 1/4 x 13 inches. Courtesy of J.N. Bartfield Galleries. Sir William Stewart is depicted on the white horse.

In New Orleans one early spring morning in 1837, Alfred Miller (1810–1874), a young artist recently returned from studying in Europe, was surprised by the appearance of a stranger of commanding stature in his studio. The visitor was William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish ex-army officer who was planning a hunting expedition to the Rockies. Stewart must have liked what he saw of Miller’s work, for he subsequently invited him to join the expedition as its artist. So began an adventure for the reserved Miller that would enable him to observe and draw the Western frontier landscape and wildlife as well as intimate scenes from Native American life.

Miller fit into the expedition party and adjusted to the rigors of life on the trail with enthusiasm. Apart from paying someone to pitch and take down his tent every day, the artist did his share of camp chores. At the same time, he sketched quickly in order to capture the activities around him. In later years, Miller wrote his remembrances of the trip. In one account, he and Stewart were confronted with a formidable river to cross. Miller noted that the “river looked a little in opposition” and declared that he was not a swimmer, but Stewart plunged in, forcing the artist to follow him.1 Only upon reaching the other side did Stewart admit that he also could not swim. Generally, however, Miller’s stilted prose conveys little of the feeling of the rough-and-ready adventure or of the characters he encountered in the way that his artwork does.

Fig. 3: Elk Swimming the Platte, ca. 1840. Oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 27 inches. Courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery.

True to his army background, Stewart led the band of some forty-five trappers and hunters with military vigor. With a hooked nose reminiscent of the great Duke of Wellington, under whom he had served, Stewart dressed in white buckskin and always rode a white horse (Fig. 1). He instilled discipline in his followers and was renowned for his violent temper.

The 1837 expedition was the fifth time Stewart had headed out West to attend the annual rendezvous of trappers at Horse Creek in the Wind River Mountains near the present-day Idaho-Wyoming border. Stewart brought goods to trade with the trappers, but the commerce of the trip was not important to him. He was there for the hunting and the adventure. Immensely rich, Stewart did nothing by halves, and the cavalcade that left St. Louis that spring was loaded with whiskey and such newfangled delicacies as canned sardines.

Stewart, the second son of a Scottish landowner, had served with distinction at the battle of Waterloo some twenty years earlier. Like many of his fellow officers, he had found it difficult to settle down in peace time. Instead of offering his services as a mercenary to one of the fledgling Latin American governments as many of his former comrades had done, he had shocked his family by marrying a farm girl (a disastrous marriage, as it turned out). Then, after a violent quarrel with his elder brother, Stewart swore never to spend another night in the ancestral castle of Murthly and departed for America. He fell in love with the vastness of the West, its abundance of game, the Indians (many of whom were still hostile), and the hardened trappers who carved out a living in its unmapped extremities. Stewart, like some of his contemporaries, must have realized that much of the frontier wilderness was already fast disappearing with the encroachment of white exploration. This perhaps prompted him to enlist Miller to graphically record his 1837 expedition.

Fig. 4: Flatheads and Nez Perce, ca. 1837. Watercolor on paper, 7 x 9 inches. Courtesy of J.N. Bartfield Galleries.

By bringing an artist, Stewart was following the example of Prince Maximilian, who had taken the German artist Karl Bodmer (1809–1893) on his expedition to the West in the early 1830s. George Catlin (1796–1872) was another artist who had traveled to unmapped parts, all the while sketching Indians’ portraits. But the quest for both Bodmer and Catlin had been almost a scientific one; they were keen to record the activities and physiognomy of those they encountered with a view to publishing their work as prints for sale in Europe and America. Although in later years Miller made an attempt to produce and sell prints of some of his most popular scenes, his work for the most part was of more modest ambition; he excelled at capturing the moment. For example, he portrayed Jim Bridger, one of the more colorful trappers, in a suit of armor that Stewart had bought him as a present. He recorded scenes such as pursued elk taking refuge in a stream, Indian girls swinging from a branch, or groups within a tribe (Fig. 4). Although most of Miller’s drawings, and all of his paintings, were worked up from original sketches at a later date, they still have an immediacy that evokes the passing of a pristine wilderness.

Stewart’s patronage of Miller took on a new dimension after their return from the Rockies in the autumn of 1837. The next year Stewart returned to the trappers’ rendezvous, leaving Miller in the East to work on the vast quantity of drawings he had made. On his return to St. Louis, the gateway to and from the West, Stewart learned that his brother had died and that he was the new laird of the Murthly estates. The prospect of filling the walls of the castle with canvases recording the scenery and adventures of his Western trips appealed to Stewart, and once he had returned to Scotland, he invited Miller to join him at the castle to work on paintings in his own studio. Miller accepted with alacrity and arrived in late 1840, after organizing a shipment to Murthly of eighteen of his paintings, which had been exhibited to critical acclaim at the Apollo Gallery in New York.

Fig. 7: The Ballroom, Murthly Castle, Perthshire, Scotland. A portrait of Sir William Drummond Stewart hangs at the far end. Photograph by Sampson Lloyd.

Miller eagerly threw himself into his new artistic life in Scotland by developing paintings from his Western sketches and recording his present surroundings (Fig. 5). The establishment at Murthly was a lively one: Stewart had brought back with him not only a small herd of buffalo, but two Indians to act as their keepers, as well as Antoine Clement, a half-breed Cree who had been his hunter. At Murthly, Antoine acted as butler. In later years, the Indians, perhaps bored by the Scottish rain, would on occasion get drunk and, harnessing two of the buffalo to Stewart’s carriage, would drive it at great speed through the nearby town of Perth. Stewart, keeping his oath never to spend a night under his ancestral roof, slept in a cottage on the grounds and gave his servants strict instructions that if he fell asleep in the castle he was to be awakened immediately.

Much of the time, however, Stewart was traveling, and Miller was left to work quietly on a series of large canvases for the castle. The Crows Attempting to Provoke an Attack from the Whites on the Big Horn River, East of the Rocky Mountains records an incident that took place on an earlier trip by Stewart to the West, when his party had been surrounded by hostile braves. According to the story, the party’s medicine man had told them not to strike the first blow or they would not be victorious. Stewart and his party resisted the temptation to retaliate despite the warriors’ taunts, and they were eventually able to escape. Miller re-created the scene from Stewart’s verbal accounts and his own sketches.
Miller returned to the United States in late 1841. He moved to Baltimore, where he spent the rest of his life as a successful portrait painter. He also produced more versions of his Western scenes for a small group of patrons. Stewart continued to commission works from him including copies of old masters and religious scenes. The two men, patron and artist, despite their adventures together, were never friends; Stewart was too much of a grandee to regard Miller as anything more than a superior servant, but it is clear from Miller’s memoirs that they enjoyed a mutual respect. Stewart lived out his days at Murthly; he built a new wing on the castle so that he could at last sleep under its roof without breaking his oath, surrounded by Indian relics, buffalo pelts, and Miller’s paintings.

After Stewart’s death in 1871, it was revealed that he had left the family estates to an illegitimate son, Frank Nichols, whose mother was a Dallas saloon keeper. The Stewart family challenged the will, maintaining that the estates and the castle were entailed to the next generation and could not be disposed of by Stewart. They won, and Murthly passed to a cousin, but they could do nothing to prevent Nichols from claiming the entire contents of the castle. When he arrived from Texas to claim his inheritance, Nichols then shipped everything to Edinburgh, where it was sold at auction. Over the years, some of Miller’s paintings, along with the great portrait of Stewart that now hangs in the ballroom, have found their way back to Murthly, but most of Miller’s work returned to America and can now be found in public and private collections (Fig. 7). As for the buffalo, their descendants are located in an Edinburgh zoo.

I am very grateful to Robert Steuart Fothringham of Murthly Castle, a collateral descendant of Sir William Drummond Stewart, for his help.

For further reading, see Ron Tyler, ed. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail (Amon Carter Museum, 1982).

Christopher Hartop is the author of the award-winning book The Huguenot Legacy: English Silver 1680–1760 from the Alan and Simone Hartman Collection (London: Thomas Heneage, 1996). His forthcoming book, Spanish Colonial Silver and Gold, will be published in 2002.

An Artist and the Fur Trade: the Wyoming Paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller

An Artist and the Fur Trade: the Wyoming Paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller

Chavawn Kelley

In April 1837, a distinguished gentleman entered the newly opened studio of a young artist at 26 Chartres Street in New Orleans. He lingered over a large painting of the city of Baltimore—the artist’s hometown—and offered a scant compliment before leaving. A few days later, William Drummond Stewart, a wealthy Scot, returned to hire Alfred Jacob Miller as expedition artist for a journey into the Rocky Mountains of the vast American West.

miller1.jpgAlfred Jacob Miller, self portrait about 1850. Wikipedia.Their destination was the rendezvous of 1837. In a general sense, the French word rendezvous means “meeting.” The rendezvous was a three-week hook-up of fur trappers, Indians, fur company traders and a few opportunistic adventurers such as Stewart. At the confluence of the Green River and Horse Creek, near today’s town of Pinedale, Wyo., Indians and mountain men eagerly traded beaver pelts and buffalo robes for rifles and traps, blankets, trinkets, food and supplies, and spiced-up, watered-down alcohol.

Miller and Stewart traveled as part of a caravan led by Tom Fitzpatrick, mountain man and proprietor of the American Fur Company. Fitzpatrick guided the expedition across the Great Plains generally following the courses of the Kansas, Platte, North Platte and Sweetwater rivers. Fitzpatrick, Stewart and Miller traveled in front, followed by Stewart’s two wagons and the fur company’s 20 single-horse, two-wheeled carts, called charettes. These carried all the supplies the company’s trappers would need for the coming year in the mountains, as well as the whiskey and other trade goods needed for the rendezvous festivities and Indian trade.

The caravan also included hired men—perhaps nine of whom were other Stewart employees, extra horses and a contingent of Delaware Indians whose role included hunting bison for food along the way. The “hump rib” was a particular favorite, Miller noted. He documented all aspects of the hunt, the kill and roasting the meat over the campfire.

“A grand carouse”

The annual rendezvous was a convergence of cultures and a time for horse racing, games, wagers and storytelling. Miller described it as “a grand carouse.” Bundles of 50 to 60 beaver pelts–worth as much as $2,500 per bundle in today’s dollars—were piled into the company’s carts for the return trip east, where they would be fashioned into tall, felted hats for men of high society.

miller2.jpg“Breaking Up Camp at Sunrise,” Alfred Jacob Miller. One of about 200 sketches and watercolors Miller made for his patron, William Drummond Stewart, on the trail and in the mountains the summer of 1837. He later fashioned many into finished oil paintings. Walters Art Museum.

No fashion in New York or London, however, could top the fashion—or the society—of the buckskin- and fur-clad mountain men who hunted and trapped in the Rocky Mountains from the 1820s to the 1840s. At the rendezvous of 1837, the most famous mountain man of all, Jim Bridger, donned a suit of armor, a gift from William Drummond Stewart. “It created a sensation,” Miller reported.

The Snake Indians—the Shoshone—created their own sensation with a spectacle Miller said was staged in honor of their old friend Stewart. The cavalcade was a show of the Snakes’ magnificent dress, highly painted faces and bodies, their fine horses, horse tricks and gunfire. The Shoshone nation was at its height, and every detail of feather, claw, fringe and vermillion-painted skin proclaimed their greatness. As many as 2,000 Indians camped in the broad green valley. Members of the Bannock, Nez Perce, Flathead, Ute, Crow, Arapaho and Delaware tribes were also on hand, but the Shoshone would have been by far the largest group.

After about three weeks, “the grand carouse” began winding down, and the Stewart party and guests headed to the high country. On this excursion Miller documented the prominent features of the Wind River Mountains—sawtooth ridges, classic pointed peaks and valleys with glacial lakes in the foreground. “Under any light,” he noted, “[the mountains] are wondrous and sublime.”

Miller’s West, illustrated and imagined

Alfred Jacob Miller had begun painting at a young age and was fortunate that his father was a successful, well-connected business owner. In the early years of America’s nationhood, any artist with promise was encouraged to seek training in Europe. Miller pursued studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the English Life School in Rome and also spent long hours in European museums copying masterworks by Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt and Italian greats such as Titian.

This was a time of fascination and wandering, with the young Miller absorbing European tastes and identifying himself with the sweep of Western civilization.

His training in Paris and Rome prepared him well. Miller’s style was warm and engaging, undeniably romantic, and most important, pleasing to Stewart, his Scottish patron. Over the course of the exotic journey to the “Shining Mountains,” as the Rockies were also known, Miller proved to be a keen observer and sensitive recorder of mountain landscapes, wildlife, scenes along the trail, Indian life and dramatic moments at camp.

miller3.jpg“The Greeting,” by Alfred Jacob Miller. A rendezvous of old friends, mountain style. Miller’s patron William Drummond Stewart, on white horse, wears a Scots bonnet in this picture. Walters Art Museum.miller4.jpg“The Lost Greenhorn,” Alfred Jacob Miller. One of the painter’s best-known images, reworked many times in later years, it combines Miller’s romantic view of the West with his characteristically close attention to details of dress and gear. Walters Art Museum.Miller completed more than 200 field sketches in pencil and watercolor. Besides scenes of the trip, Miller illustrated Stewart’s exploits, including some he didn’t witness and even some that undoubtedly never occurred. Capt. Stewart was a veteran of four previous rendezvous and the Napoleonic Wars. He is easily identified in Miller’s pictures by his hooked nose, fringed buckskin coat and magnificent white horse.

Upon Stewart’s return from the 1837 expedition, he learned that his older brother was seriously ill and he would become heir to the family estates. Stewart asked Miller to create a series of full-sized oil paintings for the walls of Murthly Castle, which lies on the edge of the Scottish highlands near the city of Perth.

The campfires of the Rocky Mountains provided Stewart with tales he would tell by the hearth-fires of Scottish manor houses. In an age before photography, Miller’s paintings provided the visual record.


Stewart asked Miller to join him in the mountains the next year when he traveled again to rendezvous, but Miller declined, citing ill health. Perhaps he had had enough of the hard life—struggling to keep up with camp chores, caring for the needs of a horse, and contending with the weather, hardships and dangers along the trail—with no letup of the pressure to produce drawings and water-color sketches with great haste at moments snatched from each day.

Perhaps too he was eager to translate the raw material of his adventure into finished paintings that would not only impress Stewart but also draw the attention of art critics and a wider audience. In fact, his work was lauded at a major exhibition in New York before being shipped to Scotland.

Alfred Jacob Miller never returned to the Wind River country nor witnessed another rendezvous. He completed the bulk of his assignment in 1841 as Stewart’s guest at Murthly.

Fame arrived more faintly than he might have hoped, but for most of his life, Miller made a living painting portraits and reproducing his vignettes and landscapes for a succession of wealthy patrons enthralled by his images of the Far West and trappers’ society. He never married or had children.

The motto of the Stewart lineage of “Sir William” is “Provyde.” The meeting of artist and Scotsman on Chartres Street in New Orleans provided a legacy of American art and history that continues to grow.

Miller’s images are significant for having been created by an artist who experienced rendezvous firsthand. His earliest paintings and sketches are a primary resource for details of dress and gear that only Miller can provide. (Historian Scott Walker points out that certain elements were reconfigured to “enhance” later works.)

Miller drafted his accompanying notes with the satisfaction of one who had emerged from his travails, a touch of bravado marking his tone, and lines of classical poetry punctuating his observations.

These written accounts add further perspective, detail and color to the visual record, as when he describes the habits of “buffaloes drinking and bathing at night,” the threat of prairie fire, the discovery of wild honey, “the great presence of mind, dexterity and courage” of Plains Indian women hunting bison on horseback, and the prospect of trains and tourists transforming the very wilderness he contemplates.

As historian Bernard DeVoto pointed out, the artist Alfred Jacob Miller secured William Drummond Stewart’s association with the Rocky Mountain fur trade. And Stewart, as patron, secured Miller’s reputation as an artist. Today, the rectangular borders of Wyoming frame the loftiest and most vivid settings for Miller’s and Stewart’s experiences in the West.

Upon Stewart’s death, his adopted son sent Murthly’s treasures to auction in Edinburgh, and there began the journey that ultimately brought the “Murthly Millers” to Wyoming and the place that first inspired them. Seventeen paintings are on display at the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyo., gifts of Everett D. Graff and his extended family. Also in Wyoming, an extensive collection of Miller’s work is held by the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. Significant collections of Miller’s work are also at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Tex.

miller5.jpg“Cavalcade,” by Alfred Jacob Miller. MIller was the only artist to record images of the fur-trade rendezvous first hand. Here, Shoshone warriors parade around camp.


  • DeVoto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.
  • Fotheringham, Henry Steuart, OBE, William Drummond Stewart descendant. Murthly, Perthshire. Interview with author at Murthly, April 26, 2001.
  • Holloway, Tom. “How Much was a Beaver Pelt Worth?” Fur Fort Fun Facts, Focused on Fort Vancouver, Columbia District, in the Hudson’s Bay Company Era. Accessed Aug. 6, 2014 at http://furfortfunfacts.blogspot.com/2012/06/how-much-was-beaver-pelt-worth.html.
  • Ross, Marvin C. The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (1837) from the Notes and Water Colors in the Walters Art Gallery with an Account of the Artist. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
  • Tyler, Ron. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail. Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 1982.
  • Walker, Scott, “Miller’s Mountaineers: Changes over Time,” unpublished manuscript, 2013.
  • The Walters Museum, “Alfred Jacob Miller and the Western Indians,” http://thewalters.org/events/eventdetails.aspx?e=169.
  • Warner, Robert Combs. The Fort Laramie of Alfred Jacob Miller. Laramie, Wyo.: University of Wyoming Publications, 1979.

For Further Reading

  • Benemann, William. Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
  • Strong, Lisa Maria. Sentimental journey: the Art of Alfred Jacob Miller. Fort Worth, Tex: Amon Carter Museum, 2008.


  • The image of Miller’s 1850s self-portrait is from Wikipedia; used with thanks. The rest of the Miller paintings in the article and the photo gallery are from the collections of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore available online. Used with thanks.

– See more at: http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/artist-and-fur-trade-wyoming-paintings-alfred-jacob-miller#sthash.VNfG1Zvh.dpuf

Homos on the Range

True West MagazineHow gay was the West?

The most surprising thing about homosexuality in the Old West is not that it was rare in the rugged, macho world of the cowboy, but that it was so common and so not a big deal.

That’s a complete reversal of the popular notion that the West was populated by virile, heroic men who could live for months on the open range with little more than their rope, their horse and, of course, the ultimate phallic symbol, their gun.

Thinking of these symbols of manhood as uniting sexually with other men is like finding out one of the Marlboro men died of lung cancer—it’s a disconnect that many will find uncomfortable.

In fact, History professor Clifford P. Westermeier noted any examination of sexual activity by cowboys—homosexual or not—was such a cautious topic, his article in the 1975 Red River Valley Historical Review was titled “Cowboy Sexuality: A Historical No-No?”

“To tamper with the image of a folk hero, a historic formula, a legend, and most of all, that of the American cowboy heritage is probably more dangerous than the proverbial where ‘fools rush in,’” Westermeier writes. He notes the traditional cowboy had four failings: drinking, gambling, lechery and violence. “Of these … lechery is often alluded to but is the least detailed activity of his frenetic pleasures.”

While most would expect the cowboy’s lechery was pointed towards women, that wasn’t always true, but it also didn’t mean what it would mean today.

“It’s important to know the history of homosexuality,” notes History Department Chairman Peter Boag from the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Society didn’t really designate people as homosexual or heterosexual through most of the 19th century; it was not really until the 20th century that those identities crystallized.”

Boag, who wrote the 2003 book Same Sex Affairs, explained to True West: “In all-men societies, it was not unusual for same sex relationships, and it was just an acceptable thing to do. People engaged in same sex activities weren’t seen as homosexuals.”

That point is strongly supported in the article, “Paradise of Bachelors: The Social World of Men in Nineteenth-Century America.” It notes: “Without the presence of women, the always unstable line dividing the homosocial from the homosexual—that is, dividing non-sexual male bonding activities from sexual contact between men—became even more blurred. As traditional notions of ‘normal’ gender roles were challenged and unsettled, men could display both subtly and openly the erotic connections they felt for other men. When the miners at Angel Camp in southern California held dances, half of the men danced the part of women, wearing patches over the crotches of their pants to signal their ‘feminine’ role.”

But nobody would have called them gay or even homosexual—a word that wasn’t even used until 1868. (Heterosexual is an even newer word, which first appeared in print in 1924.)

They may have been called punk, notes Patricia Nell Warren in a 1997 article in Quest magazine. “Punk—used today in men’s prisons to denote a young male sexual partner, was common in old-time ranch lingo because of sexual relationships among cowboys,” she writes. There was even a name for same-sex “marriages.” As “Paradise of Bachelors” notes: “Cowboys and miners settled into partnerships that other men recognized (and sometimes referred to) as ‘bachelor marriages.’”

American Indians, meanwhile, openly recognized and had a name for men and women of an “alternative gender”—those who preferred to dress and work as the opposite sex. Anthropologists now use the term berdache.

“Zunis believed that men skilled at women’s crafts (and women skilled in male activities) combined the two sexes,” writes Will Roscoe in The Zuni Man-Woman, published in 1991. “This made them extraordinary in every respect.” He found male and female berdaches documented in over 130 North American tribes, in every region of the continent. “In traditional native societies berdaches were not anomalous,” he notes. “They were integral, productive and valued members of their communities. But the European culture transplanted to America lacked any comparable roles, and the Europeans who saw berdaches were unable to describe them accurately or comprehend their place in Indian society.” His book focuses on “Zuni maiden” We’wha, whom he calls “perhaps the most famous berdache in American Indian history.”

None of this is news to those who have paid attention to such things. As early as 1948, Alfred C. Kinsey in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male shocked many when he found “the highest frequencies of the homosexual we have ever secured anywhere have been in particular rural communities in some of the remote sections of the country.”

He goes on to explain: “There is a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in Western rural areas. It is a type of homosexuality which was probably among pioneers and outdoor men in general. Today it is found among ranchmen, cattle men, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general—among groups that are virile, physically active. These are men who have faced the rigors of nature in the wild. They live on realities and on a minimum of theory. Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex, irrespective of the nature of the partner with whom the relation is had. Sexual relations are had with women when they are available, or with other men when the outdoor routines bring men together in exclusively male groups.”

In a less scholarly approach, this old Western limerick makes the same point:

Young cowboys had a great fear

That old studs once filled with beer

Completely addle’

They’d throw on the saddle

And ride them on the rear.

Homosexuals themselves had “code words” to let each other know their preferences. If someone evoked anything associated with Walt Whitman—the name, image or writings of the famous American poet—it signaled they shared Whitman’s preference for men.

One of the most controversial aspects of this question is how the Mormon Church dealt with homosexuality in its early years. Historian D. Michael Quinn who exposed the history has been excommunicated. He found the same ideas within American religion as in cowboy bunkhouses: men and women were allowed to express intimacy in the 1800s, and this was not only accepted but encouraged.

Quinn quotes Mormon Founder Joseph Smith as writing that male friends “should lie down on the same bed at night locked in each other’s embrace talking of their love.” Smith said he did so himself.

Arguing that homosexual behavior was not considered as grave a sin as heterosexual adultery, Quinn claims Mormon leaders and judges “were more tolerant of homoerotic behavior than they were of every other non-marital sexual activity.”

All of this has been seen as so contrary to the Western myth that until now, even Hollywood has shied away. If you’re a student of Western movies, you probably can think of only one openly gay character in the thousands of movies over all these years—and that was a gay Indian character in Little Big Man. Some would suggest it was okay for Western fans to see a comical gay Indian on the screen, since Indians were often portrayed as the “enemy” anyway, while it would not be okay to portray a homosexual cowboy. (Of course, there was Joe Buck, who was a stud in both sexual persuasions in Midnight Cowboy, but most don’t consider that a Western movie.)

Coming to theaters soon, however, is a real Western that addresses the homosexual theme: Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal (see p. 72).

Based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx, the movie is directed by Academy Award-winner Ang Lee. It’s called an “epic love story set against the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas.”

Producer James Schamus has said it is “a very, very old-fashioned love story,” and explained, “Ang is fascinated with those moments in life where you’re touched by greatness and emotion but social rules and regulations keep you from following it.”

As Focus Features describes its own movie: “Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two young men—a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy—who meet in the summer of 1963, and unexpectedly forge a lifelong connection, one whose complications, joys and tragedies provide a testament to the endurance and power of love.”

Was Abe Lincoln gay?

It isn’t clear if Western buffs are more homophobic than the general population, but it is true that if you want to rankle, just suggest a Western icon was a “homo.”

Take Wild Bill Hickok, who was described by one writer as having “feminine looks and bearing.” Someone else pointed out that he wore his hair long, apparently unaware that many Western men wore their hair long.

When Hickok was declared a “fag,” Hickok expert Joseph Rosa considered the suggestion absurd. “I am amazed that anyone should think of Hickok as gay,” he says. “I have never found any suggestion of it in any contemporary reference to him and in discussions with historians over the years have found that none of them even considered it.”

One writer has suggested that Doc Holliday may have enjoyed Big Nose Kate because she was so ugly she looked like a man.

And there’s the story of the “wife” of one of Custer’s aides, who wasn’t discovered to be a man until he was being prepared for burial (see p. 118).

But if any of the big names in Western lore were gay, it remains a secret.

The most “famous” person in Western history to be “outed” is Abraham Lincoln—the man who freed slaves and founded the modern Republican Party.

This past May, a gay advocacy group held a national celebration at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to mark the 40th anniversary of the gay civil rights movement. Among the events was a discussion of “closeted public leaders.” Most prominent among them was Honest Abe.

In the book, The Intimate Life of Abraham Lincoln, the late writer C.A. Tripp—a homosexual and psychologist who was a researcher for Kinsey—makes a strong argument that the 16th president of the United States was a bisexual man. (After all, Lincoln did have four children.)

“Anyone not blinded by homophobia will recognize that the president who preserved our republic was gay,” declares Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Equality Forum, which organized the May celebration.

Tripp wrote that Lincoln had a love affair with a handsome youth and store owner, Joshua Speed, when both were young men in Springfield, Illinois. They shared a bed for four years. But that wasn’t necessarily telling, since sharing a bed wasn’t uncommon in those days. What most see as compelling are the letters the men exchanged while both were preparing to marry. The letters literally gush—some dismiss this idea, too, saying gushing letters were the norm then.

Author Gore Vidal, himself a homosexual who knew Tripp, thinks the proof is clear. “All evidence suggests that Lincoln’s stepmother got it right when after Lincoln’s death she said, ‘He was not very fond of girls,’” Vidal wrote for Vanity Fair’s website.

Much of the hubbub about this, of course, is that it was the Republican Party that Lincoln founded—the party now leading the vanguard against same-sex marriages and any other rights for homosexuals. If Lincoln had founded the Democratic Party, which is far friendlier to the civil rights aspect of homosexuality, there would be little gnashing of teeth.

What about the gals?

All historians writing about this subject bemoan the lack of information on lesbians in the Old West. Part of that is due to the age-old problem that history has often ignored the women in order to concentrate on every nuance of the men. But part is also that lesbian women were hard to identify. Women have forever had close female friendships, and those that were sexual could easily be disguised. In addition, men have never reacted as negatively to female same-sex activities as they have to men’s.

But none of that applies to George Parsons, whose journal in 1880 from Tombstone is absolutely aghast at the lesbian activity he witnessed at the local saloon: “This place holds some of the most depraved—entirely and totally so—that were ever known,” he wrote. “It would be impossible to speak here of some or one form of depravity I am sorry to know of—for bad as one can be and low as woman can fall.”

Western author Willa Cather is perhaps the most famous lesbian of the Old West era, at least, according to a 1988 book Gay Men & Women who Enriched the World by Thomas Cowan.

And yet again, American Indian cultures had far less problem with this subject than their Anglo neighbors. What today would be called a dyke was in Lakota society called a koskalaka, which translates as “woman who doesn’t want to marry,” writes Paula Gunn Allen in her essay “Beloved Women:?Lesbians in American Indian Cultures.”

“These women … do a dance in which a rope is twined between them and coiled to form a ‘rope baby.’ The exact purpose or result of this dance is not mentioned, but its significance is clear. In a culture that values children and women because they bear them, two women who don’t want to marry [a man] become united by the power of the Deity and their union is validated by the creation of a rope baby. It is clear that the koskalaka are perceived as powerful.”

Allen notes the Lakota also had a name for a “half-man and half-woman” who dressed and lived as women—winkte.

Attitude shifts

It wasn’t just the calendar that changed as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, but so did public attitudes about homosexuality.

While the 1800s were known to be “lax,” the new century saw an outwardly hostile and punitive approach to gays.

Some say the sensational Oscar Wilde trials in England at the turn of the 20th century helped push society over the edge; others say that the emergence of gays from the “closet” led to a growing fear.

Whatever the motivations, one reaction was the Eugenics movement of forced sterilizations that saw wide acceptance. Between 1900-80, some 60,000 Americans in 33 states were forcibly sterilized to stop them from having children and passing on their “bad genes.” (In one of the most humiliating legacies of this pseudo-scientific movement, the Nazis used the U.S. eugenics laws during WWII to justify their sterilization and mass murder programs.)

Several states included homosexuals in their list of “bad genes,” along with the feeble-minded, insane and the unwed mothers. Oregon, in particular, aggressively sterilized gay men and women. The state has since apologized for the “great wrong done.” (Several other states also have issued apologies, including Virginia, where many of the sterilized were blacks.)

And the Mormon Church, which once had been open to same-sex intimacy, helped lead the way in the 1950s for electro-shock therapy to “cure” homosexuals.

In the end, it’s clear that homosexual behavior wasn’t uncommon in the Old West, but it also wasn’t something you spoke about in polite society. Then again, neither was heterosexual behavior. There was nowhere near the openness about sex that there is today. In those clearer, calmer days, cowboys and townsfolk alike were far more comfortable with the attitude: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”


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