Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 2009, pp. 301-16
While traveling along the Platte River on May 18, 1834, William Marshall Anderson stopped to pick up a human skull bleaching in the prairie sunlight. Anderson was from Louisville, Kentucky, and had been sent west by his physician to accompany a fur-trade caravan to the Rocky Mountains in hopes of regaining lost physical strength. He came west not as a typical trader or trapper, but as an attentive observer. What Anderson lacked in physical strength and fortitude, he made up for with a commanding vernacular and lively imagination. Later in the day, after carrying the skull for several miles, he reflected on the life of its owner: "[P]erhaps he had like myself been rejoicing in the beauties of nature, that impelled by the spirit of adventure, he had sought to behold the wonders of the mountains and the savage forest." Although this brief experience surely brought some apprehension, it perhaps ignited in his mind the need to do more "rejoicing in the beauties of nature."
Though seemingly separated from the outside world, men like Anderson, and the hundreds of men who went west for the fur trade from the 1820s through the 1840s, traveled during an era that prompted them to rejoice in their natural surroundings. Their writings were more than mere travel accounts outlining directions traveled, trapping or trading activities, and encounters with grizzly bears and Blackfeet Indians. Often, they expressed aesthetic judgments about nature that created a romantic image of the West. They were astute observers operating amidst a rising romantic consciousness within eastern society. Their collective representations of life in the West were continually defined in terms of wilderness and landscape. In doing so, they remind us of how eastern ideas influenced western experiences and they show the importance the actual landscape had upon their thoughts, ideas, and writings. While some scholars have felt that these men were beyond the reach of the cultural influences of Romanticism, its impact actually pervaded their lives and helped shape their thinking and their written accounts about the western landscape. In a profound sense, traders and trappers, as well as the works of those like Washington Irving and Alfred Jacob Miller who chronicled their lives, reflected the country's rising concern with aesthetic sensibilities by adapting eastern ideas of the natural world to western experiences.