B R Pettit
Artist, Mountain Man and Old West Historian
Pettit's sculptures connect with art enthusiasts because his vast knowledge of the dress and habits of Western
Indians, pioneers and mountain men. Pettit was a
mountain man reenactor with a richly researched knowledge base. He grew up and lived in the mountain town of
Williams, Arizona. The small town's abundant history of cowboys, railroading and mountain men permeated Pettit's
life. Memories of pioneer days run thick in the blood of the men and women who live in the tiny community.
sits at the base of Bill Williams Mountain named after the early mountain man William Shirley Williams. The
colorful character is best known as an early western explorer, trapper and guide who befriended Indian tribes
and led the fateful Fremont Expedition of 1848. When fellow mountain man guide, Antoine Leroux came to this
pine-covered mountain and saw elk grazing on the grassy prairies below, he remembered his friend and named it
Bill Williams Mountain.
It was in the shadow of this mountain that, as a
child, B.R. Pettit learned to hunt and fish. As a youth in the 1960s, he scrawled drawings of muscle-bound
Superheroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk. "I believe it was his form of self expression," says childhood friend
Parris Atherton. In reality, the skinny kid fell off monkey bars and out of trees breaking one bone after
another. "He always had a cast on his arm or leg," Atherton remembers affectionately.
B.R. Pettit became fascinated with the history of
the West's mountain men. Mountain men such as Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and Bill Williams were an important part
of American history and the westward expansion. The town of Williams celebrated its heritage with a prestigious
group known as the Bill Williams Mountain Men. The men recreated aspects of this period with historical
reenactment of the dress and lifestyle of the mountain men. The first organized meeting of the Bill Williams Mountain Men was in 1953; the same year that B.R. Pettit's
father brought his family to Williams, AZ from Arkansas. The group surely had an impact on how young B.R. Pettit
viewed history class.
Pettit grew to love the
mountain men that
came from the East, usually loners, looking for a curious mix of adventure and solitude. They learned from
the Native people how to survive in the unforgiving Western environment, and passed that information onto the
expansionists that came later. Dressed in buckskins, coon hats and other Native regalia, the Mountain Men
followed Native American paths and water trails, and later served as guides along the secret byways. Many of
the mountain men, including Bill Williams married Indian women, learned the tribal languages and eked a
living trapping beaver in the swamps and creeks of the West.
In the spring after the winter trapping season --
for it was in coldest winter that the fur grows thick and luxurious -- the mountain men loaded their cache of
furs onto pack animals and took them to rendezvous with buyers from the fur companies. A "rendezvous" then
became the name for the annual gathering of mountain men, fur company men, Indians and anyone else in the
vicinity. Trading for goods, celebrating a successful trapping season with old friends and imbibing copious
amounts of home brew were the norm in these festivities. Pettit began to research the guns, clothing and
accoutrements worn by the mountain men.
reason that I suggested that Bill be the President of the Bill Williams
Buckskinners was because he did so much research," claimed Lee Henson, self-proclaimed historical reenactor
and experiential archaeologist. The Bill Williams Buckskinners
facilitated annual black-powder shoots and "Traders' Row" rendezvous. B.R. Pettit was the first president of the
authentic. He was up on all that research. What the mountain men wore leggings, moccasins, hat gear and all of
that. They came out West with homespun, and when that wore out, they went with Indian gear. Buckskin leggings
allowed them to wade in the water. The fringe wicks the water of the leather.”
a lot about such things as that: Calvary rifles, plain rifles, mountain rifles. The rifle in Pilgrim’s Wishes is a Northwest Trade Gun. That’s how much detail he has in
Pettit actively pursued his role as mountain man
historical reenactor. As a young adult, he was diagnosed with Addison's disease. "I believe he received some
sort of disability payment that afforded him to start studying at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in 1969 or
1970," reminisces his friend Atherton. "He began with a liberal
arts degree but later concentrated his efforts on the fine arts."
At NAU, Pettit was forced to take mandatory
painting classes. "He hated that," commentates Atherton, "But he studied anatomy which helped him later with his
sculpture work." At NAU, a school known for its large bronze foundries, Pettit worked closely with Dr. Winthrop
Williams. Pettit earned his undergraduate degree from NAU in 1976, and then returned to Flagstaff to work on a
Master's Degree. He taught art at NAU as a student teacher.
The eight-foot tall monument of Bill Williams that
stands in Williams, AZ was Pettit's Master's Degree thesis project. "I would go to the foundry at NAU to watch
Bill pour. It was hot in there," laughs Atherton. "He used a lost-wax casting process." The piece was so large
it had to be cast in parts. Pettit then took the castings from Flagstaff to Williams where he welded the pieces
together. Lee Henson helped Pettit add patina to the colossal sculpture in the Williams
Pettit experienced fame when Senator Barry
Goldwater unveiled the monument on April 26, 1980. To meet that deadline, the team had hurriedly put the
castings together. Fellow-artist Wayne Chabisek revealed a little-known piece of history: "Somewhere along the
line, Bill forgot the bronze coon's tail for the sculpture's hat."
"If you look at the statue of Ole Bill today, the
tail on the back of his hat is missing," smiles Chabisek.
of 1981 a sixteen-inch, bronze version of "Ole Bill Williams" (hat a la raccoon tail) was hand carried to
Washington DC by the Bill Williams Mountain Men dressed in full garb. The sculpture was presented to Ronald
Reagan at his inaugural celebrations.
piece was obviously a favorite of President Reagan as it was displayed prominently in the Oval Office throughout
the duration of his term. The sculpture then made its way to the west coast where it was displayed in the Reagan
living quarters. That bronze is currently in the collection of the Reagan Library and assigned the reference
always wanted to build a statue of William Sherley Williams, to help honor the famous trapper and mountain man
who this city is named after," said Pettit in a 1995 newspaper interview. The sculptor continued using his
detailed historical knowledge to create portraits of the mountain men's struggles and joys.
the Yellow Apron," Pettit's favorite piece, depicts old friends celebrating a successful trapping season. Lee
Henson's confident, wrinkle-stenciled face was used as a model for "Elk Tracker." "Pilgrim's Wishes" captures a
poignant moment in the mountain man's struggle for livelihood. It was the last piece that Pettit was to
Pettit died in 2006 in Williams, AZ from Addison's disease when he was age