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Spanish Colonial Horse and the Plains Indian
Early Indian ethnologists
believed the feral Spanish mustangs roaming the Plains descended from Spanish
horses lost by
Cortez, and the Plains Indian horses came from these wild Spanish horses.
Roe and others showed this was not the
North American Plains Indians acquired
horses, and the knowledge of how to handle them, through trade with the Indians
of the Southwest. American Indians had to learn to ride and handle
North American Plains Indians acquired horses, and the knowledge of how to handle them, through trade with the Indians of the Southwest. American Indians had to learn to ride and handlehorses just like everybody else.
Mesohippus was a three-toed horse that lived approximately twenty-five million years ago. The precursors of the horse family came into existence about fifty-five million years ago. The first was Eohippus. These prehistoric horses weighed about eighty pounds, had four toes on its front feet, three toes on its rear feet, and small teeth suitable for a diet of fruit and leaves. As these prehistoric horses increased in numbers and diversity, they spread across North America and, via the Bering Strait land bridge, to Europe and Asia. About fifteen thousand years ago, the North American habitat started to change and the prehistoric horses began to disappear. Horses were also a food source for Paleo-Indians, which contributed to horses becoming extinct on this continent.
The Przewalski horse (Equus przewalski poliakov) is the last remaining specie of wild horses. All other horses have been domesticated, or descended from horses that were once domesticated. Until the mid-1990's, the Przewalski was extinct in the wild. Through efforts of the Przewalski Foundation in the Netherlands and breeding preserves in Askania Nova, Ukraine, two breeding groups of Przewalski horses were reintroduced to Mongolia. The ultimate goal of the Przewalski Foundation is to have the Przewalski horses running free on the Mongolian steppes (ansi.okstate.edu).
What became the Plains Indian horses were brought to North America by Spanish Conquistadors in the sixteenth century. The original horses from Spain were relatively unselected. These Spanish horses carried the blood of Spanish Barbs, Arabians, Lipizzaners, and some other European breeds. These horses are now referred to by a variety of names: Spanish Barb, Spanish Mustang, Spanish Colonial Horses (Sponenberg). The Spanish Colonial horses exhibited a wide variety of characteristics in terms of color, size, and conformation. The Spanish horses acquired by the Plains Indians spread northward from central Mexico (see, Florida Cracker horses under reader response).
War Chief displays the typical conformation of the Plains Indian horse. Dr. Castle McLaughlin, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Harvard University, conducted a study of the Nokota horses between 1987 and 1990. Her report concluded the Nokota horses are descendants of those roaming the badlands of North Dakota at least since the 1880s. It is believed these horses are direct descendent of horses used by Sitting Bull and the Sioux Indians. The photo of War Chief was taken by Dr. McLaughlin. The Nokota Horse Conservancy is a nonprofit organization established to preserve the unique and historical Nokota Horses.
Ewers, Sponenberg, and others describe the average Plains Indian horse during pre-reservation days as: 13.2 to 14 hands; 700 pounds; large head with a good eye; short thick neck; large round barrel; relatively heavy shoulder and hip; fine limbs and small feet.
According to the American Quarter Horse Association, the average original Quarter Horses (1940) stood 14.2, and were rarely over 15 hands high. The Morgan (Justin Morgan) was 14 hands high and weighed around 950 pounds. It is difficult to visualize the size difference between the Plains Indian horses and present day horses. Except height, the pictures below are distorted because Huckleberry is fine boned. Horses are measured in hands--a hand is four inches.
By the mid-sixteen hundreds, the Spanish rancheros near Santa Fe and Taos had thousands of horses. The Spanish government issued decrees forbidding Indians to own horses. As slaves, or as workers, on the Spanish rancheros, Indians learned to handle horses. By the mid-sixteen hundreds Apache and Navajo were starting to acquire horses stolen by escaped workers from the Spanish rancheros--it is interesting to note many Indians were terrified at their first sight of a horse. This leaves the question as to where the Indian horses came from
Prior to the Pueblo Revolt, the only Indians familiar with horses were a few Apache and Navajo that worked on Spanish rancheros. When the Spanish abandoned the rancheros, thousands of horses were left behind. Alan Taylor, American Colonies, states the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, resulting in thousands of loose horses, was the greatest setback inflicted by American Indians on European expansion in North America. Within fifty years after the Pueblo revolt, horses had spread as far north as the Cree and Assiniboine Indians in Canada. Fifteen years after being driven out by the Pueblos, the Spanish retook the land, and the Spanish missions were re-established.
The Taos Pueblo played a prominent role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Popé, the leader of the rebellion, was from the San Juan Pueblo, but planned the attack from the Taos Pueblo.
Another revolt at the Taos Pueblo occurred in 1847. After surrendering to General Stephan Kearney in 1846 with out any resistance, a Mexican loyalist, Tomas Romero, led a group of Pueblo Indians against the newly appointed Governor, Charles Bent. Governor Bent was killed. Prior to his appointment as Governor of New Mexico, Bent and his brother William had established Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River. When a U.S. army detachment reached Taos, many of the insurgents and some residents of Taos had barricaded themselves in the thick adobe-walled church. Cannon fire killed most of the inhabitants and destroyed the church. The bell tower and part of the walls of the church still stand.
The 1680 Pueblo Revolt forced the Spanish out of New Mexico and thousands of horses were left behind. The Comanche, Ute, Apache, and other tribes in the area took full advantage of these horses. As sedentary farmers, the Pueblo tribes had little use for horses--they were interested in the sheep. By the time the Pueblo Indians got around to dividing up the spoils of the Pueblo Revolt, most of the horses were gone. Alan Taylor writes in American Colonies that the 1680 Pueblo Revolt was the greatest setback inflicted by Native Americans on European expansion in North America. Within fifty years, Indian tribes, as far north as the Cree and Assiniboine in Canada, had acquired horses primarily through trade.
The Ute Indians were related to the Comanche and probably supplied them with horses. By 1706, the Comanche were well known to the Spanish in New Mexico because of their horse stealing raids on Spanish rancheros. Years later, the Comanche claimed they let the Spanish stay in Texas to raise horses for them, but warriors still went to Mexico after more horses. It is believed the Comanche stole thirty thousand horse a year from rancheros in Mexico (Francis Haines). September was the month large raiding parties went into Mexico after horses and captives. Comanche referred to September as the Mexican Moon; Mexicans called it the Comanche Moon. Other northern tribes followed this practice, and soon a wide trail stretched across the staked plain (Llano Estacada) of Texas and New Mexico. The Apaches conducted the same kind of raids into Sonora and Chihuahua.
The Comanche became the epitome of the Plains Indian Horse Culture. There was a saying in Texas: “The white man will ride the Mustang until he is played out - the Mexican will take him and ride him another day until he thinks he is tired - the Comanche will get on him and ride him to where he is going” (Frank Dobie). Within a few decades after acquiring horses, many military leaders considered the Comanche as the finest light cavalry in the world.
Comanche warriors rapidly emerged as the middlemen
in the horse trade between Indian tribes and French settlements east of the
Mississippi. Horses spread out of the southwest in primarily two directions: north
to the Shoshone and from them to the Nez Perce, Flatheads, and the Crow; north and
east to the Kiowa and Pawnee and then to the cousins of the Pawnee, the Arikara.
The Shoshone traded with the Utes and Comanche for their first horses in the early seventeen hundreds. Not long after the Nez Perce had horses, and by 1740, the Crow and Blackfeet had horses. Indians not only acquired Spanish horses, the warriors followed the ways of the Spanish in terms of handling, riding, and use of equipment.
Francis Haines states by the early seventeen hundreds all the tribes south of the Platte had some familiarity with horses. Pierre Gaultier de La Verendrye a French trader reached the Mandan village on the Missouri River in 1738, while there he heard of Indians to the south with a few horses. George Hyde estimated 1760 was when the Teton Sioux acquired horses from Arikara. In 1768, Jonathan Carver found no horses among the Dakota Sioux of upper Missouri, but two years later the Yankton Sioux had horses.
Horses spread through the Arikara to the Missouri River villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa and eventually to the Sioux and the Cheyenne. When the first white traders reached the Plains none of the Indians North and East of the Black Hills had horses. By the end of the seventeen hundreds, the Indian horse had reached most of the Rocky Mountains and Plains Indians.
An extensive Indian trade network existed between the Indian tribes decades before explorers and fur traders reached the Missouri River villages. The Indian-to-Indian trade covered the Plains to the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Prior to 1807, the trade between Indians and fur traders centered around trade fairs held at the permanent villages of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara on the Missouri River. From the trade fairs held at the Missouri River villages horses spread to the Cree and Assiniboine in Canada.
Horses were the one trade item that did not make the Indians dependant on fur traders. Everything connected with the horse, Indians could do for themselves, and in most cases, they surpassed the white man in riding and handling horses. Blackfoot efforts in breeding horses were directed toward producing one or more of three qualities in the offspring. These qualities were a particular color, size, and speed (Ewers). The owner of a herd of mares selected a stallion with the characteristics he was interested in acquiring…nothing was done to improve the quality of the mares. Ewers also stated most men were too poor or too careless to devote much thought or time to stallion selection.
Indian horses spanned the spectrum of colors existing in horses of today. Despite Hollywood and artists pictures, the nomadic Plains Indians did not predominately ride pintos or paints. These are recessive color patterns and are hard to breed for today. How could nomadic Indians have done it any better with horses in communal herds? A possible exception to this might have been the Cayuse and Nez Perce with the Appaloosa.
Horses were adapted to fit the Indian lifestyle; they did not change it....this statement has been commented on by several people. To understand the meaning of this statement, please read this comment and my reply. Horses brought about a dramatic change in the Indian Culture, but horses did not materially change the Indians hunter-gather lifestyle. Indians still did the same things in pretty much the same ways except now they used horses. The Spanish horse made it possible for American Indians to move onto the Plains and fully embrace the hunter-gatherer life style.
The individual, not the tribe, owned the horses. This produced a class system based on ownership of horses…those with and those without. Owners with excess horses traded them to the Hudson's Bay, North West, and the Rocky Mountain fur traders for the fur trader's iron goods. Horses elevated the owner's prestige and power, and often increased the number of wives he could afford. The owners of large numbers of horses loaned them to other members of the village during camp moves, or for the buffalo hunt. In the Indian culture, generosity was the mark of a true leader.
The horse herds within a tribe could be increased through: war parties, breeding, and trade. The only one of these open to a young man was the war party. The vast majority of Indian war parties were to steal horse, not fight an enemy. The methods warriors had previously used for stealing another tribes women, or taking prisoners to be used as or sold as slaves, were applied to the taking of horses.
In pre-horse days, women and dogs moved the camp. This limited the size of the shelters and the accumulation of belongings. The horse was easily trained to pull a travois with several hundred pounds on it, or to pack four times as much as a dog. Horse drawn travoises limited where villages could travel. It took at least a three- to four-foot wide trail to pull a travois over. Another draw back to the use of horses was in the selection of campsites. Indians villages with horses were confined to areas with good pasture, and in the winter, a plentiful supply of sweet cottonwood bark for horse feed. This made the village vulnerable to attack by other tribes and the United States cavalry.
Before the horse, the primary way of hunting buffalo was for members of the village to try and surround a herd and drive it into a corral (Piskun), or run the herd off a cliff. At first, the horse was used to drive the buffalo in the same manner as they had done on foot.. Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont, who founded Fort Orleans on the Missouri in 1722, stated the Kanza on the lower Missouri had no horses in 1724, but Comanche to the southwest did. The Kanza told him the Comanche used horses to drive the buffalo off a cliff, or to chase the herd until it give out. Once the buffalo stopped, the Comanche surrounded them, and then getting off their horses, shot them. Some Indian tribes into the mid-1800s used the surround method of hunting (Ewers).
Indians seldom used guns in hunting buffalo until breechloaders were available…it was too hard to load a muzzleloader on a running horse. Ewers states: among all the buffalo-hunting tribes, the bow and arrow seems to have been the weapons in use before ca. 1870. Joseph Jablow reported by the time a gun was loaded "the Indian could in that time ride three hundred yards and discharge twenty arrows". Many warriors averaged fewer than two arrows per buffalo killed.
The prized possession among warriors was the buffalo horse. A buffalo horse was trained to run beside the buffalo during a hunt. Without these specially trained horses, it was hard for warriors to provide enough meat for an entire village. The highly valued buffalo horses were kept inside the lodge at night or picketed nearby. For many tribes the highest war honor was to take a picketed buffalo horse from an enemy village.
It took decades for a tribe to accumulate enough horses for its needs. Of the true nomadic tribes, only the Comanche, Kiowa, and Crow had enough horses throughout most of the horse period (Haines). Haines states it took eight to ten horses to satisfy the needs of each family.
After the smallpox outbreaks of 1782 and 1837, a great many “domesticated” horses roamed the Plains as wild horses. These horses belonged to whoever could catch them, but these feral horses were of little value to the Plains Indians. The feral mustangs were hard to catch, and after they were caught, hard to keep and handle. There was a saying among the old cowboys: “Once a wild one always a wild one" (Dobie). In his book, The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture, John Ewers’ Indian informants state the Blackfeet never tried to catch wild horses, and the only tribe they knew of occasionally doing it were the Kiowa.
"Stories" of an Indian blowing in a mustang's nose and gentling it in a matter of hours are ridiculous...this statement has been challenged by several readers. This is fine, but don't use Monty Roberts, "The Man Who Listens to Horses", or the painter George Catlin, as your reference. Monty Roberts is currently being sued by family members and horse owners for staged demonstrations and untruthful statements. usaviews.com/interface/index.
In many cases, white man trade goods, for example trade beads and horses, reached Indian tribes long before the first fur traders arrived there. This applied to some iron and brass goods as well. When Lewis and Clark met the Nez Perce in the Columbia River basin, a warrior displayed an axe that John Shields had made the previous winter at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River.
The Indian Horse article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.
Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
Article Links, References, and Responses are listed below. The responses help clear up some of the statements in the article, i. e. horses did not change the Indian lifestyle.
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Reply: This is a question of semantics, not disagreement. As is so well stated above, there is absolutely no question the horse altered the Indian culture in every respect, but the Plains Indian lifestyle was still as a hunter-gatherer. The Indian lifestyle changed when they were forced to give up their hunting grounds and live on reservations. It is ironic once on reservations, the horses which had served the Indians so well had to be replaced with ones big enough to pull a plow.
Ken Weidner - Kansas
Reply: Ken's point is well taken. I am sure by the mid-eighteen hundreds some tribes were chasing wild horses. A good many of these horses probably become "wild" after the owners died in the smallpox outbreaks that decimated several upper Missouri River tribes.
Delor Wheeler - Teacher in Training
Roger Baker - Idaho
Echoes of Time is an oil painting by wildlife artist Lorna Hester Hawkins of Afton, Wyoming.
D. Phillip Sponenberg Spanish Mustangs from Conquistador Magazine.
Berry Cayuse Indian Pony.