The Horse Transforms Plains Indian Culture and Life

imagesOne of the most compelling images in American history is that of the mounted warrior in full regalia with eagle feather headdress holding spear and shield. It is evocative of consummate equestrian skill, indomitable courage and a life in open spaces free of civilized constraints. It is easy to forget that this colorful equestrian culture was not an ancient pre-Columbian way of life, but was short lived and lasted barely two centuries. In fact the Indian acquisition of the horse was one of the most sudden and radical improvements to occur to the culture and prosperity of any society in recent centuries. Perhaps one can compare its importance to our acquisition of the automobile and electricity. Before they had horses, the Great Plains was a difficult place for people to survive with only dogs to help them. The dominant animal was the buffalo, the largest indigenous animal in North America. Buffalo are swift and powerful, making them very difficult for a man on foot to hunt. Stalking them on the open plains to within bow shot was usually impossible. The buffalo also covered huge distances in their frequent and seemingly random migrations making them hard for the tribes to follow. The most successful technique was to try to drive a herd over a cliff on the rare occasions when they were positioned in the right place. Another method was for hunters to cover themselves with wolf skins and crawl within range. The buffalo were habituated to the omnipresent wolf packs which followed the herds waiting for the old or sick to lag behind the others.

imagesAlmost overnight the horse transformed this situation. On a good horse the hunter could outrun the buffalo and could move bigger, more comfortable camps much faster with pack animals or travois. The buffalo provided not only their main food source, but also much of their clothing and tools. They sometimes even used buffalo chips as fuel for their fires. Their greatly increased success in hunting enabled them to achieve a far higher standard of living and the population of the Great Plains increased significantly. The main source of Indian horses was from those introduced by the Spaniards from the early 16th century on. These were splendid horses of Arab, Barb and Andalusian ancestry. Apparently it was the possession of horses more than firearms which allowed the Spaniards to subdue the Indian tribes with comparative ease. A mounted warrior is awe inspiring in battle; especially to those who have never seen them before. The Spaniards were fully aware of the advantage they had and did their best to keep this deadly weapon from the natives. They forbade them to ride or to own horses and tried to guard them jealously.

Just when and how the Indians did finally acquire them is a matter of controversy, but it seems certain that this did not begin to any extent until the last half of the 17th century. The biggest single infusion by far seems to have been the Pueblo Rebellion against the Spaniards in 1680 at Santa Fe when over a thousand horses were either captured by the Indians or escaped into the wild. Probably a few of their horses also came from the French explorers who came down the Mississippi to Louisiana at that time. Horses go feral very quickly and know how to fend for themselves. They are faster than any predator in North America now that the cheetah is extinct there. They have good sight, acute hearing and can kick with tremendous force as many of us know to our sorrow. Thus they were able to multiply rapidly and expanded their range well into Canada. According to J. Frank Dobie in his wonderful book MUSTANGS there were 3 or 4 million of them running wild by about 1750. After 1680 both wild horses and trained horses used in trade spread quickly north. The first tribe to fully utilize them for hunting, warfare and transport were the Comanche and they soon passed some on as prized trade items to their cousins, the Shoshone, in Wyoming and Idaho as well as to other tribes.

Tribes with sharply different cultures handled the new horse culture in varying ways, but possessing horses became the most important measure of a man’s wealth and they could be traded for rifles, saddles, women or any other items of value. The greatly increased mobility did tend to bring the warring tribes which had long fought each other into more frequent contact and there were many battles over hunting rights. Stealing horses from other tribes or white men became a popular game and was more rewarding than taking useless scalps which were only good for prestige. Some Indians became incredibly skillful at silently removing individual horses or driving whole herds away from their owners.

Indian Women MovingWild horses were not easy to capture, but Indians and later cowboys learned effective techniques like driving them into corrals near water holes with fences as wings on either side. They could also be run down and lassoed more easily when they were weak from starvation in the winter or getting overly fat or suffering with colic from too much fresh grass in the spring. At times young foals could be encouraged to make friendships with well domesticated mares so that they could eventually be caught and tamed. It was these wild horses which provided mounts for the cowboys in their epic cattle drives from Texas as far as Montana and for the pony express riders who made the record 2,000 mile run from St. Joe to San Francisco in 7 days. These horses came from good stock originally and were refined in the wild by natural selection. Many of the horses used on Western ranches today are their descendants.

With the close of the Civil War, the completion of the transcontinental railway, the discovery of gold mines in Montana and Colorado and the start of ranching in the West, conflicts grew with Native Americans. The Tribes saw the wildlife they depended on for their existence being decimated by miners and settlers. The railway made it possible to transport buffalo hides to markets in the East and Europe where there was great demand and the merciless slaughter of the herds, which must have numbered over 60 million, began in earnest.

The Comanche were successful in holding up the settlement of Texas for 40 years or more because of their outstanding skill as cavalrymen and their ability to live off the land thanks to the buffalo. Generals like Sheridan realized that the easiest way to reduce the Indians was to wipe out their commissary by killing the buffalo and they cheered on the slaughter. This tactic was effective and the Plains Indians were almost completely subdued shortly after their last celebrated victory over Custer in 1876. Thereafter what was left of these proud, nomadic warrior/hunters were reduced to a squalid life on reservations with little inspiration or hope for the future.