American Indian Horse

History 1620-1800
The Indian Horse Period

     Early Indian ethnologists believed the feral Spanish mustangs that roamed the Plains descended from Spanish barb horses lost by Cortez, and that the Plains Indian horses came from these wild Spanish Colonial horses. Roe and others have shown this was not the case. The North American Plains Indians acquired their first 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 horses just like everybody else.

Timeline of the Spanish Horse Movement into North America

  • 1621: Spanish Governor gave ranchers in New Mexico permission to employ Pueblo men on horseback. The "encomienda" system brought new Spanish settlers into bitter conflict with the Church over control on Indian labor. When Pueblo men on horseback escaped, horses escaped with them. The Apaches and Navajos are the first Indian tribes in North America to acquire horses by stealing them from the Pueblos and learn to fight on horseback. As the use of horses spread, the Apaches and Navajos became raiders against Spanish settlements and Pueblo towns.9

  • 1623: Fray Benavides, in his journals makes note of an encounter with a band of Gila Apaches and the War Chief is riding a horse. This is the first time any documents refer to Native’s riding horses. The Spanish allowed the natives to work with and around the animals but refused to allow them to ride them. It was forbidden to trade horses to the natives, at least by the settlers.4

  • 1640: Governor La Rosa accused of trading horses to the Apaches for buffalo hides and other pelts. Other governors accused also, but nothing ever came of it. It seems from the beginning the plains or nomadic tribes of Native Americans saw the value of the horse other than a trade item. As time progressed, these groups became proficient in the use of the animal and it changed their way of life dramatically as we will discuss later.4

  • 1640: Beginning about 1640 " ... conspiracies between the Navajo and Pueblo tribes for the overthrow of the Spaniards became frequent, and on some occasions Pueblo herders surrendered entire horseherds to their allies ... Navajo hostility made the journey tothe distant Zuni and Hopi pueblos a perilous one, and was an important factor in the failure of the Spaniards to bring those tribes under complete domination." Spanish authorities further provoked the Navajos and Apaches by sending out expeditions among them to seize captives to sell as slaves in the marketsof New Spain.9

  • 1657: During the administration of Governor Juan de Samaniego y Xaca (1653-1656), after Navajos ambushed Jemez Pueblo, killed 19 of its inhabitants, and took 35 captives, Don Juan Dominguez y Mendoza led a retaliatory expedition i pursuit. "He surprised the Navajos during a native ceremonial, killed several Navajos, imprisoned 211, and released the (35) captives, including a Spanish woman." The captured Navajos no doubt were devided as booty among the soldiers, the usual custom of punitive expeditions. Navajo and Apache slaves were always in demand, and large numbers of them were sold during the 1650's, a practice which contributed to the ever-increasing hostility of the Apache-Navajos.10

  • 1658: Apaches (Navajos) raided the Zuni pueblos, and the following year they attacked other frontier pueblos. These raids continued with increased frequency during the twenty years of 1660-1680, until the Apache and Navajo menace threatened the security of the entire province.

  • 1676: The next major infusion of horses into the region came in 1676, four years before the Pueblo Revolt that forced the Spanish out of the region for 12 years. Fray Ayala, a priest, who was working in New Mexico went to New Spain and brought back several hundred horses. He also returned with the first recorded convicted criminals known to be allowed to enter the province. These convicts are known as “White Collar criminals,” today.4

  • 1680: Aug 10 - The first Pueblo Rebellion known as the most successful Indian uprising against the white man is led by Pope, a Tewa Medicine Man. Three hundred and eighty Spaniards and Mexican Indians and 21 priests were killed. All the Spanish (Governor Antonio de Otermin and 1,946 others) are driven out of Nuevo Mexico and seek refuge in El Paso, Tejas. By October, not a single Spaniard remained in Nuevo Mexico, except for captives taken earlier. Of the 1,946 who left, at least 500 were servants, including Pueblo Indians, Apaches and Navajos. Some Spanish women were retained as captives by the insurrectionists. The Navajos were sympathetic to the Pueblos' cause and some allied themselves with them against the Spaniards. The revolt causes some migration of Pueblos to Navajo settlements. Twelve years later many Pueblo Indians, fearing the wrath of Don Diego de Vargas and his army of reconquest, fled to join Navajos living in the Dinetaa or Navajo Country, northwestern New Mexico.

    After the revolt, Kisakobi (the old Hopi village of Walpi on the lower terrace among the foothills on the northwest side of the mesa) was abandoned because of the fear of Spanish vengence and continual raids by the Navajos, Apaches, and Utes. Modern Walpi, the 'place of the gap', was founded at its present location on top of the mesa.

    The big herd of horses that the Spanish left behind starts to spread across the west and are traded from one tribe to the next. By the early 1700s, virtually every tribe had them.

    Navajos learn the Pueblo weaving technique, and start developing a style of their own.10

     The horse, by this time, has been establish as a permemnt fixture in the southwest and the high plains region of what would become the United States of America and Canada. As we can see horses had been traded to the nomadic native population for at least sixty years, because of this other non-nomadic tribes were introduced to the horse. The first trades made to non-Hispanics were to the various Apache tribes that traveled through the Rio Grande valley. The spread from the valley area was to the west and the east then north. The western spread came from the Gila Apaches, located in what is now western New Mexico and Arizona. The eastern spread came from the tribes that traded in the Taos and Pecos pueblo areas.4

  • 1692 to 1696: The Spanish reconquer Nuevo Mexico after the Second Pueblo Revolt. Many Pueblo refugees seek solace in the mountains and among the small bands of Navajos and Apaches on the northern Arizona and new Mexico borders. Many other pueblos were destroyed or abandoned. Only 19 of more than 60 pre-revolt Rio Grande villages survived. Anti-Spanish feeling was so strong that in 1700 when the Hopi pueblo of Awatovi chose to accept a Catholic mission at Awatovi, the other Hopi pueblos retaliated sacking Awatovi and killing all male inhabitants. When the Spanish came back to the Pueblos they did not reintroduce the "encomienda" system. However, the Pueblos still lived under constant encroachment by the Spanish for forced labor, tribute, and religious suppression.10

  • 1694: The Navajos, accustomed to make long journeys to Quivira, frequently fought the French and Pawnees, in alliance at that time, and brought the spoil to trade in New Mexico.10

  • 1697: " ... the Navajos made another of their customary expeditions to the east. The French and Pawnees, however, destroyed, so it was reported, 4000 of the invaders." Padre Juan Armando Niel wrote " ... that among the captives whom the Navajos were accustomed to bring to New Mexico each year for Christian ransom, he rescued two little French girls."10

  • 1698: The Navajos returned to the Pawnee country " ... for vengeance and annihilated three Pawnee rancherias and a fortified place."10

  • 1699: Navajos appeared at the Spanish fair laden with spoils: slaves, jewels, cannons, carbines, powder flasks, gamellas, sword belts, waistcoasts, shoes, and even small pots of brass.10

From the "Spanish Colonial Horse and the Plains Indian Culture" web site.

     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 or ride horses, but as slaves, or as workers, on the Spanish Rancheros, Indians learned to handle horses...it is interesting to note that many Indians were terrified at their first sight of a horse. The Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 forced the Spanish out of New Mexico and many horses were left behind. The Pueblo Indians and other tribes in the area took full advantage of these horses.
     The Ute Indians were related to the Comanche and probably supplied them with their first 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 that they let the Spanish stay in Texas to raise horses for them, but warriors still went to Mexico after more horses. September was the month that 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 that “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.
     Indian Horse Distribution Map
     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 had horses. About this same time, the Blackfeet got horses from the Nez Perce and Flatheads. Indians not only acquired Spanish horses, the warriors followed the ways of the Spanish in terms of handling, riding, and use of equipment.
     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.
     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 that had a few horses. George Hyde estimated that 1760 was the period the Teton Sioux acquired horses from Arikara. In 1768, Jonathan Carver found no horses among the Dakota of upper Missouri, but two years later the Yankton Sioux had horses. From the trade fairs held at the Missouri River villages horses spread to the Cree and Assiniboine in Canada.
     Francis Haines states that by the early seventeen hundreds all the tribes south of the Platte had some familiarity with horses. By the end of the seventeen hundreds, the Indian horse had reached most of the Rocky Mountains and Plains Indians.
     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 and to pack four times as much as a dog. A draw back to the use of horses was in the selection of campsites. Indians villages that had horses were confined to areas with good pasture, and in the winter, a plentiful supply of cottonwood bark was required as well. This made the village vulnerable to attack by other tribes and later the United States cavalry.
     Horses were adapted to fit the Indian lifestyle; they did not change it. Horses were the one trade item that did not make the Indian dependant on the 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.
     It took decades for a tribe to accumulate enough horses for their needs. Of the true nomadic tribes only the Comanche, Kiowa, and Crow had enough horses throughout most of the horse period (Haines). Haines states that it took eight to ten horses to satisfy the needs of each family.
     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 war parties were to steal horse, not fight an enemy. The methods warriors had previously used for stealing women or slaves were applied to the taking of 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 that he was interested in acquiring…nothing was done to improve the quality of the mares. Ewers also stated that most men were too poor or too careless to devote much thought or time to stallion selection.
     Indian horses spanned the spectrum of colors that exists 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 that 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.
     An extensive Indian trade network existed between the Indian tribes as well as the Indian tribes and the fur traders. 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. This led to a dependency on the Canadian and American traders, which led to the introduction of alcohol and the spread of diseases. With the exception of the horse, Indians could not reproduce any of the white man’s trade goods items.
     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.
     Horses brought about a dramatic change in the Indian Culture, but horses did not materially change the Indian lifestyle. Indians still did the same things in pretty much the same ways except now they used horses. It was the Spanish horse that made it possible for the American Indians to move onto the Plains and become truly nomadic.  This section is from Spanish Colonial Horse and the Plains Indian Culture
     For more see History 1800-1890 The Indian Horse Period

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