- Historic Sites
The Canny Cayuse
The white man made certain his imported thoroughbred could outrun the red man’s pony, but the Indian chief was wise in the gambler’s ways
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
Among the Indians of the Plains and the Rocky Mountains the sport of horse racing was a product of necessity and passion—the necessity of mastering the breeding of the horse, on which their very lives depended, and a passion, seemingly inborn, for gambling. Wherever they came together—witli other Indians or with friendly white men of sporting blood—horse racing became the principal social event.
The Umatilla and Caynse tribes had since 1853 lived on the same reservation in northeastern Oregon. When they crossbred the horses they had acquired from otlter tribes with animals obtained from white men who came through their country, the result was a pony that was small, tough, and fast.
In 1875, A. R. Meacham, just finishing a six-year term as superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon, published a now-forgotten book called Wigwam and War Path. In it I found the following account of a horse race in whicli white men tried to cheat their Cayuse adversaries—with results that were wholly unforeseen.
How-lish-wam-po, chief of the Cayuse, is the owner of several thousand horses. He is a stout-built man, has a dark complexion, wears his hair just clear of his shoulders, and is now past middle age. He is a natural horseman and a match for any man of any race in matters pertaining to horses. He is really king of the turf in the Umatilla country.
The racing habits of these people are well known, and many a white man has found them more than his match. A white man named foe Crabb once imported a horse for the express purpose of taking everything the Indians had. He made known his desire to race, and he soon found opportunity for an investment. The preliminaries were arranged: the race was to be run over the Indian racecourse, which was located on the bottom lands of the Umatilla river. The turf was smooth and level, and the track was over two miles and a half in length.
At one end of this course a post was planted, round which the racers were to turn and come back to the starting point, making a distance of a little over five miles and a quarter.
Joe Crabb had been present at a race months before, when, unbeknown to Crabb, How-lish-wam-po had permitted his horse to be beaten: and as Crabb had measured the distance, recorded the winner’s time, and subsequently tested the speed of his own horse against it, he felt he had a sure thing.
The white men came with groom and riders, making a camp near the Indians and standing guard over their own horse, to prevent accident. The Indians were not so careful of their horse (at least Joe Crabb thought they were not), and, since everything is fair in gambling as in war, he decided to know for himself how the speed of these two horses would compare. He thought, as thousands of other white men have, that it was no harm to cheat an Injun, no matter by what means.
There is a general belief that Indians sleep when their eyes are shut, and especially just before daylight. Sending a careful, trusty man to get the Indian horse (leaving another in its place), Crabb led the two horses out on the prairie and made a few trials of speed between them. The result was satisfactory. He found that his horse was able to outdistance the other.
Now How-lish-wam-po owned two horses which looked very nearly alike, one the racer, the other half-brother to him, but not so fleet. They were pintos—spotted horses—so the deception was complete.
The Indian horses are never stabled, groomed, shod, or grain-fed. Their system of training differs very much from that the white man uses. After a race is agreed upon, the animal is tied up to a stake or tree. If he is fat, they starve him down, giving him only water. If, however, he is in good condition, they lead him out to grass an hour or so each day, and at nighttall they run him over the course.
In this instance the half-brother was tied up and left unguarded, with the hope that Ciabb would steal him out and try his speed. Sure enough, he fell into the trap that How-lish-wam-po set for him. The real race horse was miles away, under proper training. The tame of this wonderful winner had spread far and wide, as did the news of the approaching contest.
When the morning of the race arrived, the roads leading to the valley of the Umatilla gave full proof of the interest the people of the surrounding country had in this important affair.
They came from places several hundred miles distant and from the settlements surrounding the Reservation. The little towns furnished their quota, and the fanners excused themselves for going, hoping, as they told their wives at home, that they should meet with someone with whom they had business. Through various devices nearly every man, and a part of the women also, found excuse to be there. People who never gambled with dollars, and would blush to own they were last people, found then way to the Umatilla.
The racecourse, which I have described, was parallel with a low range of grassy hills that rose by gentle slopes from the valley to an altitude of fifty to one hundred feet. Long before the time for the race, carriages, buggies, wagons, and horses might be seen standing on the hills or driving over the greensward, while at the standing point was assembled a great motley crowd, on foot and on horseback. The Indians were in then gala-day dress—paints, feathers, long hair, red blankets; in fact, it was a dress parade for white and red men alike.