How The Indian Got The Horse

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On Thursday, May 24, 1855, Lieutenant Lawrence Kip of the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Walla Walla in what is now Washington, made this entry in his diary:

This has been an extremely interesting day, as about 2,500 of the Nez Percé tribe have arrived. It was our first specimen of this Prairie chivalry, and it certainly realized all our conceptions of these wild warriors of the plains. Their coming was announced about 10 o’clock, and going out on the plain to where a flag staff had been erected, we saw them approaching in one long line. They were almost entirely naked, gaudily painted and decorated with their wild trappings. Their plumes fluttered about them, while below, skins and trinkets of all kinds of fantastic embellishments flaunted in the sunshine. Trained from early childhood almost to live upon horseback, they sat upon their fine animals as if they were centaurs. Their horses, too, were arrayed in the most glaring finery. They were painted with such colors as formed the greatest contrast; the white being smeared with crimson in fantastic figures, and the dark colors streaked with white clay. Beads and fringes, of gaudy colors were hanging from the bridles, while the plumes of eagle feathers interwoven with the mane and tail, fluttered as the breeze swept over them, and completed their wild and fantastic appearance.

This image of the proud Indian on his splendid horse, both of them splashed with gaudy war paint and adorned with feathered devices, seems to personify the spirit of the old West in those far-off times before the buffalo herds were all slaughtered and barbed wire had enclosed the high plains. Very probably young Lieutenant Kip, like most white people of his clay, accepted without question the idea that the Indians had always had horses. They were obviously an inseparable and essential element of Indian culture on the Great Plains; and indeed, the first Anglo-Americans to reach those areas, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, had found the mounted Indians already in full force. Yet in 1855 less than 150 years had passed since the first Nez Percé ever to mount a horse had taken his first daring ride.

The fossil discoveries of the later nineteenth century made it clear that, although prehistoric horses had roamed the western plains in large numbers for a million years, some odd, selective catastrophe wiped them out, along with camels, perhaps 15,000 years ago. Hence, when the Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century rode their horses into the Southwest, the Indians gazed with wonder at the strange beasts. The process by which the native tribes adopted the animal, and consequently were able to hold the land against all intruders until the destruction of the buffalo herds starved them into submission, has been the subject of much speculation and dispute.

Until recent years historians and anthropologists accepted rather casually the theory that horses lost from early Spanish expeditions had, by natural increase, stocked the western ranges with wild bands that supplied the various Indian tribes with their animals. The favored choice for the supposed source of the breeding stock was either the expedition of Hernando de Soto or that of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, both of which reached the plains of Texas in 1541–42.

De Soto, after conquering Peru, had returned to Spain, married, and secured the governorship of Cuba, with the privilege of exploring and conquering Florida and the land to the north and west. His quest ended when he died of fever on the shore of the Mississippi River in May, 1542. The remnants of his forces, led by Luis Moscoso, travelled west and south to Texas in a vain attempt to reach Mexico overland. Failing in this, they returned to the Mississippi and built a fleet of seven brigantines on which they embarked with 22 horses, all that were left of their original 243.

As the Spaniards sailed down the river they killed the horses one by one for food, until only five or six of the best were left. These they turned loose in a small, grassy meadow near the mouth of the river. Legend would have it that these horses remembered the plains of Texas and wished to return there. They swam the river, splashed through a hundred miles of swamps and marshes, and finally reached open country with abundant grass. Here, supposedly, they settled down and reproduced at a prodigious rate. Soon their offspring covered the Texas plains and attracted the attention of the local Indians, who knew how to catch and train them from having seen the Spanish ride by on such animals years ago.

Stubborn facts undermine this pretty tale. First, one of the Spaniards in Moscoso’s party said later that Indians came out of the bushes and shot the liberated horses full of arrows even before the Spanish boats had passed beyond the next bend. Second, even if they had survived, the route to the west was impassable for horses, which in any case had no way of knowing the direction to take to reach Texas. Third, and finally, these war horses were all stallions. The Spanish rode no other kind to battle. For these reasons it is obvious that de Soto’s animals could not have stocked the western plains with horses, wild or tame.