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How The Indian Got The Horse
One innovation profoundly changed—and prolonged—the culture of the Plains Indians
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
The care of these thousands of horses required a good deal of menial labor, furnished, of course, by the Indians. Indian boys brought fresh horses in for their masters to use, and returned the tired ones to the corrals. They did the saddling, unsaddling, and rubbing down. They fed and watered the animals, and cleaned the stables and corrals. Sometimes a rancher, careless of the regulations forbidding an Indian to ride, would send a boy to help drive in a herd from the hills; sometimes, leaving on an extended journey, he would choose two or three Indians to ride with him —to look after the spare mounts and to handle the camp chores. In the face of emergencies the decrees of King Philip of Spain carried little weight on the frontier, far from the eyes of the nearest government official. So, in one way or another, the stable boys learned how to ride and how to handle horses.
Most of the Pueblo Indians resigned themselves to servitude under the Spanish. They had no place to run, no place to hide. But for a stable boy there was one avenue of escape if conditions became too harsh or masters too domineering; and his work with the horses seemed to breed in him more spirit than showed in the field hand. By watching for a favorable opportunity, the stable boy could slip away some dark evening with two or three of the best horses, and be off to an independent tribe, safe from effective pursuit. He might risk death or further enslavement, but there was always a good chance that the tribe would accept him and his horses. Then he could teach them the art of horsemanship, and could help his hosts secure more horses from the ranches.
With such a teacher, and some tame, well-trained horses to work with, the wild tribe could rapidly learn how to use this wonderful new mode of transport. Soon they would want more horses and would take their goods off to trade with the Spanish, as they had been doing for years. But the Spanish were reluctant to trade horses to the Indians: such trading took place in towns, under the eyes of Spanish colonial officials.
When the Spanish refused to exchange horses for dried meat and tanned robes, the Indians sought other articles of trade, and found one so valuable to the Spanish that the laws would be suspended in special cases. The Indians traded men.
The Spanish, in an effort to discourage the escape of Pueblo Indians, offered cloth and weapons for any runaways the wild tribes could capture. But the Indians soon learned that the Spanish would pay higher prices for mission Indians, and still higher prices to ransom Spaniards captured by the tribes. They demanded horses for such captives, and the priests argued with the civil authorities that it was better to bend the law a little than to leave Christians in heathen hands.
Thus, year by year, the tribes adjacent to the Spanish settlements learned to use horses, and slowly increased their herds. The first documentary evidence of the use of horses by Indians in the American West comes sixty-one years after the arrival of Oñate’s colony: In 1659 the governor at Sante Fe sent to Mexico City an official report of a raid from the northwest by a band of mounted Navaho Apaches.
Finally, in 1680, the Pueblo Indians rose up against their masters. They resented the brutal treatment, the forced labor, and, above all, the strict laws against their ancient religious ceremonies. A deposed medicine man, Pope, organized a widespread revolt, and on the appointed day the Pueblos attacked at many points in northern New Mexico, killing over 400 Spanish in the first attack. The 2,500 survivors withdrew to El Paso to wait for reinforcements from Mexico; but they had lost their homes, their farms, and all their herds to the Indians (see “Revolt in the Pueblos,” by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., in the June, 1961, AMERICAN HERITAGE ).
The Pueblo Indians found the horse herds an embarrassment of riches. They were hard to manage on the range, and they ate the grass needed for sheep. Moreover, the Pueblos had no use for as many horses as the Spanish had abandoned. They were willing to trade large numbers of them to the Plains tribes to the northeast, and to the Navahos and Utes to the northwest. The Pueblos also lacked the organization to patrol the ranges as the Spanish had done, and lost more horses to enemy raiders.
All through the Plains regions each band had friendly trade relations with two or three of its neighbors. A farming village would customarily trade with a hunting band to the south and another to the north. Each of these hunting bands in turn would trade with another farming village, the hunters in each case offering dried meat and buffalo robes for corn and squash. This helps to explain the rapid spread of horses to all the Plains tribes. The result was a basic pattern of horse culture, borrowed from the Spanish and common to all the western tribes using horses.