- Historic Sites
How The Indian Got The Horse
One innovation profoundly changed—and prolonged—the culture of the Plains Indians
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
West of the Continental Divide the horse moved northward more rapidly. Here the Indians were few in number, and in the central areas their small valleys furnished scant pasture; hence within thirty years or so, the horses had moved north of Great Salt Lake to the fine stock ranges of the upper Snake Valley, where they multiplied rapidly. Here they had ample protection from the winter storms and predators were less of a problem than on the Plains. Even the desert plateau furnished ample forage in the winter when storms filled the water holes. This was the country of the western Shoshone, who in time furnished stock to all their neighbors, especially to the Crows, Blackfeet, and Nez Percé.
Once the Nez Percé secured some breeding stock they found that their country was even better for raising range horses than the upper Snake Valley. With excellent grass, ample water, and both summer and winter ranges, it cost them little effort to raise more horses than they could use. They learned to geld some of their poorer stallions, and this practice, combined with their fine range land, produced horses of superior quality.
Up to this time the Nez Percé had been a fishing tribe, living in about fifty small, permanent villages along the Snake River and its tributaries, the Clearwater and the Salmon. Once they learned to use horses, they became more adventurous. They opened a trail along the timbered ridges of the Bitterroot Range to reach the buffalo herds of Montana more than a hundred miles away. In Montana they soon met the Crows and Blackfeet, and later the Sioux. From each they borrowed items of Plains culture, until they had more in common with the Plains Indians than they did with their old neighbors in the fishing villages to the west.
From their ample herds the Nez Percé eventually supplied horses to all their neighbors—at a price, of course. Each year they would ride out to the various intertribal trading grounds with some of their excess stock. One such center was a hundred miles north of the Snake River, on the small plain where the Little Spokane River joins the main stream a few miles below the falls. Since the Spokanes and the Nez Percé were of different language groups, the bartering had to be carried on principally by signs. Each usual article of trade, including the average horse, had an established value, yet the trading was a leisurely process.
The Nez Percé lined up on one side, each man holding the lead rope of his “trading” horse. Each Spokane came forward and placed his pile of trade goods in front of the horse he liked. If the Nez Percé was satisfied, he handed over the lead rope and took the goods. If not, he might try for an extra article, or he might lead his horse to some other pile which interested him. It might take all of a pleasant summer day to trade forty horses, but this seemed to worry nobody.
The Nez Percé also traded horses as far west as The Dalles, and as far east as the Crow country in southern Montana. Later they traded mounts to the fur companies, and to travellers on the Oregon Trail.
George Catlin, the great painter of Indians in the early West, made an entry in his journal in 1834 that epitomizes what the horse did for the Indian. The artist had just encountered his first Comanches, and he soon concluded that they were the most extraordinary horsemen in the world. Dismounted, he wrote, they were “heavy and ungraceful … one of the most unattractive and slovenly-looking races of Indians that I have ever seen; but the moment they mount their horses, they seem at once metamorphosed, and surprise the spectator with the ease and elegance of their movements. A Camanchee on his feet is out of his element, and comparatively almost as awkward as a monkey on the ground, without a limb or a branch to cling to; but the moment he lays his hand upon his horse, his face , even, becomes handsome, and he gracefully flies away like a different being.”
One of the Spanish conquistadors, in the sixteenth century, had observed confidently: “Horses are what the Indians dread most, and by means of which they will be overcome.” He failed to foresee that the Indians would make the horse their own, and that thereby their native culture would not only be tremendously enhanced, but would nourish for over a hundred years before their warriors would be crushed by the advancing Anglo-Americans.