September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
The saddle at right was made by Edward L. Gallatin in Denver, Colorado, and presented to Col. Jesse H. Leavenworth in 1862 by friends and fellow officers of the 2d Colorado Volunteers. The rich black, hand-tooled leather, the bright gold and silver trim fashioned into stars and eagles, and the classic military accessories animate the sturdy soul of a cowboy’s day-to-day rig. It is a saddle intended to be worked in as well as admired.
When settlers and adventurers began to move West, they found that Eastern saddles of the English model were ill adapted to managing livestock on the open range or to riding long distances over rugged terrain. They found, too, that the Mexican vaquero saddle already in use in parts of Texas and California was far better suited to life on the frontier. While American saddlemakers mostly ignored traditional Spanish decorations, they were quick to adopt the more practical aspects of the Mexican design.
Gallatin fashioned his spectacular saddle around what he called the California tree—a tree being the leather-covered frame, usually wooden, that forms a saddle’s seat and fits over the horse’s back. The California tree has a horn rising in front of the rider, which is handy for snubbing a lariat, and a tall behind, which helps prevent an embarrassing backward slide when a horse rears up. The California tree was the precursor of several popular styles of Western stock saddles including the Taylor, the Visalia, and the Pueblo, among others. Because the Western saddle’s deep seat proved less tiring for the rider, it became the model for cavalry saddles as well.
In 1845, when he was seventeen, Gallatin apprenticed in St. Louis with Thornton Grimsley, the foremost maker of military saddles. Gallatin had mastered the craft and was working for John Landis of Independence, Missouri, when, in 1860, he cajoled his boss into letting him make a risky journey to Denver, Colorado, to sell saddlery and harness to gold miners. The trip was a success. Gallatin decided to stay on as manager and sole employee of Landis’s new branch store, and it was during his sojourn in Denver that he made Colonel Leavenworth’s saddle.
In 1863 Gallatin and a partner bought out Landis and renamed the establishment E. L. Gallatin & Co. Gallatin’s superior workmanship soon won his saddles a widespread reputation, and for a time he owned shops not only in Denver but in Nebraska City and Cheyenne as well. Meanwhile he became influential in the development of two of the most popular styles of saddle ever made: the Pueblo and the Cheyenne, which were widely used by cowboys from Canada to Texas.
Like many of his fellow saddlers, Gallatin listened to the cowboys who used his product, and he experimented with design changes to improve the comfort of both horse and rider. What set him apart was an unusual combination of the maker’s skill and the designer’s eye. Colonel Leavenworth’s saddle looks surprisingly modern compared with its contemporaries, though its basic elements are the same.
The largest visible expanse of leather on the saddle is the mochila, a cover made of two big pieces sewn together with rawhide and equipped with openings to fit over the horn and cantle. The mochila, common to both Mexican and American saddles, was usually intended to provide extra comfort for the rider; the shape of this one derives from that of a shabrack, the blue cloth cover characteristic of European military dress saddles.
While the floral designs hand-tooled into the leather and the chasing in the silver rim of the cantle are similar to those of the saddle’s Mexican progenitors, the mochila’s decoration is uniquely American: images of George Washington framed by eagles as well as cannon and a silver monogram—a “2” and an “R” intertwined, indicating the 2d Regiment.
This saddle was said to be the most expensive and beautiful in the United States at the time. It cost $350—compared with an average of $40 for a decent working saddle. The gold and silver ornamentation alone accounted for $180 of the price.
Of course, Gallatin made many less expensive saddles, including one for the young Theodore Roosevelt. Gallatin continued to improve his designs, and by the time he eased himself out of the day-to-day business in the mid-1870s, he had built an unassailable reputation as one of the leading saddlers of his day.
Today one of Gallatin’s presentation saddles could easily fetch between five and ten thousand dollars. The Leavenworth saddle has never been appraised, but since it is recognized by collectors as the pre-eminent piece of its type, it could possibly bring in well above twenty thousand dollars.
Gallatin might be pleased if he could know that museum visitors still admire his artistry, but he would be at least as happy that after nearly 130 years you could put his saddle on a horse and ride off—comfortably—into the sunset.