1650 Horses Stolen from Spanish 1 of 3

The Spanish offered many wonderful things that Native Americans found useful or beautiful — iron for tools, weapons, glass beads, mass produced pottery — but the most prized possession of many Indians was the horse.

Comanche on his horse
Comanche Meeting the Dragoons 1834-1835 by George Catlin.
Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.488

In ancient North America, horses had become extinct, probably during the Paleo-Indian period around 10,000 years ago. Early horse species were decimated by climatic changes and vanished completely from North America. Meanwhile across the sea, horses were becoming a fixture of many ancient civilizations, and were establishing their place in human history. Around 3,000 years ago, horses were domesticated in Europe for the first time and used for transportation of both humans and cargo. Five hundred years later, Persian officials began using mounted couriers to relay messages.

Soon after they discovered America, the Spanish reintroduced horses to the continent. The Spanish horses were from the finest strains and were regarded as the foremost breed in Europe. They were prized by plains Indians. Stallions and mares that escaped from the Spanish also formed the nucleus of the great herds of wild horses that spread upward from Mexico into the United States and the western Plains country. These herds of wild horses still exist.

Wild Horse Migration
Follow the migration of the wild horse.

Life on the Plains before horses returned was very different. The introduction of horses into plains native tribes revolutionized entire cultures. Some tribes abandoned a relatively sedentary life style to become horse nomads in less than a generation. Hunting became more important for most tribes as ranges were expanded. More frequent contact with distant tribes increased the likelihood of competition and warfare. Eventually, in most tribes a person’s wealth was measured in horses, and great honors came to those who could capture them from an enemy.

Before horses, dogs were the only pack animals on the plains. The harnesses and equipment originally designed for dogs were easily adapted to horses. Obviously, horses could carry much larger loads than a dog.

Horses reached Nebraska by the 1680s, and the upper Missouri by the 1750s. Much of the trade was between tribes — Apache groups took horse herds to Kansas and all the way to the Dakota, trading them for hides and other goods. The Spanish also participated in this trade in a major way. In Nebraska, two different fundamental economies evolved. Tribes in eastern Nebraska (Pawnee, Ponca, Omaha, and Oto) utilized the horse for extensive buffalo hunts, but did not abandon their older pattern of earth lodge villages and maize growing. The western part of the state became dominated by bison-hunting nomads, which are today pictured as the stereotypical Plains Indian. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, lived in skin tepees and roamed over most of western Nebraska. These tribes were relative newcomers to the Plains, having moved out of the Great Lakes region onto the Plains in the 1700s. Horses allowed them to expand their traditional nomadic lifestyle over the vast distances of the plains.

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