Working horses of the West
As the United States expanded during the 19th century, presidents, cowboys, mountain men and Native Americans alike rode horseback.
As the United States expanded during the 19th century, presidents, cowboys, mountain men and Native Americans alike rode horseback.
The first great westward migration from the newly minted United States of America occurred between the Revolutionary War at the end of the 18th century and the Civil War in the middle of the 19th. People who came over the Appalachian Mountains brought thousands of horses into country where horses had not lived since their extinction in North America 10,000 years ago. In the last several installments of this series, we have studied in detail how horses that escaped or were set loose became landraces---populations of domestic horses having distinctive conformation and way of going, which are traditionally bred by rural people, and which exist both as farm-kept animals and often also as feral herds.
Two landraces developed east of the Mississippi: a more northern population which can be called the Morgan landrace, and a more southern population which is called the Mountain Horse. From the Morgan landrace during the 1880s Joseph Battell chose about 400 animals to found his Morgan horse registry, which is the origin of the Morgan horse breed as a formal entity.
Beginning in the late 1950s, from the Mountain Horse landrace a number of breeders in mid-South states likewise chose “foundational” individuals, in this case to suit the particular purposes of a half-dozen breeds including the Rocky Mountain, Mountain Pleasure, Missouri Fox Trotter, Kentucky Saddler, Racking Horse and Spotted Saddle Horse. The roots of the much larger American Saddlebred and American Quarter Horse breeds also lie in the Mountain Horse population. Exactly as with the Morgan, the animals themselves existed for more than a century, but registries were not established until much later. Only when there is a registry can we begin speaking of a given type of horse as a “breed.”
The second great American expansion, which began in earnest in the decades leading up to the Civil War, carried pioneers and settlers across the Mississippi. When the pioneers arrived on the plains, one of the first things they bumped into was the Colonial Spanish horse---the Mustang---an equine landrace already well established, one that developed from Spanish exploration and conquest. But the
pioneers themselves would soon help in establishing another equine population, which we will call the Plains Cayuse Landrace. The term “Cayuse” originally pertained to a type found in Washington and Oregon, but I use the term in its extended sense here, to mean “Indian ponies” and “horses with mixed Spanish ancestry.” They are the horses who deserve primary credit for helping explorers, mountain men and cowboys to “win the West.”
COW SENSE FROM SPANISH ANCESTRY
The Plains Cayuse is the last major “ingredient” in the formation of the American Quarter Horse, which is famous not only for “short” speed but cow sense---a talent that comes primarily from its Spanish ancestry.
The 19th century Quarter Running Horse, sometimes called the Colonial Quarter Running Horse or Celebrated Quarter Running Horse, was originally a specialty type selected for speed and bred by men interested in making a bit of side money through match racing. In our last installment we had some fun tracking the adventures of the Alsup clan, who made Quarter Running Horses big business in Missouri from about 1860 to 1880 and who were instrumental in establishing the Billy, Cold Deck and Rondo strains, which later were recognized as foundational bloodlines for the American Quarter Horse breed. The Civil War, in which several of the Alsup men served as officers on the Union side, set the stage for the next great migration westward. Wagon trains followed two main routes, the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.
The way this phase of American history is often presented can make it seem like the pioneers were moving
into a void---a vast sea of grass inhabited only by herds of buffalo and pronghorn antelope, plus some scattered Native American tribes. In reality, the Spanish had explored and occupied parts of western North America for over a century before either the English or French arrived to occupy any territory east of it. Americans who migrated across the Mississippi encountered not only numerous Indian tribes---some of whom were recent immigrants to that area themselves---but also Spanish Mexicans who styled themselves Tejanos (in territory that would later become Texas, Arizona or New Mexico) or Californios (in Baja and Alta California). Until the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, most of the land that now comprises California and the southwest region of the United States belonged to Spain and was governed from Mexico City. Thus before we can go any further in tracing the history of the Quarter Horse, we must take a look at the horsemounted history of Spanish conquest and colonization in Old Mexico.
HORSES OF THE MEXICAN CONQUEST
Hernan Cortés, by profession a lawyer---a sly and ambitious man who could look anyone straight in the eye and lie to him---set out from Cuba to the conquest of Mexico in February 1519 with 11 ships, 608 Spanish soldiers and sailors, 10 African slaves and 16 horses. They landed at the bay of Cozumél, an island off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. There they pushed their horses overboard and swam ashore with them. Over and over again, horses would prove to be the Spaniards’ most effective weapon, a rallying point both symbolic and actual. Of the 16 mounts which came with Cortés’ armada, a detailed and fascinating description has
been provided by eyewitness Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortés’ cavalry captains, in his Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España (the Spanish called Mexico “New Spain”). “I wish to place here as a memorial,” said the soldier-historian, “a list of all the stallions and mares that sailed, for after God … we owed the victory to our horses.”
Diaz goes on to describe in detail the colors and capabilities of the “first sixteen.” He also records how and where most of the horses fell. The majority died in battle, their bodies chopped up by the natives so that parts could be sent to villages far and wide to prove that the power of horse and rider was not supernatural and could be overcome. It did not take long for the Aztecs to realize that the invading “centaurs”---ferocious monsters or supernatural warriors---that they saw charging up the beach were really men on horseback, and that the horses were only animals just as vulnerable as their own dogs. They soon learned to focus their attacks on them.
There is no space here to record the many battles that precipitated the eventual overthrow of the Aztec ruling elite and the capture of Mexico City by Cortés’ forces, but only one year later, thanks to almost continuous fighting, only two of the 16 horses that originally came to Mexico remained, and even they came to their end within the next year. None of the original 16 thus became part of the founder population of Mexican horses.
In 1520 Cortés appealed for reinforcements, sending four ships back to Hispaniola, which returned loaded with 40 horses. Still other ships arrived so that by 1521 Cortés had 86 mounts at his disposal. In 1523, he captured a fleet belonging to his rival Francisco de Garáy and garnered his entire troop of 144 Jamaican-breds. In that year for the first time, importation began to be significantly augmented by breeding. Less than a decade later, there were so many horses in the countryside around Mexico City that the Royal Audience ruled that residents who had two horses could sell one, although always stipulating that it could not be to hostile tribesmen and it could not be a mare. As a result, the Chichimecs of Michoacán became the first Mexican tribe of record to use horses---as pack animals.
FERAL HERDS GO NORTH FROM MEXICO AND SANTA FE
By the 1540s, Mexico had become a land of good horses, and Mexican Indians of many tribes had learned to ride, hunt and fight from horseback. Mexican governor Luís de Velasco gave horses to tribal leaders who fought as allies of the Spaniards against tribes still resisting takeover. “All the chiefs,” recorded Bernal Diaz, “have horses and they are rich; their horses wear trappings with good saddles … and in some cities, they even ‘play the cane game’ [similar to a rough version of ‘capture the flag’] and run bulls or run at the rings … and many of them are horsemen [capable of breaking and training youngstock and making a finished horse], and those chiefs are all the more likely to have horses and also some herds of mares and mules.”
By the 1540s Mexico had entered the era of the encomienda, in which natives who had survived the wars and the plagues of smallpox that followed were enslaved to Spanish overlords officially concerned with their spiritual wellbeing but actually eager to squeeze the last ounce of work out of each and every one of them. Thus it is not surprising
that many native Mexicans leaped at the chance to become vaqueros---the Spanish word for cowboys---whose life of roaming the open range provided at least a semblance of freedom and dignity. Contact between vaqueros in the employ of Spanish overlords and their free-living relatives rapidly spread horsemanship knowledge among native tribes. Along with the herds of Mexican horses expanded even greater herds of Mexican cattle. Before Cortés’ death, all the land within 500 miles of Mexico City had been divided up, hidalgos taking control of large tracts and stocking them with cattle, horses and native and African slaves (the Spanish word “hidalgo” is a compound of hijo and alguién and means “the son of a Somebody,” i.e., an important person). Out of central Mexico, in a great wave spreading ever northward, came “wild” cattle and “wild” horses, which quickly populated Texas and the American southwest. Their name, “Mustang,” comes from mesteño, the Spanish word for “unbranded.”
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish continued to push northward from Mexico. In 1540, the dashing Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, then only 28 years old, received King Charles V’s commission for Cíbola (roughly, the area that is now the American Southwest). The main impetus for this expedition, as for many others in the New World, was a quest for gold; tales had been circulating of the glittering city of El Dorado lying somewhere in the unexplored north. According to historian Herbert Bolton, Coronado’s sendoff from Mexico “was
the most brilliant review yet held in New Spain. Most of the cavaliers were astride the best horses from the stock farms, and had equipped them with colored blankets trailing almost to the ground, besides leather armor and silver-mounted harnesses. Their own mail was polished like woven silver, and the tips of their lances, held erect, flickered in the sun like sparks of fire … at royal expense the expedition was equipped with pack-mules, cannon, and a thousand horses. For food on the way and to stock the new country there were droves of cattle and sheep, goats, and swine. Leading all this splendor, and dulling it by his own brighter glory, rode Coronado in golden armor.”
To the almost infinite disappointment of the young commander, his arrival several months later at the Zuni pueblos in Arizona revealed to him that the “seven cities of Cíbola” were built of adobe, not gold, and filled with agriculturalists, not miners. The Zunis found the Spaniards to be very bad guests who were not above plunder, torture, murder and rape. Desperate to lure the Spaniards away from the pueblos, tribal elders secretly enlisted the aid of one of their own slaves---a Plains Indian who had been born in what is now Kansas. This man, Xabe, whom the Spaniards called “The Turk,” regaled Coronado with tales of another city of gold---Quivira.
At this juncture, Coronado was just as eager to be gone as the Zunis were to have him go, so in April of 1541 Coronado set out with renewed ambition to cross the buffalo plains. He forded the Pecos and encountered the Comanche, who told him that Quivira lay farther north and east. A month later, Coronado crossed the Arkansas River into Kansas. At Great Bend he found a large encampment of Wichitas,
but there was not an ounce of precious metal among them. In a last desperate reconnoiter, Coronado then sent out parties of two and three who went southwest to El Paso, eastward as far as present-day Kansas City, and may also have explored northward as far as the upper Missouri.
At all times during Coronado’s long but futile quest his horses proved to be a prime necessity, always picketed near the wary soldiers’ billet, never permitted to stray. Except for those who died from battle injuries or exhaustion, all were in continuous service. “None of this,” historian Ángel Cabrera notes, “excludes the possibility that one horse could have strayed, or could have been abandoned because of sickness, injury or lameness; but it is not likely that an animal in this condition could survive in a country where wolves, bears, and cougars abounded and where the native was a consummate hunter---not to mention the fact that in order to give rise to descendants, a stallion and a mare, or a mare and her colt foal, would have to have been lost at precisely the same time---and both survive.” Historian Francis Haines has likewise noted that
if a number of horses had gotten loose from the Coronado expedition sufficient to found Mustang herds, it is strange that the fact was never mentioned by Spanish chroniclers. On the contrary, when 40 years after Coronado’s retreat Antonio Espejo trekked northward to explore New Mexico, he observed that the Plains tribes had only as much knowledge of horses as hearsay could
supply, for they had never seen one.
Coronado’s horses are thus not the founder population of the American Mustang. Neither do Mustangs descend from horses abandoned by the expeditions of Pánfilo de Narvãez or Cabeza de Vaca (1528-1537), nor from those abandoned by Hernando de Soto or Luís de Moscoso (1539-1543). Rather, the beginning of Mustang herds in what is now the United States dates to the colonization of Santa Fe led by Juan de Oñate in 1598. Oñate initially brought 25 stallions, 55 mares and some foals northward; later royal grants provided him with 7,000 head of cattle and 800 horses. Unlike Coronado’s very carefully guarded mounts, Oñate’s expedition lost many horses either because of the fenceless herding typical of the Spanish style of stock-keeping or because they traded horses to tribesmen for food, women or other goods. In 1600 Oñate rode northward from Santa Fe on his own quest for Quivira, and on this expedition his men carelessly lost dozens of horses in the buffalo grass.
The result of this multiple “seeding” of the Plains was a horse population explosion of unprecedented proportions. With the heartland of the continent before them, the Mustangs burgeoned to fill a range extending from New Mexico and Texas to the Mississippi in the east and the Rocky Mountains in the west. Ultimately the wave reached northward far into Canada. The grass remembered them; even though their hoofbeats had been absent from the Plains for 10,000 years, the species Equus caballus had once been an important and indigenous part of the North American fauna, and the species re-occupied its ecological niche as if it had never been absent.
The last Mustang expansion brought them into Alta California, a country that colonists from Mexico initially found difficult to reach either by sea or by land. Numerous early expeditions by sea were wrecked because of the seasonal storms that make California beaches famous for high surf, and overland expeditions suffered because of hostile natives, harsh conditions and lack of waterholes.
Finally, in 1687, Fray Eusébio Francisco Kino established cattle raising among the Pimas and Yumas in the Gila River region of Arizona. Thanks to Father Kino who pointed the way, from Arizona the Spanish were finally able to penetrate across mountain and desert to California. An expedition led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá, accompanied by Friar Junípero Serra, reached the San Diego area in 1769 and Mission San Diego became the first horse and cattle-raising center in Alta California.
By 1823 a chain of missions had been founded as far north as San Francisco and Sonoma, each of which trained Indian converts to become vaqueros. Missions were generally well managed with minimal escapes of livestock, but after secularization, which began in 1826, no one remained to oversee the livestock, and the Mustang population in California expanded until there were great herds roaming the hilly country of the Coast Range as far north as Monterey and also in the cool, dry uplands north of the Sacramento River.
THE PLAINS CAYUSE: A BLEND OF EAST AND WEST
In 1821, Louisiana resident Moses Austin received from the Spanish Crown the title of Empresario to the territory of Téjas. Empresario means the same in Spanish as in English: a conductor or leader---in this case, a title granted to Americans willing to lead a wagon train of settlers and their livestock to Téjas in order to found a colony. The Spanish government encouraged foreign immigration because for decades hostile Comanches and other tribesmen had beaten back almost all attempts to colonize Téjas from Mexico. Moses Austin died before he could carry out his plan of colonization; the project was then enthusiastically taken up by his son Stephen. However, the War of Mexican Independence blocked his efforts until 1825, when Austin persuaded the government of newlyindependent Mexico to recognize his father’s title and grant of land and to welcome an initial group of 300 settlers to the area near present-day Houston.
Austin’s contemporary, Sam Houston, migrated to Téjas not as a colonist but because he was in trouble with the law. In 1822 he had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the State of Tennessee. He became governor in 1827. On a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1830, he became involved in a physical altercation with a political enemy, Congressman William Stanbery of Ohio, nearly beating the man to death with a hickory cane. In 1832 he was brought to trial, convicted and fined, but fled to Téjas. There he immediately became involved in politics and, as the Texas Revolution began to heat up, in 1835 was elected Major General of the Texas Army.
In 1836 Houston was selected as Commander in Chief at the Convention to Declare Texas Independence, and he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2nd of that year, his 43rd birthday. Four days later, after a 13-day siege, Mexican troops slaughtered Jim Bowie and other Texas independents at the Alamo in San Antonio, and in the same week they summarily executed a troop of 400
others who had surrendered. Houston’s ill-equipped and ill-supplied militia was likewise initially forced to retreat before the superior forces of Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna, but when reinforcements arrived, Houston turned the tables on Santa Anna and in a surprise attack defeated the Mexican army on April 21. The Treaty of Velasco, signed May 14, 1836, established Texas as an independent country.
Elected first President of the Republic of Texas, Houston is responsible for bringing the Sir Archy son Copperbottom (1828) across the Mississippi along with much other quality livestock. Austin likewise encouraged American immigrants to bring good livestock. It was not long before thousands of people began to arrive with horses, cattle and slaves, for Eastern Texas offered rich bottomlands suitable for cotton plantations, while the more upland terrains of the central and western parts of the state were ideally suited for cattle ranching. In 1845, Texas was annexed by the United States, becoming the 28th state.
The foundational Quarter Horses Steel Dust and Shiloh were both born within one year of Texas statehood--Steel Dust in Kentucky and Shiloh in Tennessee---but they had hardly been weaned before being purchased and taken to the Dallas area. It was during the early phase of Texas statehood, in the late spring of 1861, that Missouri Quarter Running Horse breeder Lock Alsup rode the mare Dolly Coker on a fateful business trip to Dallas, from which came the Cold Deck foundational Quarter Horse bloodline (see “The Stuff of Legend,” EQUUS 491).
Besides the Alsups there are very few other breeders who were specifically involved with Quarter Running Horses in Texas at this early date: Alfred Bailes (Bailes Brown Dick and Flying Dutchman), Frank Lilly (the broodmare Paisana), William “Billy” Fleming (who owned Old Billy and who bred many other “Billys,” including Anthony, Billy Dibrell, Alex Gardner, Little John Moore, and McCoy’s Billy), Jones Greene and Middleton Perry (Steel Dust) and Jack Batchler (Shiloh).
All of these men were ranchers as well as racehorse hobbyists, but there were many other settlers not involved in racing who needed tough horses who could handle the arid conditions, hard soils and long miles of “ridin’ fence” that ranching in Texas entails. The Allen Ranch, part of Stephen Austin’s original colony, was founded in 1844 and was followed by the establishment in different parts of Texas of the Paisano, SMS, Cíbolo Creek, Waggoner and Cotulla Ranches---all before Cold Deck was foaled. These big ranches, each comprising thousands of acres, were themselves somewhat exceptional because most Texas families worked much more modest holdings. Nonetheless even the smaller outfits were raising cattle, and all employed cowboys. Working ranches typically maintained a string or remuda of “usin’ horses” that the cowboys rode while performing their everyday work.
Ranch horses of this era were not Quarter Running Horses; they were not specially bred for racing, and most carried a high percentage of Spanish blood, which shows in their conformation. Austin’s people and other Texans quickly came to recognize the value of the Mexican-bred and Mustang-related horses of Spanish extraction that they observed Mexican and Tejano vaqueros using. Veterinary geneticist Phil Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, has devoted a lifetime to profiling, documenting and educating the public about the Colonial Spanish Horse, the landrace to which the horses of the Conquest---of Old Mexico, of Santa Fe, and of all modern Mustang herds---belong.
There were many Mustang-hunters throughout Mexican Téjas and the Southwest, and the vaquero---or the Indian brave---who had the skill to capture and tame them was held in high esteem. White settlers from Austin’s time onward took Colonial Spanish horses and crossed them with those that they had brought from East of the Mississippi, and in this way created a purple zone of mixture along the pioneer road connecting the Houston area eastward to Natchez, Mississippi.
Note that a much larger Plains purple zone had existed north and west of St. Louis from at least 1790; this was the result of American and FrenchCanadian explorers and pioneers pushing westward across Canada and up the Missouri River to the Columbia. Their Eastern-bred horses--- Old Canadians and American-breds of both the Morgan and the Mountain Horse landraces---crossed with Mustangs to produce the Plains Cayuse, a mixed type larger and heavier than Spanish horses, but tougher and hardier than the Eastern-breds.
CATTLE DRIVE CAYUSES
By 1870, American emigration across the Mississippi was in full swing. The last spike had been driven in 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, linking the Union Pacific and Central Pacific grades to create the first transcontinental railroad in North America. Already by the mid1840s cattle were being driven northward along the Shawnee Trail from San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth. Between 1865 and 1890, cowboys took droves of “dogies” northward to railway stops in towns like Dodge City, Ellsworth and Abilene, where the cattle were loaded into boxcars and shipped to slaughterhouses in Kansas City, St. Louis or Chicago.
Big Texas ranches, including the Spade, the Pitchfork, the XIT, the TaylorStevenson, the Matador, the Frijole and the enormous King Ranch were founded in this era. They produced thousands of head of longhorns as well as Herefords and Shorthorns for consumption in the East.
The horses who helped ranch owners and cowboys to do the work of herding, branding, driving and