Cross Coun­try with Jim Wof­ford

… in which Jim highlights some of the ways horses were cen­tral to all sides dur­ing the U.S. up­heavals of the 19th cen­tury.

Practical Horseman - - CONTENTS -

Jim highlights some of the roles horses filled dur­ing the U.S. up­heavals of the 19th cen­tury.

In my last col­umn, I talked about the role in his­tory of the Mon­go­lian horse, which en­abled Genghis Khan and his Mon­gol hordes to sub­ju­gate most of Cen­tral Asia. Sev­eral hun­dred years later, and sev­eral thou­sand miles to the west of the Mon­gol Em­pire, two new horse-pow­ered em­pires were grow­ing on the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent. The older and more loosely or­ga­nized of the two was the Na­tive Amer­i­can pres­ence (some­times re­ferred to as Plains In­di­ans) in the Mid­west and West.

A Cul­ture Changed by Horses

Sev­eral hun­dred years be­fore the 19th­cen­tury pe­riod we are ex­am­in­ing, the Plains In­di­ans’ lives had been trans­formed by ac­cess to horses. Euro­pean ex­plor­ers had ar­rived with their horses on the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent in the late 1400s. By 1525 Span­ish ex­plorer Hern‡n C—rtŽs was breed­ing these Iberian horses, along with other breeds, in Mex­ico. Some an­i­mals es­caped, and by one es­ti­mate there were 10,000 wild horses in Mex­ico by 1550. Slightly larger than Mon­gol horses, they av­er­aged 14 hands and 700–800 pounds, with deep chests and finely de­vel­oped heads. They shared the tough con­sti­tu­tions of their com­pa­tri­ots from the Gobi Desert. Feral herds of these equine im­mi­grants stretched through­out the lower East Coast and spread into the west and south­west por­tions of what would be­come the •nited States. (These feral horses came to be called mus­tangs, a deriva­tion of the Span­ish mustengo, which means “own­er­less beast” or

“stray horse.”)

Lit­tle is known about the process by which var­i­ous Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes do­mes­ti­cated feral horses, but as a re­sult of this ad­vance they were able to travel great dis­tances rapidly, as op­posed to the slow march on foot that had been their sole op­tion be­fore the ar­rival of the horse. They now en­tered the phase of their cul­ture with which we are most fa­mil­iar: nu­mer­ous war-like no­madic tribes fol­low­ing the buffalo herds for their main sus­te­nance, mov­ing their tents fre­quently to pro­vide suf­fi­cient graz­ing for their horses. These tribes were highly pa­tri­ar­chal. Women did the back­break­ing work around the camp while the men spent their time ei­ther hunt­ing, pre­par­ing for a raid on a neigh­bor­ing tribe or rest­ing up from their last raid.

When Cul­tures Clash

While the later Hat­field and McCoy Feud would have noth­ing on the re­la­tions be­tween neigh­bor­ing tribes, their life­style was based on raids rather than perma- nent war. This was only one of many dif­fer­ences that would de­ter­mine the out­come of their im­pend­ing col­li­sion with the newer em­pire en­croach­ing on their lands—the •nited States. At the on­set of armed clashes be­tween the two cul­tures, an­other dif­fer­ence was what the •.S. forces de­scribed as the ab­so­lute bar­bar­ity (mu­ti­la­tion and tor­ture) prac­ticed by Na­tive Amer­i­can war­riors.

Al­though later cul­tures would dis­par­age Na­tive Amer­i­can war prac­tices, some el­e­ments of their world­view are wor­thy of em­u­la­tion. For ex­am­ple, they lived with­out a sense of own­er­ship of the land and en­vi­ron­ment they oc­cu­pied. Their cre­ation myths in­evitably re­ferred to their re­spon­si­bil­ity to their creators for the bounty of the land. The Navaho con­cept of hozho, or liv­ing at peace with na­ture, has done much to rec­om­mend it. An­other in­ter­est­ing cul­tural fea­ture was some tribes’ at­ti­tude to­ward un­usual phys­i­cal con­di­tions. I’ll shortly dis­cuss how one fa­mous war chief kept a medicine man as an ad­vi­sor. A her­maph­ro­dite, this medicine man was sup­pos­edly gifted with spir­i­tual pow­ers and played a key part in his­tory.

Speak­ing of his­tory, the •nited States was barely 75 years old as a na­tion when in the mid-19th cen­tury it faced many of the same prob­lems of gov­er­nance and com­mu­ni­ca­tion as con­fronted Genghis Khan—and at­tempted some of the same so­lu­tions. As it hap­pened, this ex­pan­sion brought it into di­rect con­flict with the horse-based cul­ture we’ve been dis­cussing, and I will get to that in a minute.

Some Needs of Em­pires Don’t Change

Genghis Khan men­tioned that it is one thing to cre­ate an em­pire, but an­other thing to con­trol it. When Pres­i­dent Wil­liam Henry Har­ri­son died in 1841, it took al­most four months for news of his demise to reach the West Coast. This time lag in com­mu­ni­ca­tion was an

ob­vi­ous prob­lem for a fast-grow­ing em­pire. One at­tempted so­lu­tion was so au­da­cious that it still cap­tures our imag­i­na­tion and war­rants a closer ex­am­i­na­tion than its brief ex­is­tence might seem to jus­tify. In 1860, Cal­i­for­nia news­pa­pers sup­pos­edly car­ried the fol­low­ing ad­ver­tise­ment: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fel­lows. Not over 18. Must be ex­pert rid­ers. Will­ing to risk death daily. Or­phans pre­ferred.” The Pony Ex­press was look­ing for rid­ers to carry mail back and forth from St. Joseph, Mis­souri, to Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia.

When it comes to the Pony Ex­press, it is dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate truth from fiction. What lit­tle is es­tab­lished fact is hair-rais­ing enough. A few things we know for sure: Cre­ated in 1860, the ser­vice op­er­ated for a very short time, was de­pen­dent on the young or­phans men­tioned above and, of course, in­cluded horses. Many other “facts” about it that have come down through his­tory are apoc­ryphal, be­gin­ning with the ad­ver­tise­ment cited above. No record ex­ists of the orig­i­nal in any news­pa­per of the pe­riod. How­ever, when it comes to his­tor­i­cal facts about horses, my at­ti­tude is al­ways “if it didn’t hap­pen that way, it should have.”

Tough Men, Tougher Horses

Three part­ners—Wil­liam Rus­sell, Alexan­der Ma­jors and Wil­liam Wad­dell— founded the Pony Ex­press (of­fi­cially called the Cen­tral Over­land Cal­i­for­nia and Pikes Peak Ex­press Com­pany), which promised to de­liver mail within days rather than months. Pony Ex­press let­ters typ­i­cally took 10 days to cover the 1,966 miles from St. Joseph to Sacra­mento. The record delivery time was seven days and 17 hours. Ob­vi­ously, the Pony Ex­press needed a large in­fra­struc­ture. As orig­i­nally char­tered, the com­pany was to be com­prised of 120 rid­ers, 184 sta­tions, hun­dreds of sup­port staff … and 400 horses.

The types of horses avail­able for pur­chase in the early 1860s var­ied from eas­ily avail­able Thor­ough­breds and Mor­gans in the east­ern states to mus­tangs in the West; they were more suited to the dif­fi­cult, semi-arid con­di­tions along the western reaches of the in­tended route.

As­sem­bling 400 horses would have taken some do­ing in 1860, not to men­tion find­ing 120 young men who were will­ing to get on some­thing with no mouth, no manners and (no mat­ter how tough and fear­less those par­tic­u­lar men might be) no in­cli­na­tion to sub­mit to mankind. It takes a while to do­mes­ti­cate a mus­tang. One his­to­rian of the pe­riod es­ti­mates that putting the first pair of shoes on one mus­tang would take three men half a day.

These horses had to be “bucked out” ev­ery morn­ing, a process that was re­peated ev­ery day for ev­ery horse and ev­ery time a rider stepped up into the sad­dle on a new mount. Each rider was ex­pected to cover about 100 miles per day, chang­ing horses an av­er­age of ev­ery 15 miles. I am sure that young, tough or­phans were drawn to the chal­lenge of rid­ing at speed ev­ery day, but their gen­er­ous pay scale must have helped: In a time when un­skilled la­bor­ers were for­tu­nate to be paid $30 per month, these young or­phans were getting $100 a month.

Their daily sched­ule would have been enough to turn most young men to strong wa­ters and even stronger lan­guage. How­ever, one of the part­ners, Alexan­der Ma­jors, was a deeply re­li­gious man. He re­quired each rider to sign a tem­per­ance oath: “I, ..., do hereby swear, be­fore the Great and Liv­ing God, that dur­ing my en­gage­ment, and while I am an em­ployee of Rus­sell, Ma­jors, and Wad­dell, I will, un­der no cir­cum­stances, use pro­fane lan­guage, that I will drink no in­tox­i­cat­ing liquor.”

There was more, but you get the idea. How­ever, know­ing first­hand what fear­less, young, wiry, tough, ex­pert rid­ers are like, I can as­sure you a lot of fin­gers were crossed be­hind a lot of backs be­fore this pledge was signed. Rid­ers car­ried a sad­dle­bag full of mail called a mochila (from the Span­ish for back­pack or pouch). You could bet the farm that most of those mochi­las would have also con­tained a flask of “snakebite medicine” in case of snakebite, and an en­ter­pris­ing young cow­boy would pack a small snake as well.

Decades of Up­heaval

The Pony Ex­press, for all its place in his­tory and fa­ble, lasted only a few short months. Part of the rea­son is tech­no­log­i­cal (and tech­nol­ogy will play an ever-in­creas­ing role in our story). The transcon­ti­nen­tal tele­graph was com­pleted on Oc­to­ber 24, 1861. The Pony Ex­press of­fi­cially ceased op­er­a­tions two days later. The ad­van­tages of the tele­graph were read­ily ap­par­ent. It took 111 days for news of Pres­i­dent Har­ri­son’s death to reach Los An­ge­les, but news of Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln’s re­elec­tion two decades later in 1864 reached Los An­ge­les nearly in­stan­ta­neously.

The birth of the tele­graph was one death knell for the Pony Ex­press, but there was an­other. Rid­ers were in­structed that the mochila was to be guarded with their lives. •nfor­tu­nately for many young or­phans, this was taken lit­er­ally. En­ter an­other rea­son for the speedy demise of the Pony Ex­press: the mounted Na­tive Amer­i­can war­rior.

The dis­cov­ery of gold in Cal­i­for­nia in 1848 brought an in­flux of prospec­tive min­ers from the east­ern •nited States across the mid­dle of the con­ti­nent. Lit­tle did they con­sider that they were cross­ing an em­pire ruled by Na­tive Amer­i­cans who were now be­ing in­vaded by the new­com­ers. Both em­pires were to be dras­ti­cally af­fected by this clash of cul­tures. Mean­while, in 1860 the •.S. was about to un­dergo an enor­mous con­vul­sion. The Amer­i­can

Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 and cost the lives of lit­er­ally count­less men. (I say “count­less” be­cause ev­ery new es­ti­mate of ca­su­al­ties I read has been re­vised up­wards; a re­cent es­ti­mate is more than 700,000.) In ad­di­tion, the Civil War killed more than 2 mil­lion horses and mules. Dur­ing these years, the Plains tribes of Na­tive Amer­i­cans were awak­en­ing to the re­al­iza­tion that their lands, their cul­ture and, in­deed, their very ex­is­tence were threat­ened.

That’s why an even more im­me­di­ate threat to the Pony Ex­press than the tele­graph was the grow­ing hos­til­ity of Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes to the Ex­press rid­ers. On May 14, 1860, Ex­press rider Robert (Pony Bob) Haslam was rid­ing for his life, pur­sued by Paiute braves. The Paiute War had bro­ken out in the •tah ter­ri­tory (now within present day Ne­vada), and that day Pony Bob com­pleted one of the long­est and most dan­ger­ous rides in his­tory. In 36 hours, chang­ing horses at the var­i­ous sta­tions along the route, he cov­ered 380 miles. He crossed the Sierra Ne­vada twice, over some of the most des­o­late ter­rain known to man, filled with hos­tile war­riors. For­tu­nately for Pony Bob, the Pi­utes were not yet ca­pa­ble of co­or­di­nated mounted war­fare and he es­caped. How­ever, this would change when a Sioux chief­tain named Red Cloud ap­peared on the scene, and Red Cloud’s War broke out.

The War­rior’s Legacy

Born in 1822, Red Cloud had at­tained promi­nence among Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes by the 1860s in the only way pos­si­ble: per­sonal brav­ery in com­bat. (He would live out his nat­u­ral life, dy­ing in 1909 … an un­usual out­come for a vi­o­lent war chief.) Red Cloud was an ex­pert prac­ti­tioner of war­fare, hav­ing par­tic­i­pated in raids through­out his life. Much of a Plains In­dian’s time was spent stealing horses from other tribes. A quick di­gres­sion: My fa­ther once wryly re­marked that if any fam­ily looked back far enough, there would be a horse thief hang­ing from their fam­ily tree. Horse thiev­ery ex­plains how, dur­ing World War II, Joseph Medicine Bird be­came the last war chief of the Crow tribe. He wore his war paint un­der his uni­form, two red stripes on his arms and a sa­cred yel­low painted ea­gle feather un­der his hel­met. He at­tained the sta­tus of war chief by ful­fill­ing all four re­quire­ments of the Crow tribe: He counted coup (more on this be­low), he took an en­emy’s weapon, he led a suc­cess­ful war party … and, per­haps most fas­ci­nat­ing, in 1945 he stole horses from some Ger­man of­fi­cers try­ing to es­cape on horse­back who had un­wisely camped for the night, think­ing them­selves safe. Joseph re­ported that he sang his war song as he rode away that night.

Such was Red Cloud’s per­sonal brav­ery and skill as a war­rior that he is re­ported to have counted coup 80 times. To count coup, an un­armed brave had to touch an en­emy war­rior yet leave him un­harmed. This brav­ery led to his el­e­vated sta­tus among the Sioux tribes, but his im­por­tance to our story is that, like Genghis Khan be­fore him, Red Cloud was able to unite not just his lo­cal neigh­bors but his­tor­i­cal en­e­mies such as the Crow, Ara­paho and Cheyenne as well. In ad­di­tion, he was will­ing to wage war through­out the year, not just dur­ing the sum­mer. This was revo­lu­tion­ary; the •.S. Army was not ex­pect­ing it and suf­fered ac­cord­ingly. Fi­nally, he was suc- cess­ful be­cause he con­vinced his braves to co­or­di­nate their ef­forts rather than seek only per­sonal glory. The cli­mac­tic bat­tle of Red Cloud’s War oc­curred in mid­win­ter, De­cem­ber 21, 1866, near Fort Phil Kear­ney in present-day Wy­oming.

Red Cloud and his al­most 1,000 war­riors called this bat­tle the Bat­tle of the Hun­dred-in-the-Hands. Be­fore the bat­tle, Red Cloud asked a her­maph­ro­dite and revered medicine man to ride the bat­tle­field. Af­ter rid­ing the length of the bat­tle­field four times, the medicine man re­turned and said his vi­sion was of gath­er­ing a hun­dred sol­diers in each hand, thus the name of the bat­tle. The •.S. Army sim­ply re­ferred to it as the Fet­ter­man Mas­sacre. The leader of the •.S. con­tin­gent, Capt. Wil­liam Fet­ter­man, had bragged, “With 80 men I could ride through the en­tire Sioux na­tion.”

Gal­lop­ing braves, hid­ing un­der their horses’ necks and us­ing their bows and ar­rows much as the Mon­gols had hun­dreds of years be­fore them, sur­rounded the •.S. forces. Fet­ter­man had ex­actly 80 men with him that morn­ing, and all of them died. Two years later, in Novem­ber of 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie ended the war.

This was the end of Red Cloud’s War. But the treaty did not end the tur­moil (al­ways in­volv­ing horses) on the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent or our story. In my next col­umn, I will in­tro­duce you to •.S. Gen. Ge­orge Custer and the Sioux war chief Crazy Horse, men­tion the 10,000 Amer­i­can Mus­tangs who were graz­ing in the Lit­tle Bighorn val­ley on June 25, 1876, and tell you the poignant story of Lit­tle Hawk and his war pony on the morn­ing of the Bat­tle of the Bighorn.

Read “From Hoof­prints to Tire Treads,” the fi­nal in­stall­ment of Jim's se­ries on the roles of horses through­out his­tory, on­line at www.Prac­ti­calHorse

These horses had to be “bucked out” ev­ery morn­ing, a process that was re­peated ev­ery day for ev­ery horse.

Based at Fox Covert Farm, in Up­perville, Vir­ginia, Jim Wof­ford com­peted in three Olympics and two World Cham­pi­onships and won the U.S. Na­tional Cham­pi­onship five times. He is also a highly re­spected coach. For more on Jim, go to www.jim­wof­ford.

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