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 19th-century 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 Hernán Córtés 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 United 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 permanent 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 United States. At the onset of armed clashes between the two cultures, another difference was what the U.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 United 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. Unfortunately 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 United 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 U.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 Utah 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 U.S. Army was not expecting it and suffered accordingly. Finally, he was successful 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 mid-winter, 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 U.S. Army simply referred to it as the Fetterman Massacre.The leader of the U.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 U.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 U.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.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.