Indian horses before Columbus

We were sent a link to this article, which we introduce to you below. It comes from the MarcoPoloinSeattle.com website. There are many scholarly and scientific theories on the origin and evolution of horses in North America. Which one do you rely on?

Indian horse. Photo from IndianHorse.com.
PHOTO: INDIANHORSE.COM

According to most leading scholars in history, anthropology and geography, none of the Native Tribes had horses until after Columbus. “On the contrary,” say elders of the Plains Indian Tribes, “our ancestors always had horses.”

Indeed, the oldest surviving travel account of an overseas explorer in the American Southwest comes from the Afghani Buddhist Monk, Hui Shen. He sailed to the West Coast of Fu Sang during the 5th century AD. According to the monk, the Native People of Fu Sang (or ancient Mexico) had both horses and wagons. If we jump over to the East Coast, we find a similar account dating to the 13th century. According to Bjorn of Iceland, he fell overboard while landing his dory in the Atlantic surf. He was rescued by a party of Celtic Natives, or Welsh Colonists, “riding on horseback.”

Everywhere that explorers traveled along the Eastern Seaboard of North America during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they reported seeing Indians (or Welsh settlers) riding horses. When John Cabot landed along the East Coast in 1497, he reported seeing “the dung of draft animals” (such as horses and cattle). The Natives presumably kept their livestock “out of sight” due to quite reasonable fears that alien visitors who landed along their shores might take cattle for a festive evening meal. When Jacques Cartier explored the region of Quebec in 1535, his Native host informed him that there was a tribe in the Far West where the Indians rode on horses.

On the other hand, none of the Coastal Tribes in the Northeast that were known to French, English, and Dutch explorers in the 16th century raised horses or cattle. However, when Colonial Pioneers crossed the Appalachian Mountains on their way into Kentucky and Tennessee in the 17th century, they encountered Shawnee, Cherokee, and Chickasaw Tribes that had an exceptional breed of horses. Their smooth walking gait made them attractive for trade and theft. These smooth-gaited horses were called “Chickasaws.” Similar smooth-gaited horses in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida were called “Seminole ponies” or “prairie ponies.” One Colonial trader noted that the Eastern Forest Horse was “different” from European breeds. They were so-common along the Frontier that settlers said they were “pests,” because they wandered into farmyards and munched on garden vegetables.

The “horse situation” was much different in Mexico. When Hernando Cortés invaded the Aztec Nation in 1519, he brought along heavy Spanish horses to carry his armored cavalry. Native horses were nowhere to be seen. The lack of Native horses probably had several causes: the hot, dry climate of Mexico was unsuitable for either horses or their favorite habitat – grasslands. Another problem was an abundance of mosquitoes that carried malarial parasites as well as bacteria that causes the deadly disease of equine encephalitis. Mexicans gained most of their food from chinampas (or “floating gardens”) and from maize, squash, and bean agriculture. Laborers cultivated fields. Thus, horses were not essential for farming.

As the Spanish Conquistadores expanded their fighting into Central America, Peru, and Argentina, thousands of heavy horses were imported from Barcelona in order to supply the needs of armored cavalry. Spanish farmers established vast fields for the cultivation of wheat, barley, and oats. These were crops that relied upon cultivation by heavy draft animals. By the mid-16th century, ranches were established for cattle in order to meet the growing demand for beef as a principal part of the Spanish diet. It was at this point that light, ranching horses were imported into New Spain (or Mexico).

Spanish administrators realized that Natives could pose a threat of rebellion if they ever acquired horses. Thus, regulations in every hacienda and city forbade the sale of horses to the Indians. Nevertheless, Spanish caballeros required the assistance of Indian laborers whom they trained in the skills of vaqueros (or “cowboys”). Invariably, a few horses escaped; or they were stolen by enterprising Indians.

In 1680, Indians living in the New Mexico City of Oñate overwhelmed their Spanish overlords. Thousands of horses were released into the hands of Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo Indians. From this point onward, all of these marginal desert tribes maintained large herds of horses. Most of these mounts were light ranching horses of the Spanish-Arabian breed. Read full report >>

7 thoughts on “Indian horses before Columbus”

  1. Sorry, but this is hogwash. The archeological record shows that horses died out in North and South America WELL before Columbus found the Caribbean islands. In fact, the last horses in North American had developed as far as the genus Equus, but had still not yet become Equus caballus, which is the Latin name for the modern domesticated horse. Development from the horses that left North American and further evolved into Equus callabus occurred in Eurasia. A good reference on the development of the horse is The History of the Horse, Vol. 1, The Iberian Horse from Ice Age to Antiquity by Paulo Gaviao Gonzaga. This book is well researched and goes on to examine the development of the horse by the Spaniards to Columbus’ time–so readers can get a better idea of what the first horses to be brought back to North American were like–and hence the first horses used by the Indians. Now, it IS true that the ancestors of modern Indians (their preferred name) were around when horses were still on the North American continent. But Indians are thought to have used them only for food and perhaps for their skins and bones. They didn’t keep any domesticated animals at that time. In fact, it is thought that these Indian ancestors assisted the equines of the time to die out. At the time the last horses were dying off on the continent or going across the Bering Strait, a new ice age was quickly advancing and the horses’ habitat was fast dwindling. Horses were not able to subsist on the exposed portions of the land. Times were hard for the ancestors of the Indians too. Hunting of the remaining horses helped finish them off.

    Interestingly, most of the modern Indian people have a story about where their horses came from and, usually, the horses were given to them by their highest god or being to assist them to survive or as a reward. The fact is, Coronado was one of the first people to bring horses to what is now the United States when he trekked into Arizona and then over to New Mexico, settling in the area where Santa Fe is today. Because of conflicts primarily between the pueblo tribes of that area and the Jesuits and some of the Spanish who treated them very badly, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 occurred and the Spanish were driven out of the southwest for about 90 years. Many of the horses were left behind and were used by the Puebloans, who had no real interest in becoming horse societies, to trade for goods. That was how the horses began to spread throughout the U.S. The Shoshones were attributed as being avid horse traders, as were the Mandans, who also didn’t become a horse society.

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  2. I really don’t believe it unless I see the archaeological proof of it. Of course these tribes want to claim their ancestors had horses since I have heard Native Americans say the one good thing the Europeans brought was the horse. So of course they now want to revise history.

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    1. Perhaps you mean PALEONTOLOGICAL proof. Not “archeological” proof. And perhaps you should look deeply into DNA history before so casually dismissing the ideas presented in the article.

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  3. I’ve actually always thought that the nonsense about no horses in N America before the Columbus was just that – utter nonsense. I found myself thinking for many years about ancient Chinese art (from a lot further back than Columbus) depicting horses which look exactly like foundation stock Appaloosas. And, just because the fossils haven’t been found yet doesn’t mean that prehistoric eohippus or mesohippus wasn’t present in what we know today is north America. It just means that the fossil record of their existence hasn’t been found yet – IMO.

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  4. “Best Available Science” is changing as more and more discoveries are made. Sally Jewell promised her decisions would be made based on it. Now we know not only did the horses survive the Ice Age (they roam you know) but were an integral part of the native culture.

    So…how do we get our government to re-classify them as wild animals and not an invasive alien species?

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  5. This is one of the best chronicles about the origin of the horse in North America that I have seen so far. As far a US history goes you would never see any thing like the this in any history book in the classrooms of High Schools in North America because as far as I know history isn’t taught in schools anymore. This explains what happened to the horse after it wondered into Asia from North America. It didn’t exactly go extinct here it left looking for better grazing. I have noticed that a lot of the breeders will claim they developed a certain breed of horse when actually they didn’t. The traits were already there developed by someone else thousands of years ago. It’s also common knowledge that Archaeologists have said for years that there was at least a million people living in North America long before Columbus ever saw the place. There have been mounds found in different states along with signs of mining, runes carved into rocks, that are centuries old.

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