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 >>

17 thoughts on “Indian horses before Columbus”

  1. It is my opinion that horses did in fact go extinct in North America roughly 10k years ago but we’re re-introduced prior to Columbus. It is also possible that they never went extinct here but the introduction of European horses brought many diseases the native horses did not have immunity to, causing a mass die-off of the native stock allowing the European stock to easily replace them. The latter scenario does not have evidence but North American people groups did not use written language so the evidence there would not exist, finding remains that can properly be dated would be needed to support it.

    Regardless, just like wild Turkey in California, we know they were here 10k years ago and the ecology evolved along with them, so they are far less of an ecological impact than the exploitative effects of human capitalism, which did not exist her until the European invasion.

    I do have to concede that the horse population 10k years ago had predators now extinct, such as Dire Wolf and Saber-Toothed felines, but the same is true of Bison and American Antelope.

    Feral horses should be treated with respect both as natural parts of the ecology and as culturally significant to the native people who had cultures built around them already by the time of contact with Europeans.

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    1. Alice, sorry but this is OLD science. DNA testing and more recently found fossils are displacing the myth.Please consider further reading and ask mister google about the “three myths” about wild horses.

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  2. An eye opener for me. My native medicine man has songs for horses . always wondered where and how we have all this singing with ceremonies. I read the Bible read about Babel and that make comparisons with my tradition they go hand-in-hand.

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