American Anthropologist

Date: 1914

Show Summary




One of the important problems pertaining to the Indians of the Plains is the relation of the European horse to their culture. The initial difficulty lies in our inability to determine the precise dates at which the successive tribes came into its possession. . . .

The great Spanish expeditions to explore the southern parts of the United States were well equipped with horses and even cattle and hogs. The adventurers were cavaliers; hence, horses were a necessity. De Soto carried some of his horses across the Mississippi in 1541. At about the same time Coronado reached the present bounds of Oklahoma from Santa Fe. Oñate is believed to have visited the Pawnee and Kansas, 1599–1601, and Peñalosa conducted an expedition to the Mississippi in 1662. From Coronado’s time on there was a growing trade with the Indians of the Gulf coast, and trade to the interior from Santa Fe as a base began about 1600. The pueblo village of Taos soon became the trade center for the Plains Indians. This trade seems to have reached its maximum about 1630. Doubtless the archives of Mexico and Spain contain data on the trade of this period, but nothing definite has so far found its way into literature. It is known, however, that the Indians of the Plains and especially the Pawnee were so troublesome in their plundering raids for horses that a post was established in Kansas about 1704 and an unsuccessful expedition undertaken by Villazur in 1720. Yet, in 1719 du Tisné, a Frenchman, visited two Pawnee villages in Oklahoma where he counted three hundred horses. As early as 1682 Henri de Tonty found horse-using Indians on the lower Missouri. La Salle also states (1682) that the Gattaeka (Kiowa-Apache) and Manrhoat (Kiowa?) had many horses. In fact they found horses in many places. This is about the earliest date we can hope to find for the Missouri, but if the horses were there at that time, it is most certain that the Pawnee were well provided with them. It seems, therefore, safe to conclude that some time during the interval 1600–1682, at least, the Caddoan tribes, the Tonkawa, and the Comanche, as well as the Kiowa, became fully equipped with horses. The Metontonta (Oto) came to see La Salle and brought a horse’s hoof, stating that the Spanish made war upon them (1680). From the statements by Hennepin we infer that the Oto did not use horses at that time.

It is thus clear that the Indians below the Platte and lower Missouri were quite well supplied with horses by 1682, and there is no reason why many of them should not have had horses as early as 1600. Presumably those to get them first would be the Ute, Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, and the Caddo. As we move northward our historical data become a little more definite.

The sons of La Verendrye made a journey to the Rocky mountains from the Mandan in 1742–43. They encountered horse Indians, also mules and asses, and on their return to Canada mention the horses of their Assiniboine companions. On this journey to the Rocky mountains they seem to have passed down west of the Black hills and to have reached the mountains in Wyoming or Colorado and on the return trip to have struck the Missouri in Nebraska or South Dakota. They were in fear of the Snake Indians. So far we have not been able to fully identify the tribal names of these explorers, but Beaux Hommes seems likely to be Crow, and Gens de l’Arc to be Cheyenne. Their "Le Grand Chef" was evidently the chief of the Pawnee, and the Chevaux, the Comanche. They fell in with the Prairie Sioux on the return trip. On one point they arc definite: that horses were in use all along their route after they left the Mandan country.

Next we turn to the journal of La Verendrye’s Mandan discoveries, 1738–39. He set out from a camp of Cree on the Assiniboine river and made the journey overland with a body of the Assiniboine. It is clear that the whole party were afoot, for "the women and dogs carry all the baggage, the men are burdened only with their arms; they make the dogs even carry wood to make the fires, being often obliged to encamp in the open prairie, from which the clumps of wood may be at a great distance." No mention of seeing horses among the Mandan and the adjoining villages is made. On the other hand, we are told that the Indians gave him to understand "that the Pananas and Pananis had horses like the whites," living to the south of them. One of his Assini-boine companions narrated an engagement with horsemen in armor while his party was in a raid to the Mississippi. Yet, in 1741, when the sons of La Verendrye set out toward the southwest, their statements seem to imply the possession of horses by the Mandan and the neighboring villages.

A little later (1751) Saint Pierre states that he saw horses and saddles which the Indians obtained by trade from the west, and notes a report from Fort Lajonquière in the Blackfoot country that the natives there traded for horses and saddles to the westward. This is the earliest suggestion of horses among the Blackfoot peoples. . . .

For the Dakota and other tribes above the mouth of the Missouri we seem to have negative evidence. As early as 1662 Radisson met a division of the Eastern Dakota in Wisconsin, and from his own quaint account of the manner of transporting baggage it is clear that there were no horses there. These Indians were, it is true, not a typical Plains people, but Radisson tells of journeys to the Mississippi and to the vicinity of the Mille Lacs where he met other Indians of their kind. Nowhere have we noticed any implication that horses were known. From 1665 to 1699 Nicolas Perrot was in frequent contact with the Siouan tribes, but we find in his account no suggestion of horses. Le Sieur penetrated the country of the typical Plains Dakota in 1700, and, though he goes into much detail, we find no hint of horses being in the vicinity. Before his day neither Hennepin nor Du Luth mentions them for the Sioux country.

Then we come to the journal of Peter Pond, 1740–45, where we are told that the Yankton division of the Dakota had horses in abundance:

"They Have a Grate Number of Horses and Dogs which Carres there Bageag when they Move from Plase to Plase. . . . Thay Run down the Buffelow with thare Horses and Kill as Much Meat as thay Please. In Order to have thare Horseis Long Winded thay Slit thair Noses up to the Grissel of thare head which Make them Breath Verey freely. I have Sean them Run with those of Natrall Nostrals and Cum in Apearantley Not the Least Out of Breath."

Turning again to the Mandan we have no literature until 1804 when Lewis and Clark wintered among them, at which date all the Indians of the Missouri were well supplied with horses; together with the Arikara and Hidatsa they were trading horses and mules to the Assiniboine and Teton Dakota. However, in the journal of J. McDonnell (1793) we are told that at the Missouri the natives used horses to hunt buffalo.

The result of our survey is then quite definite. Horses were numerous among the Blackfoot as early as 1751, and they were used by the Assini-boine about the same date. They had not been acquired by the Mandan in 1738, but were among their immediate neighbors to the south. They are first definitely mentioned for the Teton Dakota in 1742, and for the Yankton at about the same date. She Iowa seem to have had some horses in 1724. . . .

If these dates for first mention of the horse are tabulated or plotted on a map, we have a progressive series northward, beginning with 1682 and culminating on the Saskatchewan in 1751. In every case, however, we must assume an earlier date for its introduction. There is no good reason why the Pawnee should not have had horses in 1650 or even in 1630, since they were available in the Spanish and Pueblo settlements of New Mexico. . . .

In this connection we may give brief consideration to the use of horses east of the Mississippi. From the very first, the Spaniards were great importers of horses and other domestic animals. In this respect they stand in contrast to the French of Canada where the first horse (just one) was imported in 1647, the first cargo in 1665. The English colonists imported horses moderately, except in Virginia, where the cavalier element, as among the Spaniards, brought in the horse, and where in 1669 wild horses became a pest. The first horses imported by the New England colonies came in 1629. Horses spread among the Indians of the Atlantic slope, but it was only in the south that they were numerous. According to Adair the Cherokee and other southern tribes were good horsemen. While these Indians could have secured their stock from Virginia, it is much more probable that they first came from Spanish settlements on the Gulf and even from the tribes west of the Mississippi. According to Swanton, Du Pratz and others speak of horses as numerous in the south and note that they seem a different variety from the European horse, which suggests the Indian horse of the west.

Adair gives us a good description of the riding gear of the Choctaw and other southern Indians. They had the rope for a bridle, made saddles with wood and green buffalo hide, and mounted from the "off-side," in all of which he recognizes the Spanish type and which reminds us of the Plains. Even the saddles made by the Iroquois of New York are of this same western Indian type. All this strongly suggests that the dominant traits of horse culture among all the south Atlantic Indians came from across the Mississippi, or at least indirectly from the same source as the western culture. The ultimate source was most likely the Spaniards. The French are a negligible factor because they settled at the mouth of the Mississippi after the horse had reached the Missouri. Even the English settlements in Virginia scarcely reached a point where they could supply horses to the Indians of the east before horses are reported in the west. It seems therefore clear that the Spaniards must be credited with the introduction of the horse to the Indians of the Plains and the lower Mississippi both east and west; the greater number of horses must have come from their more numerous settlements in the Southwest and Mexico. . . .

The phenomenon we have is now plain: Indian horse culture spread rapidly from the Spanish settlements of the Southwest and Mexico upward between the Rocky mountains and the Mississippi river, and thence northward between the Missouri and the mountains, to the west of the Black hills and thence to the Saskatchewan country. On the south it spread out over the Gulf states, but did not become prominent north of Virginia, or between the Ohio and the Great Lakes, and reached the Upper Mississippi relatively late. It reached the lower Colorado on the west, but did not reach far into California or any part of the Pacific coast to the north. Likewise it reached up into the Plateau area, and even to the Déné area.

The subject we have chosen for discussion is the relation of horse culture to other Plains traits and not the historical investigation of the introduction of the animal by Europeans. The preceding data are presented solely to define the problem and make no claim to completeness. However, we cannot well discuss the influence of horse culture without fixing its relative time of origin, for, if it greatly preceded other strong European influences, its value as a cultural characteristic is high. While the fixing of such a date is quite speculative, we have its limits clearly defined, for we find the horse in the far north in 1751 and know that it could not have reached the Indians before 1500. . . .

Thus we may ask—

1. Is the Plains culture as a whole older than the introduction of the horse?

2. What changes in culture traits can be attributed to the influence of horse culture?

3. What had the environment to do with the distribution of horse culture?

If we take up the first and look for traits older than the introduction of the horse, we can lay hands upon at least one such. The use of dogs for transporting baggage is mentioned by Coronado’s men, a date before the era of the horse. Furthermore, we have linguistic evidence in the names for horse, such as "mysterious dog" and "elk-dog," certainly implying a resemblance in the use of the two animals. We should expect no one to doubt the assumption that dog traction, one of the most distinctive traits of Plains culture, was fully diffused over the area before the horse was known.

As to the tipi in the form familiar in the nineteenth century, we are far less certain. Obviously dogs could not have transported the tipi of horse days with its long heavy poles and bulky cover. Descriptions of the tipi have not been found by us at a period when the horse was unknown. The tents mentioned by Castañeda appear to be tipis, but we cannot be sure of their detailed structure. They were, however, transported by dogs. The distribution of the tipi among a few of the Central Algonkin and its analogous forms to the eastward among the Cree, may warrant a guess that it was diffused over the Plains in some form along with dog traction; but a mere guess will not help us here. However, in another place we have called attention to the apparent relation between the travois and dragging tipi poles. The horse travois is made of tipi poles and the few dog travois we have seen had their poles pointed at the butts precisely like the tipi poles. Yet the true travois was found in the northern part of the Plains; the tribes of the south placed the load upon the horse and dragged the tipi poles at the sides. In Castañeda’s time this was the way for dogs. In short, there are several reasons for assuming that the northern travois was developed from the tipi poles dragged by dogs. If we accept this explanation, it is clear that a tipi of some form and the travois are historically associated and that the former is the older.

Turning to less material things we may cite the coup and methods of warfare. It would seem that since almost everywhere in the Plains a war party set out on foot, even though they went after horses, it is safe to assume that the entire procedure had become a fixed custom before the advent of the horse. The coup is so fundamentally a matter in the warring system of the Plains that it also must have been there for a long time. . . .

If we turn to some of the intermediate tribes, like the Mandan, we can prove by archeology the existence of the earth-lodge before the horse. Maize also was among the Mandan. It seems most certain that Mandan culture was essentially developed long before 1738.

The net result of this survey is, then, that we have positive evidence of the dog travois development before the horse, but that on other traits of culture we have only presumptions for the area at large. . . .

We may recapitulate then by stating that while there is a presumption that the horse stimulated periodic ranging on the Plains, there were other factors capable of exerting similar influences; but that actual migration was due to the horse is quite unlikely. The existence of former periodic ranging is proven by historical evidence in some cases and made inferential in others by the previous development of dog traction. In short, we may say that only those traits directly associated with the horse can be taken as later; the most characteristic traits, for want of evidence to the contrary, must be given priority, and that while the horse along with other European influences may have intensified and more completely diffused the various traits, there is no good evidence at hand to support the view that the horse led to the development of the important traits. In other words, from a qualitative point of view the culture of the Plains would have been much the same without the horse. It does not follow though, that these Plains traits were diffused over the same area as found in 1850. For example, the characterization of the southern Plains Indians in the Icazbalceta manuscript can scarcely be improved upon as defining the Plains type of culture, but we have no way of determining its extent.

We may be reminded that in the Plains area are several subtypes of culture. There are first of all the nomadic tribes of which the Blackfoot, Crow, Teton, Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Comanche may be taken as types. These are the great horse and buffalo Indians as we know them. They ranged north and south in the true plains while on either border were tribes of less intense culture and varied by additional traits. Our problem, therefore, is as to whether the development of this typical group in which the horse seems so important a factor did not occur after the acquisition of the horse. If so, then the true Plains culture may properly be said to have developed with the introduction of the horse, even though every trait may have been in existence somewhere in the area long before. A rather extended argument could be presented on this point, but a few suggestions must suffice.

1. Though true migration since horse days is rare, there is a very strong presumption that several of these typical tribes had scarcely reached their historic ranges by 1600; and in that event could scarcely have developed their present culture before the horse came.

2. The high tide in typical Plains culture seems to have come in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While this was the era of trade, yet the horse increased the economic prosperity and created individual wealth with certain degrees of luxury and leisure; also it traveled ever ahead of white trade and the white trader.

3. The horse was a great inciter of predatory warfare which must have increased the range and intensity of operations, thus intensifying tribal contact and increasing intertribal knowledge, all of which would favor diffusion.

4. The culture of these tribes takes its individuality from apparent adjustments of traits to a more nomadic and intense form of life, the practical inhibition of such traits as pottery, basketry, agriculture, and fixed houses; rather than from the introduction of any new traits except those directly associated with the horse.

Hence, we may formulate for further consideration the proposition that while no important Plains traits except those directly associated with the horse seem to have come into existence, the horse is largely responsible for such modifications and realignments as give us the typical Plains culture of the nineteenth century, or which differentiate it from the subtypes in the same area. Thus we can see how practically all the essential elements of Plains culture would have gone on, if the horse had been denied them; but it is difficult to see how the vigor and accentuated association of traits forming the typical group and their intense occupancy of the true plains could have been what it was in 1800 without the horse. A type of culture, we should note, is the conception of an associated group of traits, and it is the manner of the association rather than the identity of the traits that determines it.

We may now turn to a more specific examination of the point as to what distinct modifications of culture were produced.

In the first place, the horse brought with it all its own associated elements of culture. Our collections show that saddles and other riding gear are quite uniform in type for the Plains and are on the whole after Spanish patterns. Even the use of the reata seems to be of Spanish-American origin. Riding itself was, of course, intrusive. Knowledge of how to care for horses would also come in from the Spanish. So we must surely have had a whole group of associated culture traits carried along with the horse.

Thus we have a fine example of diffusion, like the sun dance, men’s societies, etc. Could we show that the diffusion of horse culture preceded the diffusion of these other traits, we should have a strong case for the horse as a modifier of culture. As we have seen, what little evidence there is points in the other direction. . . .

While the problem we have discussed is far too complex to permit a paper of this kind to be more than a suggestion of new lines of research, the following conclusions seem permissible: The horse reached most, if not all, of the typical Plains tribes from three hundred to two hundred years before they lost their cultural independence. In its diffusion over the area a large number of associated traits were carried along as a whole, or as a cultural complex. At least some of the tribes had developed dog traction to meet their nomadic wants before the horse came, and needed, therefore, but to substitute the horse for the dog in their own dog-culture complex and to take over the necessary parts of the Spanish horse-culture complex. Thus among the less sedentary tribes the whole basic structure of the later horse Indian culture was in existence when the horse came. We have found no reason to believe that the introduction of the horse did anything more than intensify and perhaps more completely diffuse the cultural whole previously formed. As such, however, it seems responsible for reversing cultural values in that the earlier dominant sedentary cultures of the Siouan and Caddoan tribes were predominated by the Shoshone and other formerly struggling nomads of their old frontier. As the leading horse carriers, the Shoshone played a large part in this development, but they lacked many of the strong cultural traits which the Crow, Teton, etc., received from the original Plains culture, in consequence of which they now fail to qualify as typical tribes. Finally, it appears probable that the accidental presence on the New Mexican frontier of a well-developed dog-traction culture was the chief determining factor in the direction of horse-culture diffusion though there were other ethnic factors as well as environmental conditions that could have contributed to the result.


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Chicago: American Anthropologist in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed May 23, 2022,

MLA: . American Anthropologist, Vol. 16, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 23 May. 2022.

Harvard: , American Anthropologist. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 23 May 2022, from