European horses arrive on the Columbia plateau in the early 1700s.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 5/19/2010
  • Essay 9433

In the early 1700s, European horses arrive on the Columbian plateau, having moved north through tribal trade networks from Pueblo villages located in present-day New Mexico. The Plateau tribes, who formerly traveled by foot or by canoe, will gradually adopt this new form of transportation, which will transform many of their traditional lifeways.

Conquistadors and their Horses

In 1598, Spanish explorer Juan de Onate set out with a large caravan of soldiers and settlers from New Spain to colonize the upper Rio Grande valley (present-day New Mexico). After founding the province of Santa Fe and appointing himself governor, he set about subduing the Pueblo Indians. The Spanish colonists brought herds of sheep, cattle, and horses to the area, and many Pueblos were conscripted to care for the livestock.

Although Indians were not allowed to ride or own a horse under Spanish law, Pueblo stable boys learned to handle the animals, and were sometimes allowed to ride as helpers on long cattle drives. According to historian Francis Haines, some of these boys occasionally stole horses and escaped their brutal masters, taking refuge with neighboring tribes who remained outside the Spanish domain. "Thus, year by year, the tribes adjacent to the Spanish settlements learned to use horses, and slowly increased their herds" (Haines, 79). 

After the Pueblo uprising against the Spanish overlords in 1680, most of the colonists fled south, leaving their livestock behind. The Pueblos began trading the abandoned Spanish horses with other tribes, and the animals moved rapidly north through an extensive trade network. Haines estimates that within 30 years the animals had reached the Shoshone tribes of the upper Snake River.  

Neither Elk Nor Deer

From the Shoshones, also known as the Snakes, the animals spread across the Great Basin and into the Columbia Plateau during the first half of the eighteenth century, and many Plateau tribes hold oral traditions of the first horses encountered by their people. The Cayuse, for example, recount the story of a war party scouting for the Snakes, with whom they were at war at the time.

"What they saw threw them into great consternation: the Snakes appeared to be riding either elk or deer. The spies hurriedly returned to their war chief, ... who sent other warriors to ascertain the reason for what he thought must surely be an illusion. They, too, saw what appeared to be Snakes riding elk or deer. Dumbfounded, the group inched closer to discover that the hoofprints were not split but solid and round. Thoroughly upset by this discovery, the chief abandoned his war plan for one of peace. After arranging a truce, the war party returned home with a pair of horses, descendants of Spanish ponies. The Cayuses treated their newly gained treasures with great care, and the following year the mare foaled. Then the Cayuses decided to send out another party, this time to steal more horses from the Snakes" (Ruby, Cayuse, 7).

According to Nez Perce lore, their tribe first saw horses among the Cayuse and, learning that they had come from the Shoshones, sent out a purchasing party, who returned with a gentle white mare. "Day after day the curious Nez Percés gathered from all around to watch the mare crop grass near the village. They learned how a horse acted: how it fed, how it exercised, how it rested. In a few weeks the mare dropped a foal, and the crowds increased. Soon other villages sent south for horses of their own, to be treasured as curiosities and pets" (Haines, 80).

Trading and Learning to Ride

The animals flourished in the lush grasslands of the Nez Perce homeland (Southeast Washington and central Idaho), and within a few years the Nez Perce were riding to intertribal trading centers with extra mounts for sale. One such exchange occurred on the Spokane River, near an important Spokane fishery and gathering place for Salish tribes, who spoke a different language than the Nez Perce's Sahaptian tongue. "The Nez Percé lined up on one side, each man holding the lead rope of his “trading” horse. Each Spokane came forward and placed his pile of trade goods in front of the horse he liked. If the Nez Percé was satisfied, he handed over the lead rope and took the goods. If not, he might try for an extra article, or he might lead his horse to some other pile which interested him" (Haines, 81).  

Farther east, along the Pend Oreille River, the Kalispels, according to their memory, "came upon hoofprints and surmised what the animal must be before seeing it. When a horse approached them, their first, they crowded around it, curious and unafraid" (Fahey, 37). Since there was no word in their language for these marvelous beasts, they at first called them "big dogs" (Fahey, 37).

Other Salishan speakers such as the Colville, Columbia, and Sanpoil tribes also referred to horses using variations of their word for dog. According to a Sanpoil informant, the "earliest horses were all very small; and yet at first people were afraid to ride them, for fear of falling off. The first horse obtained was very gentle. The first person who mounted it rode with two long sticks, one in each hand, to steady himself. Another man led the horse slowly, and the rider shifted the sticks (as one does with walking sticks) as they went along" (Teit, 250).  

Equestrian Economies

Tribal historians and ethnologists agree that the acquisition of domesticated horses in the eighteenth century greatly altered the lifestyle and economy of many Plateau tribes. "Owning horses changed Plateau life in many ways. Greater mobility expanded the seasonal round, enabled people to travel greater distances, and provided transport for heavier loads. Tribal gatherings on an unprecedented scale became common. The size of local groups increased significantly as well ... . Horses also expanded knowledge of regions well beyond the Plateau, [with] the greatest attraction being the rich bison resources of the western Plains" (Walker, 139).

"The intro of the horse into the Plateau greatly affected the Columbia trade network. In the days when trade had been conducted by canoe or overland afoot, the articles carried had been of necessity light and of relatively high value, while trading parties had been small & their travels infrequent. With the advent of the horse, all this was changed: both the volume and variety of goods carried increased, being extended to include raw & semiprocessed materials. Routes became direct & led overland thru open grasslands and prairies, while parties grew in size & their trading ventures in frequency. Moreover, horses became a new source of wealth & an important commodity in trade" (Stern, 645).

As a new symbol of wealth, "the importance of horses in Plateau culture is demonstrated by the elaborate material culture associated with them," such as beaded collars, blankets, stirrups, and bridles (Walker, 5). The equestrian lifestyle also brought about increased warfare. Horse-raiding expeditions garnered prestige along with extra mounts. Adventuring warriors pursued old hostilities and created new feuds with far-flung tribes in attempts to expand territory. "Mounted war parties could strike enemies at greater distances & with greater force than ever before. A war party on horseback could easily defeat a much greater number of men on foot" (Walker, 139).

Yet despite the many radical transformations resulting from the arrival of the horse, certain aspects of life maintained their traditional focus. According to several Plateau anthropologists, "it is unlikely that the horse fundamentally altered basic subsistence strategies of Plateau peoples, as gathering and fishing continued to provide the bulk of subsistence needs well into the late 19th century" (Hunn, 545).


John Fahey, The Kalispel Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986); Francis Haines, "How the Indian Got the Horse," American Heritage, Vol. 15 (February 1964), 75-81; Eugene S. Hunn, Nancy J. Turner, and David H. French, "Ethnobiology and Subsistence," in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12: Plateau (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1998), 525-545; Alvin M. Josephy Jr. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971); Robert Ruby and John A. Brown, The Cayuse Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972); Theodore Stern, "Columbia River Trade Network," in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12: Plateau (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1998), 641-652; James Teit, "Salishan Tribes of the Plateaus," Forty-Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1927-1928: 23-396; Deward E. Walker, Jr. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12: Plateau (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1998).

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