Published on March 27, 2014 by Amy
Western Native Americans Begin to Acquire the “Big Dog”
In 1541, Spanish Viceroy Mendoza put allied Aztec warriors on horses to better lead their tribesmen in the Mixton War of Central Mexico. This appears to have been the first time that horses were officially given to Native Americans. These first American horsemen were seen to rub themselves with horse sweat, so that they might acquire the magic of the “big dog”.
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But the early relationship between Native Americans and horses was not always mutually beneficial. Some tribes, especially the Apache, acquired a taste for roasted horse meat. After 1680, the Pueblo tribes forced the Spanish out of New Mexico. Many horses were left behind. The Pueblo learned to ride well but didn’t live by the horse. They mainly valued the horse as food and as an item to trade with the Plains tribes for jerked buffalo meat and robes.
Horses and horsemanship gradually spread from tribe to tribe until the Native Americans of the Plains became the great mounted buffalo hunters of the American West.
The alliance of Native Americans and the Spanish horse gave them great mobility and changed their way of life. Tribes with horses were dominant over other tribes who relied on moving their camps on foot. The Plains people were great mounted buffalo hunters. This horse advantage allowed them to trade bison meat and hides for glass beads, metal tools, cloth, and guns.
The Observations of Artist George Catlin
George Catlin (1796-1872) was an American painter and student of Native American life. Much of our present-day knowledge about the habits and customs of these first Americans comes from Catlin’s journals and paintings. He records much about wild horses and their alliance with the tribes.
Native Americans and Horses at War
In many tribes, horses were the measure of wealth. So, horses were often the cause, as well as the means, of waging war between alien tribes. Native American pictographs often featured their most prized possession and companion — the horse.
According to Wallace Coffey, a modern Comanche horseman, when the Spanish introduced the Comanche to the horse,
“Our responsibility was to be stable hands. We were literally slaves to the Spaniards and were the ones that fed the horses and cared for them. When the horse became an ally to the Comanche, it wasn’t just as a beast of burden. The horse really became a companion and a friend.”
The Comanche became legendary horsemen, terrorizing their enemies, frightening away settlers, keeping the plains open and wild. By the late 1800s, more than a million mustangs roamed the Texas frontier. So many mustangs that early maps of the region labeled the plains with just two words: “Wild Horses”.
But the days of freedom for Indians and horses were about to end. Late in September 1874, Ranald S. MacKenzie, Commander of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, tracked the Comanche to their secret camp in the Palo Duro Canyon.