The Great Horse Dispersal

I have been reading ‘The Empire of the Summer Moon’ chronicling the clash between the Calvinist Anglo settlers that began moving into Texas after the Louisiana Purchase and the Comanche who ruthlessly protected their territory from settlers. Gywnne’s book includes 34 pages of footnotes and sources so it is a well-documented report of the times. Gwynne also acknowledges that the Comanche point of view is not included in that documentation, and he includes more details on the Comanche than most.

Here are some highlights I found intriguing. The Comanche were the first mounted Indians the Anglos encountered. And they were they the only Horse Tribe to fight entirely from horseback. Most of the other Horse Tribes rode to war, but dismounted to fight hand to hand.

The Comanche attacked stationary enemies by riding towards them in a wedge which smoothly morphed in to a spiraling wheel . “The ring, winding around with machine like regularity, approached nearer and nearer with each revolution. As a warrior approached the point of the circle nearest the enemy, he dropped into the loop around his horse’s neck and shot arrows from under the neck. If his horse was shot down he generally landed on his feet.’ (Wallace and Hoebel)

They could shoot a handful of arrows as fast as they could draw and nock them. They were able to hit a target the size of a doorknob at fifty yards, At ten to fifteen yards the arrow would drive entirely through a buffalo unless it hit bone. The thin metal tip was designed to crumple if it did hit bone, causing more damage and making it difficult to remove. The video below shows how that is done:

The Comanche were renowned for striking quickly and leaving with their spoils equally rapidly. Comanche warriors easily covered hundreds of miles to position themselves for a raid. Their striking range from a main encampment averaged four hundred miles and they rode as freely under moonlight as daylight. Their horses could travel the long distances without supplemental feed and be fit to fight when they arrived.

They were considered the finest light horse cavalry the American cavalry had ever seen. At their peak, the Comanche controlled at least 200 million acres of grasslands. Comancheria, the home range of the Comanche, began on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in what is now Colorado and New Mexico. Their range extended north into Nebraska and Wyoming, east into Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and south into Mexico’s Sonora Desert. It bordered the French territory that became the Louisiana Purchase in the east and pushed the borders of New Spain far back to the south.

I am not sure exactly how I gathered the impression as a child growing up in New Mexico that the Comanche were not exactly a Native American Indian tribe. I suspect it was because most of the peoples my father and his native New Mexican friends discussed had a history and a place. But Indians and Hispanics alike dismissed the Comanche as newcomers on the indigenous scene that were descended from mixed bloods and refugees from Spanish authority.

To my father and his friends, the Comanche appeared to live, trade and fight more like gypsies or mercenary soldiers from Europe than Native Americans. And that makes me wonder if the actual horsemen of New Spain allied themselves with the indigenous peoples during the Pueblo Indian Revolt. Native American enemies of the Comanche allied themselves with the encroaching Anglos in the late 1800’s so we know the Horse Tribes were well aware that making friends of one’s enemy’s enemy is a pragmatic sensible policy.

And there is historical precedent. Three millennia earlier and half a world away, the Mitannian Horse master Kikkuli defected and allied himself with the Hittites. Once the Hittites acquired both the war-horses and the equestrian skills of their enemies, they then proceeded to annihilate the Mittanians.

So I could accept Gwynnes statement that the Comanche were the first Horse Tribe that Anglo settlers had encountered. But I was a little surprised to read that Anglo historians now consider the Comanche the proto-type American Indian horse culture. I am equally surprised by the current stance among Native American scholars that denies the influence interaction between Spanish horseman and the Horse Tribes had on the formation of the United States.

There is no question that indigenous peoples gained many useful animals and skills from the Spanish. And since sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, peaches, apricots, wheat, silver smithing, weaving and more were integrated into indigenous lives as soon as they appeared, why not warhorses? Granted that Spanish documentation and Anglo romanticism have both ignored the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In my own experience, even the founders of the Spanish Mustang Registries were notably reluctant to acknowledge that the best of their founding stock came from Indians and off Indian reservations.

So perhaps temporary blowback is inevitable, but in the end, racism is racism no matter which side is preaching it. I would argue that all parties involved have distorted the history of the Spanish warhorse in North America. Yes, the Comanche are reported to have adopted the horse earlier and more completely than any other tribe

And like the other Horse Tribes, the Comanche lived on the grasslands year-round in small free-roaming bands that included their horses. They and their animals moved across the land and joined with other bands according to their needs and desires. But most families claimed at least few hundred as their own while wealthier breeders might watch over fifteen hundred or more horses, far more than other Horse Tribes.

In most ways, the Comanche were hardy adaptable minimalists. Although there were men who were recognized for their ability to influence others, the Comanche did not have an elaborate organized social hierarchy. Their spiritual practices and beliefs were not obvious to Anglo chroniclers. They feasted to celebrate, but they did not share large ceremonial rituals like the Sun Dance of other Horse Tribes until shortly before their surrender late in the 1880’s.

Yet, the equestrian techniques and terminology of the Comanche were detailed and sophisticated, very unlike the simplicity of the rest of their culture. Their know-how was also eerily similar to the ancient horse-lore that arrived in the American Southwest along with the Iberian horse. Precisely how the Comanche came into possession of the elaborate Spanish understanding of horses is undocumented. But, like the Spanish horsemen:

Their equine lexicon was large and minutely descriptive-For example, they had names for all the possible variations of equine color, including differentiating Medicine Paint Horses with sorrel, black or yellow ears.

They bred their horses carefully, keeping the best stallions and mares for themselves, and castrating colts intended for trade and riding stock.

Like the earliest evidence of humans in Iberia, less than 1% of their diet was horse meat. They only ate their horses when facing starvation.

They used a small round shield and rode circles around stolid European regiments much like the Berber warriors from North Africa who conquered Spain in the 700’s.

They used the long lance, like the Domo Vaquero of the Iberian Peninsula still use, although mostly to hunt buffalo not work cattle.

They were as handy with a rope as they were with their weapons. Women and children roped antelope as easily as cattle.

Like the Spanish light cavalry, they could ride with or without a bit. When fighting or hunting from horseback, they relied on their seat and legs, freeing both hands to use their weapons.

When possible, they used Spanish bits and bridles. When no bit was available they used a thong looped around the lower jaw or a neck rope. The neck rope aided the boys playing the Spanish game of Gallo, swinging down to pluck a rooster’s bobbing head from the ground from a full gallop,, They did have to adapted the game to the grasslands as chickens did not last long in their nomadic lifestyle. But that practice allowed Comanche warriors to reach down, pick up and carry off a wounded comrade in the heat of battle as well as hang off the side of their horse and shoot under their neck all at a full gallop.

And the Comanche were remarkable consistent in their diplomacy and trade. All the bands shared common interests and common enemies. They never fought their fellow Comanche, but hunted, raided, and traded together, even swapping members freely between bands.

Historians still claim that they do not know exactly how the indigenous peoples of North America adapted themselves to the horse. But those same historians do agree that it was an amazingly swift transfer of technology. There are no European records of mounted attacks made by Native American Indians before the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680.

Then the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 precipitated the Great Horse Dispersal. By the time the Spanish returned to Santa Fe, the territory of the mounted and warlike Horse Tribes was vast. By 1700, they ranged as far west as the Palouse Valley in what is now western Washington, as far north as Calgary in Canada and as far east as the Arkansas River.

Part of the mystery behind the explosion of horsemanship is that the Spanish Crown officially reserved owning and riding horses to a few privileged members of the aristocracy. But, anyone who has firsthand experience knows that keeping, breeding and training horses is labor intensive and time consuming. Those few horse-owning Spanish aristocrats had plenty of knowledgeable horsemen managing their breeding stock and supplying them with finished riding horses.

There is also historical precedent for those who had actually been breeding and training horses privately but unable to ride them publicly keeping them during the Revolt. When Oliver Cromwell disbanded the Royal Stables in England, those stablemen simply took the horses with them when they went home. When the English monarchy was re-established, the offspring of horses dispersed from the Royal Stud and the local ponies became the founding stock of the Thoroughbred racehorse.

But in New Spain there were plenty of refugees from the heavy-handed Spanish monarchy and their Inquisitors who would have had no interest in letting that monarchy reestablish control over their lives once they escaped its grip. And we can assume that the Comanche did not consent to the peaceful return of Spanish authority after the Pueblo Indian Revolt. Their first documented attack on Spanish missions and soldiers occurred in 1706, soon after the official Spanish presence returned.

And there are a few historical tidbits that point towards the horsemen defecting with their charges. Historians acknowledge that Po-Peh, one of the key figures in organizing the Pueblo Indian Revolt, was a mixed blood. And the Santo Domingo say that one of their conditions for letting the Spanish return was that the Pueblos keep the horses they had acquired during that Revolt.

The Comanche also ruthlessly policed the territory that sustained their free-roaming resources of horses and buffalo, attacking anyone who tried to establish permanent settlements. They made a point of halting the advance of Spanish and French settlers. They also managed to push back the first wave of Anglo settlers that began moving west after the Louisiana Purchase. In fact, American history might be very different if the Comanche had annihilated encroaching settlers instead of regarding them as a resource to be controlled and harvested

But they were also great, if unscrupulous, merchants and traders ransoming captives and trafficking in human slaves as well as horses and buffalo hides. Informal trade between the Comanche and the inhabitants of Pueblos and Spanish villages in Northern New Mexico was well established early on. The Comanche Dance that celebrated their visits is still enacted in the Pueblos and Hispanic villages of Northern New Mexico today.

Finally, in 1786 Don Juan Bautista de Anza, then Governor of New Mexico, managed to formalize and document trade with the Comanche. The agreement took advantage of the existing middlemen that had long been trading between the more sedentary and agrarian Pueblos and Spanish villages and the free-roaming Comanche. Known as Comancheros, they lived in the Spanish Villages where the Comanche sometimes came to trade for at least part of the year. Traditional communities in New Mexico still celebrate that peace treaty with the Comanche Dance.

But, the Comancheros also spent much of the year traveling on the vast expanses of the grasslands with their own herds of horses. There they interacted freely with the Comanche, sometimes even joining their raiding parties. In fact the Quahadi, the wealthiest, most feared most isolationist band of Comanche, refused to trade with anyone but the Comancheros.

The Quahidi had other idiosyncrasies that made them stand out from other Comanches as well as the rest of the Horse Tribes. They preferred to live in the Llano Estacado in the southernmost part of the Great Plains. There they could take refuge in a giant nearly impregnable natural fortress and evade the Spanish, Mexican and American armies who sought to destroy them.

They owned numberless long-horned Spanish cattle in the heart of buffalo country. In the 1800’s, they rustled cattle from Texas by the hundreds of thousands. Then their Comanchero allies traded them back to the US Army in exchange for guns and ammunition.

The Quahadi were relentlessly hostile to all Europeans. They never signed a treaty with the Anglos. They did not even appear in the Anglo chronicles of Comanche Tribes until 1872 when Quanah Parker became famous as the last great chief of the Comanche.

The amicable relationship between the Comancheros and the Comanche in general and the Quahidi in particular is improbable. The Comanche treated the semi-agrarian Navajo, Apache, Ute and Osage peoples of New Spain as enemies from the start. They raided Pueblos that were overly friendly to the returning Spanish. They decimated all of the more sedentary native peoples of the Plains. And they promptly attacked the agrarian Southeastern tribes that were forced into their territory along the Trail of Tears.

Familial relationships would explain why the Comancheros were close and trusted allies of the Comanche. Comancheros were recognized as mixed-bloods, as being of both European and Indigenous descent. Through the 1800’s the Comanche were known for adopting women and preadolescent children of all races into their families, making them mixed-bloods as well. So, the difference between the Comancheros and the Comanche proper was more about where and how they lived than who their parents were.

Since their knowledge of horse breeding and mounted warfare was so extra-ordinary in its depth and detail, it is not only possible but probable that the Athabascans who became the Comanche adopted knowledgeable Spanish horseman right along with their incomparable Spanish horses. And an influx of Spanish men, especially during the Pueblo Indian Revolt would help explain why the Comanche displayed all the pragmatic survival skills of the Native American Horse Tribes, but had minimal social and ceremonial structure.

The Comanche thrived for two centuries. They survived the remnants of the tribes they attacked scouting for American troops. They survived Jack Hayes copying their fighting techniques to develop the Texas Rangers *. They survived the invention of the repeating rifle and the Colt six-shooter. They even survived the Civil War’s infamous General Sherman’s protégé Ranald MacKenzie slaughtering their riding horses every chance he got.

And they did so even when their population was plummeting from an estimated 20,000 plus to less than 3,000. By 1875 epidemics of smallpox and cholera contracted along the trail of the Forty-niner’s gold rush had killed up to eighty-five percent of their population. What the Comanche could not survive was the starvation and drought that followed the rapid full-scale extermination of the Buffalo.

A new tanning process developed in 1870 sent hide prices skyrocketing and railroads made it possible to ship hides from the plains to the tanning factories. The indiscriminate slaughter of the Buffalo began in 1871 when five million buffalo were killed just for their skins. Ten years later the ‘hide-men’ had slaughtered the entire Buffalo population to supply the demands of the industry, destroying the foundation of the Horse Tribes that depended on them.

Quanah Parker and the remaining Quahadi surrendered to the Anglo Americans on May 6, 1875. In defeat, Quanah Parker demonstrated the same adaptability that had sent his ancestors out onto the grasslands two hundred years earlier. Like the horsemen who had so thoroughly integrated themselves to the language and lifestyle of the indigenous people they joined, he insisted that his people and especially his children engage in the white man’s politics, religion and commerce in their language.

It was also Quanah Parker who legalized the Native American Church so that his people could continue to use peyote cactus as a sacrament. Although I have had profoundly spiritual experiences with Mescalito, the spirit of the peyote cactus, I have found the doctrine of the Native American Church disturbingly Christian. My Pueblo godfather acknowledged the Catholic Church and gave it a place in his community, but he certainly did not subjugate his own practice to Christian doctrine.

I have wondered if the condition for legalizing the Native American Church was adding Christian rhetoric to their peyote prayers. But it is also possible that Quanah Parker’s form of Christianity grew out of one of the heretical sects fleeing Spain that emphasized personal direct experience of the divine. New Mexico Catholicism has been borderline heretical from the get-go.

It was not until Archbishop Lamy arrived in the very late 1800’s that there was a concerted attempt to bring the lay-brethen, the Moradas and the Penitentes under the control of Rome. The Sephardic Jewish population that put six-pointed Stars of David on their tombstones are now acknowledged. But there are also early Spanish tombstones with five petaled roses, even though the pentangle became associated with satanism.

The five petaled rose is associated with the Black Madonna in Europe. In some Gnostic Christian schools, the five wounds and the position of the crucified Christ represent the suffering engendered by the five senses. The resurrection is represented by the five pointed star, showing how opening ourselves to the experience of the divine that we may perceive through those five senses while embodied relieves our suffering.

Sir Gawain of the Grail legends rode a Medicine Paint. His Grail horse was white with red ears. He is also reputed to have carried a shield with a five pointed star dedicated to the Virgin emblazoned in the inside. According to Wolfrahm von Eschenbach, who wrote the most complete and complex version of the Grail Quest in the tenth century, Grail horses who could carry their riders through the veil to the Grail Castle came only from Spain. He attributed the entire cycle of Grail stories to a Spanish bard who first read the story written in the stars.

And Sir Gawain was one of King Arthur’s Knights. The Knights of the Round Table were some of the finest light cavalry known in Europe at the time. The Horse Tribes of Northwestern Europe had held off the Romans for 700 years, then attempted to bridge the old pagan traditions with the policies of the encroaching Roman Empire. Like the Comanche, they were eventually worn down by a lack of resources, but they left an indelible imprint behind.

Adopting Spanish horsemen and integrating their knowledge and their horses into their culture was not a sign of the weakness of the indigenous peoples of North America. Queen Isabelle’s policy of banning Caballos del Campo worked in South America.Whether or not there were pre-Columbian equids in South America, there were and are no war-like Horse Tribes roaming the Pampas.

We do know that the mercenary troops that drove out the Moors also worked for the highest bidder and the Spanish treasury was empty. As one Castilian informed me, the Spanish Royalty did not care if the soldiers on their way to the New World sank on their way out of the harbor. They just wanted them out of Spain at any cost, so enemies of the Spanish Crown could not hire them.

And Queen Isabella did not want those same mounted mercenaries establishing themselves in the New World. She forbade exporting any Caballos del Campo, horses that excelled at working cattle and warfare, to the New World. Instead, she ordered only Caballos del Camino be shipped across the seas as gaited road horses did not lend themselves to warfare.

However, one enterprising captain the Queen engaged early on is reported to have sold her gaited horses from the Royal stables off, supposedly to pay a gambling debt. He then filled his ships with Caballos del Campo instead. Much to the Queen’s displeasure, he brought the horses bred to work cattle and wage war, along with the men who had lived and fought with their horses for millennia, to North America.

There is also evidence that the Horse Tribes in Spain were among those facing persecution under the Spanish rule. A Pope Calixtus issued an edict forbidding the local Spaniards from doing their rituals in the caves painted with horses soon after the Moors were driven out of Spain. Those rituals likely had truly ancient roots. In the early 1900s the Portuguese authority on Spanish horses, D’Andrade, demonstrated that the 25,000 year old bone implements found in the Iberian caves painted with horses were identical to the ones the local peoples of Portugal still used to make rope out of horsehair.

Those horses and the men who traveled with them would have been very early refugees from Spain. The men would have married into the native population, as very few Spanish women made the journey across the ocean.There is even a story among the Santo Domingo that when Jesus first arrived with his horses, he was a welcome ally who shared his faith and his assets freely.

And, like the Comanche, they would have actively resisted being documented and recognized by agents of the Spanish Crown. Surviving the European onslaught has not been easy anywhere in the Americas. But the Horse Tribes in North America are still here.

Those that did survive enthusiastically adopted and adapted whatever, and often whomever, they found useful from those they encountered. Making allies of people who knew European culture and war tactics in the face of the inevitable changes overtaking the continent was a wise and advantageous move for them. They are still around and still fighting for the survival of themselves and their horses.

*Jack Hayes insisted that aspiring Rangers ride drills like the Comanche. Those drills included picking objects as small as a silver dollar up off the ground from the back of a galloping horse. They also had to demonstrate that they could stand up in the saddle, throw themselves to the side of the horse, shoot under their neck and rise up again, immediately repeating the exercise to the other side. They had to be able to shoot both pistols and rifles accurately from horseback at any speed. Hayes even had his Texas Rangers traveling light and at night while riding horses that were at least partly bred from the same Spanish Mustangs as the Comanche relied on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.