The First Horse Nations of North America
 By Winniefield Park   •   21st Feb 2018   •   859 views   •   0 comments
The First Horse Nations of North America

It wasn’t long after the Spaniards arrived in what we now know as the Americas that the indigenous people who lived here began to see the value of the horses they brought. Whether they were gifts, captured strays or perhaps stolen, the horse would come to change everything for these civilizations.

But the people that we most often picture and are known as the ‘horse nations’ were not the first to get horses. They would have to wait for the gradual north and westward movement of settlers and their horses. Cortez is regarded as the explorer who brought the first horse from Spain. He first came to what is now Mexico in the early 1500s. But it took almost 100 years before horses in any number appeared in North America when colonists began moving through what is now New Mexico.

It was during this colonization period that the native people in that area learned to use and care for horses. The colonists regarded the Pueblos, who lived in New Mexico, as cheap labor and used them to work their farms. They were largely slaves with few rights. And, there was a law that they could not own any horses. But, over time, some of the people escaped the Spaniards, and other neighboring Navajo tribes conducted raids on the colonists. By the end of the 1600s, the Pueblos forced the Spaniards south and in their retreat, they left behind horses.

Even though the Pueblos learned horsemanship skills from the Spaniards, they never really became a horse nation, but rather, traded and sold them to neighboring tribes. The Navajo, whose lands were just to the northwest, in what is now northern Arizona learned how to use the horses for raids and hunting as did the Kiowa and Comanche of Texas to the north-east and to the north the Ute and Arapaho.

That the horse didn’t really ‘catch’ on with the Pueblos might have to do with the lack of pasture and the fact the Pueblos seemed to regard them as valuable for trade. As a non-nomadic tribe, travel was not their priority. But, for the semi-nomadic plains peoples, the horse replaced dogs and women for moving their villages from place to place. The teepee was a sort of mobile home, with the poles used for a travois, and the coverings used to contain their possessions. The horse made moving much easier and faster. It also made hunting bison easier.

Those that began to follow the herds of bison throughout the Great Plains became known as horse nations. Before the horse, these tribes would travel about 50 miles to hunt, but the horse expanded their range by about ten times. These tribes included the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Lakota, Lipan, Plains Apache, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe, Pawnee, Sarsi, Shoshonee, Nakoda, and Tonkawa. Although there were many other plains tribes, they were sedentary, living in small communities trading, hunting and farming for their subsistence. Many others would have been horse traders, bartering with the bison nations for hides, dried meat, and fat.

This explains why tribes to the west, east and northeast as well as to the far north did not become horse nations. With no need to follow game, more forested or even frigid terrain and other resources at their disposal, like the Pueblos, they simply had little use for horses.

The way of life of the bison or horse nations as most of us picture it lasted approximately 100 years until Europeans began to colonize the interior of the continent. These were not the Spaniards continuing to push north, but colonists from other places in Europe and the eastern seaboard of the newly made United States of America. And, they brought with them their own beasts of burden - horse and oxen. This push west led to a sad end to civilizations that had existed largely unchanged for thousands of years. By the late 1800s, the way of life of the horse nations was at an end.

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