Indians, Horses and Empire.

by Daniel Russ on April 2, 2015


Red Cloud

Around the time the first Islamic tidal wave thrashed across Europe, there were sweeping changes about to occur in the thinly populated North American Continent. European empires from Portugal to France to England were all mapping and eyeing the potential resource rich lands of the New World. The Sioux Indians were residing in an area now in South Carolina. This migratory hunter-gatherer group lived as they had since the Neolithic age. They had fine crafted leatherwork, and bows and arrows. But they were soon to come across a new technology, one that would transform them from a meek prehistoric people, to a fearsome empire, centuries in the making. The requisite skills and force of only a modern army would dislodge it. I am reading The Heart Of Everything That Is: The Untold Story Of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Bobby Drury’s amazing story of the charismatic warrior leader of the Oglala Sioux. The prelude to his story is fascinating and alluring. Traditional history does not teach us the sweep of empire in North America the way it is depicted all around the world. We rarely followed the stories of how guns transformed a band of Indians into a massive tribe that forced other indigenous nations off their own lands. We rarely heard in school the word empire even used in a sentence with American Indians.

When the Sioux saw horses in the mid 16th century, a man festooned with shining body armor usually mounted these beautiful animals, and weapons that threw lethal lightning bolts that could stop a man or an animal in a second. Many Sioux originally thought the man and horse was the same animal. It didn’t take long before the technology and ideas and industry headed into the New World would endow the scraggly Sioux Indians with an ineluctable power to extend their reach.

They knew the animals were hard to come by, but few technological achievements gave the Indians an advantage like the horse. The Sioux like other Indians in North America travelled with their women and children in tow. Mostly they carried their own possessions as well. Fossil records tell us that there were eohippus, or early horse remains that had gone extinct in North America. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought new horses onto the North American continent and it turned out to be a perfect environment for the horses to thrive. The Sioux’s extraordinary knack for taming and breeding the horses guaranteed that the horse would not only remain in the American west in huge thunderous herds, but the horse would fundamentally change the history of the country. These were not the hulking, plodding pack animals pulling carts in Eastern Europe. These were horses whose breeds were established in the Central Plains of Asian where the Khans and Huns and the Tatars and the Parthians took to horses in a generations long breeding experiment that created the mustangs and stallions of western lore. These were bred with horses in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, and ridden across the arc of Western Europe by Moorish invaders.

The thousand or so horses that the Spanish brought into America by Cortez and Coronado were terrifying, and simultaneously fascinating and beautiful to the peoples from the Aztecs to the Comanche. They thought the Spanish who rode the horses were super natural beings, and began to reflect these notions in their art. Indians under the control of the Spanish often saw swift and cruel retribution for disobeying missives form Friars or prefects. In 1595, the Spanish slaughtered 800 men, women and children from Pueblos that refused to knuckle under. The removed the right foot of males over 24 and enslaved the women who survived. The Indians saw the speed the horses gave their Spanish tormentors. The horses allowed Spanish expeditions to carry so much more equipment, and move so swiftly, it didn’t take long before they understood what the technology would do for them. And like all oppressed people, a backlash was a necessary reaction.

This retribution all too often came on horseback. Coronado realized that the gravest threat to the Spanish would be Indians who were competent riders. It didn’t take long however before Southwest Apache tribes began raiding farms and redoubts of horses and tore down fencing and stoled them by the dozens. Some horses they slaughtered and ate. Others they trained and rode and used as pack animals and after long the Apaches were using horses in offensive raids against their ancient foes: the Pueblos. The Hell wrought upon the Pueblos went on for another century when they finally rose up under a charismatic leader Juan De Pope. The uprising was significant enough to force the Spanish missions and many settlers out of current day Texas and New Mexico. Franciscan priests were burned alive in their haciendas and their livestock slaughtered; except their horses. Now the Pueblos never took to horseflesh as a culinary delight. So they simultaneously threw open the doors to the holding pens of hundreds of Spanish holdings across the southwest.

This event actually is named the Great Horse Dispersal.

It was the wild herds of horses that attracted scraggly bands of Comanche to West Texas. They took the horse like a hand takes to the wrist it’s attached to. Within a half-century, the Ute, the Arapaho, Crows, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Pawnee were all mounted. All on mustangs.

Empires shifted. The Arikara were driven up the Missouri by Small Pox and collaborated with the Mandan to counter the fearsome Sioux. The Sioux soundly defeated them and went on to push the Kiowas out of their traditional hunting land. The Omaha, now mounted, settled in Nebraska but were eventually crushed by the Sioux.

Horses and guns meant everything here. Oral traditions of the Cheyenne track the transformation of the Comanche, from poor, lice ridden greasy people to powerful and rich with the horse.

Many anthropologists believe the introduction of the horse into Sioux culture destroyed it. Instead of becoming civilized land holding agrarians, the horse amplified their brutal Stone Age penchant for war and expansion until they finally sparked a backlash that killed them. Oglala historian Luther Standing Bear described the Black Hills of South Dakota as a reclining woman who fed the Sioux and hid them from white men.

In 1785 and 1786, there was an apocalyptic battle between the Crows and the Sioux. The Sioux won and the Crows began a long slow slide into oblivion. The Sioux especially hated certain tribes: The Crows, the Pawnee and the Kiowa. They were fine with the tall and stately Cheyenne, perhaps because they were related to the forbearers of the Sioux, the Algonquins

Oddly, the Crows and the Gros Ventres did not torture captives and were the only ones not too.

Horses made the Sioux not just dangerous, but prosperous. Sioux drove bison herds off cliffs on horseback versus previously when they wore wolf skins and hid on their bellies until it was time to surprise the animals. Sioux made raids miles and miles away and spread terror among their competitors.

The transformation of the Sioux and the Comanches would never have happened without the horse. Regarding empire and the Indians, I find it a cultural bias. The Parthians and Scythians had better metalwork technology, steel weapons, body armor and better agricultural science than the American Indians, but only because they purloined the things from better armed enemies fallen as casualties on the battlefield. That said, if this is interesting you, you must read Scott Gwynn’s Empire of the Summer Moon. It’s his biography of Quanah Parker and the fate of the Comanche empire.


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