In the United States today people from all corners of the earth come together to form a melting pot. It can be described as a mesh of diversity which melds together to form a unique nation. The uniqueness of this country can best be attributed to by the contributions made by each of the different cultures that call it home. While many of these contributions may go unnoticed some have vastly changed the lifestyles of those who inhibit this land. As it remains well documented the first inhabitants of what was known as the New World were the American Indians. What may have been viewed by outsiders as a simple way of life was much rather a complicated oneness with the land which was shared by all of the different tribes. This lifestyle, however, was greatly changed with the arrival of the Europeans. Many new things where introduced to the Indians. It can be disputed that theses “new things” may have, in the long run, done more harm than good. Three of the more influential “gifts” introduced to the New World were the gun, liquor, and the horse. This paper will examine the affect of the horse on the Indian way of life.
In the present day, the many purposes that horses had served have been replaced by modern technology. They are now viewed as luxury pets or as sports items. However, the horse had a great impact on the human lifestyle in the past, especially that of the Indians of the New World. According to archaeologists, the horse was present when the Indians first set foot on the American continent, but it was never tamed (Wissler 264). The Indians may have hunted the wild horse for food and used its skin for various purposes, similar to the buffalo. This could have possibly led to the extinction of the horse in the New World long before the arrival of the Europeans. While Indians of the past are stereotypically believed to have use nature to the fullest they may have overlooked the many benefits a tamed horse could provide. If these wild, hunted horses were tamed then the outcome of the arrival of the Europeans could have been drastically different.
The horse was introduced to the New World through early Spanish expeditions around the Gulf of Mexico. It had been believed that bands of wild horses, which later populated the country, had originated from the strays of Coronado’s and De Soto’s sixteenth century expeditions (Wissler 265). However, in Indians of the United States Clark Wissler states, “…inspection of the chronicles – many of which gave statistics on numbers of horses, and details of their losses – would indicate the impossibility of populating the country by strays” (265). This virtually destroys the idea that all of the wild horses of the New World originated from strays.
One can assume that there had to have been enormous number of strays in order to populate the country, which apparently was not the case. Wissler goes on to state: It is known that horses were deliberately introduced into and bred in South America, and although the question of the wild herds of mustangs may not have satisfactorily been answered… the acquisition of horses by the Indians of North America was by ‘direct action’ on the part of the Indians, or the Spaniards and other settlers, or both. (265) It is being suggested that man, Indian or other, had a direct involvement in populating North America with wild horses. However this may have happened, soon after the introduction of the horse to the New World, Indians on horseback became common.
The natural habitat of the horse is the grassland. However according to A Sense of the American West by James Sherow, “The reliance upon plains grasses meant certain obstacles in maintaining healthy horses in winter… Healthy Indian horses in the fall suffered from malnutrition by the end of winter” (Sherow 98). While the grasslands, which supported the horses, were plentiful it was difficult to maintain the health of large herds. However, this did not discourage Indians (men, women and children) to ride horses. As a result the previously wild horse developed a new order of life (Wissler 265).
The horse became a very beneficial tool in aiding the hunting of buffalo, which was the most common game for Indians. Buffalo meat served as food while the skin provided many different amenities such as clothing and covering for shelters. Wissler accounts how the Indian hunted its pray, “Horses were trained to ride beside a running buffalo until the arrows of the rider felled the animal, then to overtake another, leaving the hands of the rider free to manipulate the bow” (265). The horse almost became a passive weapon in the hands of the Indian. It was manipulated to meet the demanding needs of its rider.
The horse also proved to be an excellent tool for its riders in combat. It appears that the Indians used the horse to its outmost capabilities. The many uses of which seemed to be limited only to the imagination. Wissler states: Like all enthusiasts he devised new tricks: he could hang from the back of the horse by one leg, throw his bow arm over the neck, reach through underneath with an arrow in the other hand, and shoot at his enemies with a minimum exposure of his own body. (265) Indian roles in film and television have often been greatly exaggerated.
They are depicted as being one with nature and masters of horsemanship. However, this one depiction of the use of the horse may not have been as greatly exaggerated as one would believe. Wissler goes on to state that, “The young men were trained to bring away their dismounted and dead, reaching down and picking them up by one hand on the run and then dragging them to safety” (266).
As stated before the horse enabled its Indian rider to become a better warrior. Wissler recounts army officers’ descriptions of Indians fighting in 1870’s: The Indian began by galloping single file around the soldiers and, coming within range, would fire at every exposed head or body. Usually the Indians hung from the off side of the horse, thus reducing the chance of being hit by the soldiers’ fire. The line of riders would draw gradually closer, thus making the fire more effective. If their losses were not great, they eventually rode over the surviving soldiers and thus annihilated them. (267) The Indians were already very skilled warriors, but the horse made them more versatile. While very useful in combat, the horse served an even more important role. It made the Indian mobile.
Mobility seems to be the greatest benefit provided by the horse. Before horses were tamed, Indian tribes would travel on foot and were limited as to what they could carry with them. Travel could now be done more rapidly and with greater amenities with the acquisition of the horse. Wissler argues that, “The changes in Indian life brought about by this new mode of travel were even greater than those produced by the automobile in our time” (266). He suggests that the reasons for this are that the increased mobility gave a broader outlook, more leisure, new experiences, and inhibited sedentary occupations (266). The Indians were no longer limited to as where they could travel. It seems that the horse made their life more efficient in ways.
While many Indians used horses there were some who did not. The mode of life along with the environment determined whether a tribe became “thoroughgoing horse Indians” or remained foot Indians (267). Wissler states that, “It is significant to note that where wild horses were abundant, the Indians were mounted” (267). He argues that an explanation for this may be that when the horses could live in a wild state, then the Indians could posses them (267).
This may be because the Indians assumed that the horse was an animal capable of foraging for itself and as a result did not need to be pampered. However, northern Indians’ herds faced problems such as the harsh winter cold and lack of food (Sherow 99). Soon the Indians discovered ways of better taking care of their horses when food was not readily available by cutting off tops of branches and felling trunks so the horses could more easily gnaw the bark (Wissler 268).
The horse was an item which drastically changed the lifestyle of the American Indians. Not only did it prove to be an excellent tool in hunting and battle but it also made the Indians mobile. Tribes could now travel at a quicker pace and could carry more supplies. Something that was once hunted for food was later revered as an ally. The impact of the introduction of the horse to the New World was far greater than one could have expected at the time. What if the horse was never reintroduced to the New World? What if the Indians had already mastered horsemanship before the arrival of the Europeans? These are questions which are best be left to the imagination.