Animals and History: The Horse and Native Americans

Plains tribes horses
Figure 1.--The horse gave the Plains peopls unprecedented mobiity and a ay to hunt buffalo. Here Native Americans of the Northern Plains, prbably the Sioux, use teepee poles slung behond the holes to carry people and possessions.

Although the horse originatd in North America, they disappeared in North America along with other mega-fauna soon after Siberian hunters crossed the Bearing sea ice bridge and began populating the New World. Proto-Indians may have hunted horses, but they never domesticted them. It was on the Great Planes that the Native Americans acquired horses. The Plains cultural area was the immense prairie laying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, meaning modern day Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico. Their culture and life style before the arrival of the Europeans was very different. They spoke Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan languages. They lived fairly settled lives, hunters and farmers. The first Europeans they contacted were Spanish explorers and traders. As Coronado (1510-54) found out, there were no great empires or developed sources of gold (16th century). And it did not seem promising for agriculture. The Spanish thus showed little interest in the Great Plains. The Spanish, however, had a huge impact on the Plains peoples. The Spanish brought horses back to the New World where they originated and had gone extinct. The Spanish war horses played an important role in the stunning successes of the Conquistadores. The Spanish horses were domesticated, but over time some escaped from the Spanish and a wild population began populting the vast grasslands of the Great Plains. And as the Plains Tribes began acquiring these horses their lives began to tranform. They became much more nomadic. Horses gave them the capability of moving long distances. This process was well underway (mid-17th century). Horses greatly increased the effectiveness of the Plains peoples in hunting bufalo. The tribes with the most horses were the most prosperous because of their great value in hunting. Thus an important part of Plsins' culture was stealing horses from rival tribes. Not only did it transform the people of the Plains, but it gave them a military capabilty that Native Americans did not formerly possess. For those reason the Spanish and the Mexicans thay followed them did not settle on the Plains or Southwest. These were the people that Americans came in contact with after the Louisian Pirchase (1803), beginning with the Lewsis and Clarke Expedition. As late as the mid-19th century, the region was still poplated primarily by Native Amerians. Mexicans were limitd to a few small settlements and missions. Tribes like the Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyene, Comanche, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee, Sioux, Teton-Dakota, and several other smaller tribes used their horses to follow vast herds of buffalo across the prairie and to war with each other. Until they had horses, hunting buffalo was a daunting undertaking. They lived in cone-shaped teepees, bufalo-skin tents that could be heasily disassembled and noved using their horses as they followedthe herds. The Plains Indians alo used buffallo hides for clothing and feathers for decorative head wear. They became the image of Native americans that we seein modern books and movies--all except for the feathers due to the horse.

North American Extinction

Although the horse originatd in North America, they disappeared in North America along with other mega-fauna. Proto-Indians may have hunted horses, but they never domesticted them.
Reserchers still debate why this occurred. Notably, the extinction occured soon after Siberian hunters crossed the Bearing sea ice bridge and began populating the New World. It may be that the Protp-Indins hunted horses to extinction. This is a possibility that Native amerivans today with their enviromental ethic reject and mny find offensive.

The Great Plains

It was on the Great Planes that the Native Americans acquired horses. The Plains cultural area was the immense prairie laying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, meaning modern day Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico. Their culture and life style before the arrival of the Europeans was very different. They spoke Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan languages. They lived fairly settled lives, hunters and farmers. The first Europeans they contacted were Spanish explorers and traders. As Coronado (1510-54) found out, there were no great empires or developed sources of gold (16th century). And it did not seem promising for agriculture. The Spanish thus showed little interest in the Great Plains.

Reintroduction

The Spanish, however, had a huge impact on the Plains peoples. The Spanish brought horses back to the New World where they originated and had gone extinct. The first first horses to be reintroduced in the Americas came with the Spanish after Columbus' discovery of the America (1492). The Spanish war horses played an important role in the stunning successes of the Conquistadores. Hernando Cortez began the process after he landed in Mexico with 500 men and 15 horses (1519). His small calvalry force was of critical importance. The amazed Aztecs had never seen anything like his horses. And it was a Spanish calvalry charge into Tenochititlan that ended the 80 days of fighting there. The Spanish horses were domesticated, but over time some escaped from the Spanish and a wild population began populting the vast grasslands of the Great Plains where irnically they had originated.

Transformation of the Plains People

As the Plains Tribes began acquiring these horses their lives began to tranform. They became much more nomadic. Previously dogs were theonly pavkanimal the Native americns had in North America. Horses not gave them the capability of moving long distances, but also carrying more goods. This process was well underway (mid-17th century). Horses greatly increased the effectiveness of the Plains peoples in hunting buffalo. The mobility allowed the Plains Indians for the first time to follow the buffalo herds and hunt them. Tribes like the Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyene, Comanche, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee, Sioux, Teton-Dakota, and several other smaller tribes used their horses to follow vast herds of buffalo across the prairie and to war with each other. Until they had horses, hunting buffalo was a daunting undertaking. The tribes with the most horses were the most prosperous because of their great value in hunting. Thus an important part of Plains' culture became raiding rival tribes and making off with their horses. Several of the tribes like the Lakota Souix stopped farming altogeth anbd hunted buffalo as the mainstay of their economy. Not only did it transform the people of the Plains, but it gave them a military capabilty that Native Americans did not formerly possess. It essentially militaized important tribes, especilly the comnche. Warfare became endemic on the Plains. This also meant that the Spanish and the Mexicans thay followed them did not settle on the Plains or the Southwest. These were the people that Americans came in contact with after the Louisian Pirchase (1803), beginning with the Lewsis and Clarke Expedition. As late as the mid-19th century, the region was still poplated primarily by Native Amerians. Mexicans were limitd to a few small settlements and missions. They lived in cone-shaped teepees, bufalo-skin tents that could be heasily disassembled and noved using their horses as they followedthe herds. The Plains Indians alo used buffallo hides for clothing and feathers for decorative head wear. They became the image of Native americans that we seein modern books and movies--all except for the feathers due to the horse.






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Created: 4:58 PM 10/18/2015
Last updated: 4:58 PM 10/18/2015