Horses on the Plains

Thomas Kavanagh, Curator (tkavanag@UCS.INDIANA.EDU)
Tue, 31 Jan 1995 09:31:57 -0500

Warning LONG POST!
Andrew Petto asks about review articles on horses on the
Plains. Unfortunately, there are no good recent ones. Most folks
would begin with Chad Oliver's 1962 "Ecology and Cultural
Continuity..." However, there are serious flaws with that
argument, most seriously because he begins with the Mooney-
Kroeber-Eggan-Lowie position that the Plains were unoccupied
before the horse, or at best by 'skulkers in the woods.'
Moreover, as Waldo Wedel has pointed out, this model is more the
result of the absence of archaeological evidence.
A more ecologically sound model would take into account the
interactiosn between several variables: buffalo, horses, and
Since earliest times resource domains on the Plains have
been derived from the buffalo. Unfortunately, there are no good
first-hand descriptions of hunting until the nineteenth century,
long after the addition of the horse. But several general
inferences can be made from other sources. While individual or
small group stalking is no doubt of extreme antiquity, the most
productive pre-horse hunting technique was the trap, fall, or
pound (Ewers 1955:302-4). The archaeological evidence for the
productivity of pre-horse buffalo hunting techniques reaches back
to at least the Olsen-Chubbock event, ca. 8500 B. C. That day,
almost 200 animals were killed; the 150 fully butchered animals
yielded some 60,000 pounds of "usable" meat, plus another 10,000
pounds of tallow, marrow, and "variety" meat. Depending upon
several variables, including percentage of meat preserved and the
presence of dogs, the product could have fed 50 people--with no
dogs--for over three months, or 100 people and 100 dogs for 22
days (Wheat 1972:121). Even then, only 75 of the kill was
butchered, 150 animals out of 200 killed, a probably standard
percentage; fuller utilization of the kill might have added
another several thousand pounds of meat, with a concomitant
increase in either the supportable population or the duration of
the organization, but not both.
Such hunts required organization and coordination. They
required investment in an infrastructure, at least a knowledge of
the potentials of the terrain for traps or falls, greater for an
investment of labor in the corral, pound, and drive lines. They
required an ideology and social structure that could mobilize and
organize the combined labor of a number of people. Ethno-
historically reported communal pounds and drives among horse poor
groups were under the direction of the "pound-maker," often, but
not necessarily, a shaman, who distributed the meat and hides to
all present for further processing and final consumption. Such an
economy was redistributional, with a flow into and out of a
center. In turn, the control of this redistribution would have
been the source of political power. Depending on specific
conditions, a trap needed at least 24 grown males (Frison
1971:89). Lowie (1909) reported that the horse-poor Assiniboines
made drive lines two miles long which were manned every ten feet;
this is probably an over-generalization, for at such figures,
some 2,112 people would have been required for the lines. Even at
twice the distance between drivers, several hundred people would
have been required. However, depending upon the successes of the
hunts, such large numbers of people could have been supported by
the technology, and there is ethnohistorical evidence for large
assemblages. Arthur (1975:111) notes that "the Assiniboine were
noted for their large winter camps," often in the range of 200-
300 lodges. At 8 persons per lodge, some 1,600-2,400 people could
have been in these camps.
It was into such a situation that horses were introduced.
The initial effect of the horse would have been to expand the
range of search parties and to ease the job of maneuvering the
animals to the traps. In doing so, the horse would have added a
new source of economic and political power: by controlling access
to his horses, a horse owner--there are no reports of communal
ownership of horses--could control access to the products of the
hunt. But as the horse population grew, the necessity of
cooperation in buffalo hunting decreased: individual horse-
mounted buffalo hunters could produce as much as pedestrian
communal hunts with significantly less infra-structural and
structural costs. Thus, in political terms, the horse would have
democratized access to the buffalo, transforming its economic
role from being the basis of the political economy to being
primarily an object in the domestic economy.
However, other processes intervened. The largest post-horse
hunts were the so-called running hunts, in which mounted hunters
charged the herds in a coordinated attack under the direction of
a chief hunter, and with the enforcement of hunt rules by a
police force. The political importance of these hunts lies not in
their productive activity--a single horse mounted hunter was more
efficient in terms of input/output ratios--but in their
restrictions upon that production. As in the coincident economic
revolution in Euro-America, having access to the means of
production was not sufficient to control political power,
restricting access of others was equally important in maintaining
power. This is what the men's societies-as-police did. As Ewers
notes of the Blackfeet,
police regulation of the summer hunt . . . preserved the
fiction of equal opportunity for all. Actually, it enabled
the owner of the fastest running horse to get first chance
at the herd and deprived the poor man, who owned no buffalo
horse of the right to hunt. It is obvious that under such
conditions the poor would have been much worse off then they
would have been under pre-horse conditions, when every
family participated actively in the hunt and shared of its
spoils, unless special provisions were made for their
benefit. The Blackfoot adopted two measures necessary for
the welfare of the poor: (1) the loaning of buffalo horses .
. . and (2) the presentation of outright gifts of meat.
In adding to the prestige of the already wealthy, these "special
provisions" served to maintain the existing distribution of
social power as well as drawing supporters into the circle of
power. Thus, although buffalo retained an importance in the
household domestic economy and in the cosmology after the
introduction of the horse, they constituted a direct political
resource domain only insofar as access was controllable.
The advent of the horse meant that controlling access to the
buffalo was transformed from a direct to an indirect political
resource domain; conversely, insofar as changes in domestic
economy could affect the political climate, the buffalo retained
a political significance. One of the most historically important
of such changes was that by the first third of the nineteenth
century, the "Little Ice Age" precipitation cycle, begun in the
1500s and resulting in increased buffalo and human populations,
had reversed. This initiated a general decline in the buffalo
carrying capacity leading to increasing pressures on the herds by
the existing human population. This pressure was exacerbated by
first the forced migration of eastern Indians, and later by the
presence of white hide hunters. These latter not only decimated
the remaining herds, but their very commercial activity bypassed
the Indians as producers of hides, whose trade had been an
important source of individual income, and whose control was an
important political resource domain for their chiefs.
At the same time, given an increased population in the
period 1500-1800, there would also be increased intergroup
pressures; thus one would expect wars of territorial exclusion,
and with increasingly structured military actions (Reher
1977:35). The appearance of stockaded villages on the Middle
Missouri during this period, antedating the horse, suggests such
pressures. Increased tensions would also place a value on
military capability. Pre-horse battles on the Plains were fought
between opposing lines of what may be called heavy infantry,
armored and with shields, who shot arrows at each other from the
protection of a shield wall until "one chief decided to
substitute shock for fire" and ordered a charge. The battle then
ended with a hand-to-hand melee (Thompson 1916; Secoy 1953:34).
The horse would not have immediately disrupted the
aboriginal military patterns. Along with the horse came the heavy
cavalry tactics of the Spaniards including mass shock attacks by
leather-armored horsemen (Secoy 1953:18). Like the heavy infantry
tactics of pre-horse battles, these depended on discipline and
coordination for their effectiveness, and required definite
leadership. But the use of such heavy cavalry tactics by Indians
would have been offset until the number of horses available
surpassed a certain undefinable risk level; if horses were
primarily used in hunting, there was a risk to their economic
value in using them in warfare. Later, however, the general mode
of acquisition of the horse by aiding emphasized the light
cavalry tactics stereotypical of later Plains warfare. Such
coordinated efforts were maintained for the large-scale wars.
Moreover, soon after the introduction of the horse came that of
the gun, providing both a long range defense against the shock
tactics of heavy cavalry as well as emphasizing the value of
light tactics.
Shimkin (1947) described the interaction of these forces,
"More horses would have meant closer pursuit of the buffalo,
better defense in war . . . but also less fodder per head,
consequently more frequent moving, and temptation to horse
raiders. Fewer horses would have meant longer stays, but poorer
defense, less close pursuit of the buffalo" (1947:268). Thus, by
devaluating the prestige system built on the relative number of
horses owned, by devaluating the need for social nucleation in
hunting, and simply because increased horses put a strain on the
immediate resources, increased absolute numbers of horses were a
force for atomization. Counterposed were forces stressing
societal maintenance. In particular, the increased population
density brought about by both internal population growth and by
migration to the Plains by peripheral peoples brought increased
pressures towards military organization and tribal nationalism.

Thomas Kavanagh
Curator of Collections
Mathers Museum
Indiana University