From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This Page: Indian Dependence on Bison, the Coming of the Horse.

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Herd on the Move, W. J. Hays, 1862

At the time of the mountain men, the Indians upon the great plains were dependent upon the bison and the horse. But scarely a hundred years before, when the first white men ventured into the northern Rocky Mountain West, not all tribes had horses. Thus, in 1731, when Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye (1685-1749), began his expeditions in search of a route across the continent to the Pacific, the Indians had no horses. Thirteen years later, when his two sons, François and Louis-Joseph de la Verendrye, continued their father's quest, horses amongst the Indians they encountered appeared to be common. The two sons were the first white men to venture into present day Wyoming, reaching an area near present-day Sheridan in January 1743. The expedition, however, could not proceed when it lost its Indian guides. François explained:

We continued our march until the 8th of January. On the 9th we left the village, and I left my brother behind to guard our baggage which was in the lodge of the Bow chief. Most of the people were on horseback marching in good order. Finally on the twelfth day we arrived at the mountains. For the most part they are well wooded with timber of every kind and appear very high.
Being near the main village of the Gens du Serpent our scouts came to inform us that they had all made their escape with great precipitation, and that they had abadoned their lodges and a large part of their effects. this report caused terror among all our people, for they feared that the enemy, having discovered them, had made for their villages and would get there before they could. The chief of the Gens de l'Arc did what he could to get that idea out of their heads and persuade them to go forward, but no one would listen to him. "It is very annoying," he said to me, "that I have brought you so far and that we cannot go any farther."
I was greatly mortified not to be able to climb the mountains as I had wished. We then decided to return.
Journal of the Expedition of the Chevalier de La Vérendrye and One of His Brothers to Reach the Western Sea, Addressed to M. the Marquis de Beauharnois, 1742-43

Buffalo Hunt Under the White Wolf Skin, George Catlin, 1844.

In the above painting, the Indians, disquised as white wolves, are creeping up on the bison. Catlin (1796-1872) toured the American West five times beginning in 1830. His purpose was to document scenes that he believed would be shortly gone. Prior to the coming of the horse, the Indians' only beast of burden was the domestic dog. Thus, travel was limited, tipis were small and the transportation of provisions was only that which could be carried by hand or on small travois pulled by dogs. The Indians were, thus, confined mainly to the periphery of the Great Plains. Game and bison were only those caught by braves on foot. Bison could be killed by sneaking up on the animals in disquise, by surrounding a small number of the beasts, or by stampeding a herd from a precipice, a method later to be referred as a "buffalo jump." Edward S. Curtis described the method used:

The earliest method of killing buffalo was by making camp around the herd, with the tipis pitched close together, side by side; then two young men with waka bows and arrows ran around the entrapped animals, singing medicine-songs to bring them under a spell, so that the people could close in and kill large numbers. Following this primitive method, they slaughtered numberless bison by driving them into a compound -- a stockade-like enclosure, usually of logs, at the foot of some abrupt or sheer depression, its plan of construction depending on the nature of the ground. In a mountainous region, where the buffalo plains might end at a high cliff, no enclosure was needed. The long line of stampeded animals would flow over the precipice like a stream of water, to be crushed to death in their fall. There was no possibility of drawing back at the brink; the solid mass was irresitibly forced on by its own momentum, and the slaughter ended only with the passing of the last animal that had been decoyed or driven into the stampede. At other times the embankment over which the buffalo ran was only high enough to form one side of the enclosure. In rare instances pens were built on the open prairie, and at one side of the stockade was thrown up an inclined approach along with the buffalo were driven to fall at its end into the corral.

The most famous of Wyoming's buffalo jumps is the Vore Buffalo Jump located near Beulah. From the layers of bones, scientists have estimated that some 20,000 bison were killed at the site and that it was in use as late as 1800 A.D. Other buffalo jumps have been located near Sheridan, the Big Goose Jump, used about 1500 A.D.; the Glenrock Jump and one on Steamboat Mountain in the Red Desert.

Buffalo Jump

Curtis continues:

The manner of driving and decoying the bison was a varied as the form of the slaughter-pen; but whatever the method, the purpose and results were the same -- the object was to stampede the herd, or a part of it, and to direct the rapidly moving animals to a given point, the Indians knowing that, once well in motion, they would run into their own destruction. The Sioux built out in rapidly diverging lines from the pen a light brush construction, not in truth a fence, as it was only substantial enough to form a line. Men concealed themselves behind this brush, and when the herd was well inside the lines the hunters rose up and by shouting and waving their blankets frightened the animals on. Sometimes a man skilful in the ways of the bison would disguise himself in one of their skins and act as leader of the drove to the extent of starting them in their mad rush. By this method the Indians simply took advantage of a characteristic habit of the buffalo -- to follow their leader blindly. The movement grew into a stampede, and forced the leading animals before it. If the advance was toward a sharp gully, it was soon filled with carcasses over which the stream of animals passed; if toward swampy land or a river with quicksand bed, numbers were swalllowed in the treacherous depths. If it happened that the route took the herd across a frozen lake or stream, the ice might collapse with their combined weight and drown hundreds; and the Indians relate many instances in which during winter the herd failed to see the edge of an arroyo or a small cañon filled with drifted snow and were buried one after another in its depths, the buffalo seemingly not having sufficient instinct of self-preservation to stop or turn aside.

Wild Horses, George Catlin

The coming of the horse to the Great Plains was as a result of the Indians driving the Spanish out of New Mexico at the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Revolt was one of only three times, that the Indians successfully drove (albeit temporarily) white men out of an area. See Note below. The Spanish in the conquest of the Aztec Empire utilized horses, an animal which to the Indians must have seemed terrifying. In the years following the defeat of the Aztecs, the Spanish moved northward in their quest for gold and the salvation of the souls of the Indians. In 1598, Juan de Oñate had established the mission pueblo of San Juan along the Rio Grande River in present day New Mexico. In New Mexico, ranchos were established on which the Spanish bred horses. The Indians who worked on the ranchos were, however, forbidden to own horses. Conflicts arose between the military and the Church in the administration of the new territory. Under the Spanish bureauacracy, canon law was supreme and military administration was subordinate. The method of converting the Indians to Chirstianity and the forced abandonment of the old gods was often at the end of a whip. For eighty-two years, the Indians in New Mexico endured what was, in essence, slavery. They were forced to toil in the fields for the benefit of the Spanish, to construct the mission churches, abandon their religion and adopt Christian names. In 1675, the Spanish governor seized 47 of the Indian medicine men. In Sante Fe, the Indians were publicly whipped, three were hanged, and one committed suicide. One of the Indian medicine men who tasted the end of the Spanish lash was Juan de Popé. Under threat of a revolution by the Inidans, the governor released the remaining 43 medicine men including Popé. Popé returned to the pueblo of Taos. There, he received a revalation from the god Poheyemo that he was to lead his people against the Spanish.

Supplies to the Spanish colonies in New Mexico came by wagon from old Mexico but once every three years. The scheduled supply wagon train was for 1680. Knowing that the Spanish were low on supplies pending the arrival of the train, Popé quietly spread word amongst the different pueblos for a simultaneous uprising.

On August 10, the Pueblo Indians arose and took control of all pueblos except Isleta. There, the Lieutenant Governor Alonso Garcia was beseiged. In Sante Fe, Governor and Captain-General, Don Antonio de Otermin, recieved word of the uprising and the killing of priests and the alcalde mayors of other towns. And even before orders could be relayed, the captain-general, on his way to mass, received news of yet more deaths of priests, governmental officials, ranchers, and messengers and their escorts. Refugees informed of Otermin of the burning of the convents and churches. Soon the governor found himself under seige in the governmental houses. The Indians gave Otermin a choice, to go in peace or death. The governor made no response. The Indians dammed off the stream which provided water to the plaza in front of the governor's palace. In Isleta, Lt. Governor Garcia, believing the captain-general to be dead, began a retreat to El Paso del Rio del Norte, present-day Juárez City. With no relief from the Lt. Governor and thrice wounded, Otermin fought on. But without water or other supplies, the Governor found it necessary to abandon Sante Fe. The Indians watched without attacking as he retreated all the way to El Paso del Rio del Norte. The Indians burned the ranchos, the churches, and convents. The holy objects within the churches were defiled. Christian names were banned. Spanish crops such as barley and wheat were destroyed, to be replaced by the traditional maize and beans. The bodies of the dead priests were dumped in garbage pits or in front of the doors of their churches. Yet there one thing the Indians did not destroy, the herds of Spanish horses. Thus, the Pueblo Indians continued the breeding of horses, trading them to the Utes and the Commanches. In turn, horses were adopted by the Cheyenne, the Araphaho, the Crow, the Sioux, and the Shoshoni.

Lassoing Wild Horses, F. O. C. Darley.

By about 1740, horses reached present-day Wyoming. Today, descendents of those horses wander the Red Desert, the Prior Mountains, and, until recently, between Meeteetse and Cody. DNA testing has confirmed that those mustangs are almost pure-blooded Spanish horses descended from those captured at the time of the Pueblo Revolt.

Wild Horses, George Catlin

Next page: The Buffalo Hunters.