The Introduction of Horses to the Southern Puget Sound Salish

By. Daniel L. Boxberger [Portions of this essay reprinted with permission of the author]

Abstract – Before the 1830s the Indians of the "plains" of South Puget Sound were distinguished as "horse" Indians as opposed to their neighbors who were "canoe" Indians. This paper will discuss the acquisition of horses by the Southern Puget Sound Indians and attempt to demonstrate that horses were a pre-contact occurrence west of the Cascade Mountains. The use of horses by these Indians well into the present century will also be explored.


If the Northwest Indian had been obliged to choose between his canoe and his house, he would doubtless have taken the canoe. It was necessary tor getting his living. Without it, he would have been penned forever on a narrow beach, with no chance to trade, to visit or go to war. He could have given up everything else which he made from cedar such as house, clothes and utensils, but his whole wav of life would have changed without the canoe (Underhill 1945:88).

There were certain permissive factors in the environment that allowed cultural developments in certain aspects of native culture. Some of these—dependence on exploitation of marine resources, elaboration of canoe navigation, emphasis on Woodworking — came to be distinctive of the areal culture (Drucker 1955: 9).

Dugout canoes of red cedar or redwood (only rarely were other woods used) were essential to the way of life of the Indians of the North Pacific Coast (Drucker 1965: 27).

How this way of life achieved its individuality is still under discussion. It is distinct from that of the Eskimos and the Plains Indians, and from the hunting Indians of Canada. The effect of the sea, of the coastal habitat, has all been important, and the symbols of marine fauna and of existence near the water color the mythology, art, ritual, and theater of these remarkable people (Hays 1975: xi-xii).

…they depended on sea and river transport and had an extensive knowledge of the local waters, and this was true of all these coastal people (Bancroft-Hunt 1979: 25). . . . .

This paper will discuss the introduction of horses to the Indians of the South Puget Sound areas, that is, the groups which today compose the reservation communities of Puyallup, Nisqually, Muckleshoot, and Chehalis, and consist of the identifiable bands of Skope-ahmish, Puyallup, Nisqually, Swanamish, Mical, Chehalis, Cowlitz, Taidnapam, Klickitat, and several other bands that inhabited the lowland area south and east of the lower reaches of the Puget Sound. . . . .

Horses in Southwest Washington

The first recorded contact with the people of South Puget Sound was the Vancouver expedition of 1792. Vancouver’s crew explored the inlets and bays in small boats during May of that year. There was no mention of horses by anyone involved in this expedition, but it must be remembered that horses would not necessarily be seen near the shoreline nor did the members of the expedition go ashore in the area of Southeast Puget Sound (the Nisqually flats and surrounding area) where horses could have conceivably been present.

There is one mention of horses west of the Cascade Mountains by another of these early ship bound explorers, but north of Puget Sound. The Spanish explorer Pantoja, on shore at Point Roberts (Isia de Zepeda) in 1792 recorded the following:

It was also learned from an Indian of eleven or twelve years of age, whom the storekeeper Jose Ignaeio Gonzalez bought, that on the north side there is some flat country through which many people come to trade for fish and stay for two moons, bringing iron, copper, and blue beads, wearing distinct dress and having different bows and arrows, some larger than theirs, and with some large quadrupeds, with a round hoof, a mane, and a long tail. They tie on the backs of these four tercios of fish and in order to make them travel whip them with a piece of hide. Comprehending from his signs that these were horses, a painting of one was shown to him. As soon as he saw it he said that that was what they were (Wagner 1933: 187).

A dozen years later Lewis and Clark noted that the range of horses did not extend beyond the "Great Falls" of the Columbia River (near the present city of The Dalles, Oregon), 15 February 1806: [spellings are from the original]

The horse is confined principally to the nations inhabiting the great plains of the Columbia extending from Latitude 40° to 50° N and occupying the tract of country lying between the rocky Mountains and a range (Cascades) of Mountains which pass the Columbia river about the great falls or from Longitude 116 to 121 West. In this exte(n)sive tract of principally untimbered country so far as we have lea(r)nt the following natives reside (viz) the Sosone or snake Indians, the Chopunnish, Sokulks, Cutssahnims, Chymnapums, E(c)helutes, Eneshuh, & Chilluckkittequaws, all of whom enjoy the benefit of that docile, generous and valuable animal the horse, and all of them except the last three have immence numbers of them. Their horses appear to be of an excellent race; they are lofty eligantly formed active and durable;

in short many of them look like the fine Engllish coarsers and would make a figure in any country. Some of the horses are pided (pied) with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with the black brown bey or some other dark colour, but much the larger portion are of an uniform colour with stars snips and white feet, or in this rispect marked much like our best blooded horses in Virginia, which they resemble as well in fleetness and bottom as in form and colours, the natives suffer them to run at large in the plains, the grass of which furnishes them with the only subsistence their masters taking no trouble to lay in a winters store for them, but they keep fat if not much used on the dry grass of the plains during the winter, no rain scarcely ever falls in these plains and the grass is short and but thin. The natives (except those near the R. Monts) appear to take no pains in selecting their male horses from which they breed, in short those of that description which I have noticed appeared much the most indifferent.

whether the horse was orrigeonally a native of this country or not it is out of my power to determine as we cannot understand the language of the natives sufficiently to ask the question, at all events the country and climate appears well adapted to this anamal. horses are said to be found wild in many parts of this extensive plain country, the several tribes of the Sosone who reside towards Mexico on the waters of (the Multnomah) river or particularly one of them called Sha-bo-bo-ah have also a great number of mules, which among the Indians I find are much more highly prized than horses, an eligant horse may be purchased of the natives in this country for a few beads or other paltry trinkets which in the U’States would not cost more than one or two dollars. This abundance and cheapness of horses will be extremely advantageous to those who may hereafter attem(p)t the fir trade to the East Indies by way of the Columbia river and the Pacific Ocean, the mules in the possession of the Indians are principally stolen from the Spaniards of Mexeco; they appear to be large and fine such as we have seen. among the Sosones of the upper part of the S.E. fork of the Columbia we saw several horses with Spanish brands on them which we supposed had been stolen from the inhabitants of Mexeco (Thwaites 1904: 73-74).

The preceding quote points out several important considerations: that the Plateau Indians were still getting their horses from the Shoshone (who in turn were getting them from the Spanish); that they had already developed breeding techniques; that there was not always sufficient pasturage; and that the horse was already so abundant that it could be purchased inexpensively. That horses could conceivably be used west of the mountains is evident in another quote from Lewis and dark, on 14 April 1806 at the "Great Falls,"

these are the first horses we have met with since we left this neighbourhood last fall, in short the country below this place will not permit the use of this valuable animal except in the Columbian vally and there the present inhabitants have no use for them as they reside immediately on the river and the country is too thickly timbered to admit them to run the game with horses if they had them (Thwaites 1904: 280).

As with Vancouver, Lewis and dark did not explore the area west of the Cascades and north of the Columbia River where the horses would have been found west of the mountains. The fact that they did not mention horses is not evidence that horses were not present.

The first recorded contact with horse-using Indians of South Puget Sound is from the journals of traders associated with the American Fur Company involved with the establishment of Fort Astoria in 1811. In June of 1812 Robert Stuart (1953: 31) reported that "Horses and Dogs are the only domestic animals in possession of the natives" unfortunately Stuart does not make it clear to which natives he was referring. Therefore we must take the statement of Alexander Henry (1897: 839) as the first proof of horses west of the mountains.

27 February 1814:

Our four Iroquois who had been up the Kowlitch returned last night; there are plenty of beaver in that river but the continual rising and falling of the water prevents success with traps. The natives there have some beaver in hoard, and wish us to come up, as they are not on good terms with the natives on the coast, and do not like to come here to trade. They have a great many horses which they use in hunting deer.

The Kowlitch is the Cowlitz River, and it is interesting to note that the first mention of horses would state that they had a "great many," if the Indians that the Iroquois hunters contacted were Salish (it is not likely they traveled up the river too far in one day) then the acquisition of horses by the Salish may have already had some antiquity.

After 1814 the mention of horses in the trader’s journals becomes commonplace. The traders could customarily purchase or "rent" horses from the Indians of the upper Cowlitz River to make the portage to the salt water of south Puget Sound. Ross, in 1814, states "the portage across the dividing ridge to the Chick-all-is River on the west is considerable but the means of transportation abundant, horses being everywhere plentiful" (Ray 1966: B-28). In 1828 Ermatinger noted "We hired a few more horses today, of which there appears to be no want on our road…the Indians are very anxious to lend them and that too at what I think a very moderate remuneration" (Ermatinger 1828: 5). In December of 1824 John Work obtained horses from the Holloweena Indians to portage from Black Lake to the Cowlitz River (Work 1824) and after the establishment of Fort Nisqually in 1833 the records mention hundreds of horses (Tolmie 1832-1835: passim).

If horses had been a post-contact phenomena west of the Cascade Mountains then we would not expect them to be so common so soon. We can only conclude that horses were introduced from the Yakima via the Klickitat over the mountain passes to the people of the Puget Sound lowlands. The question remains when?

We have argued that the Yakima received the horse by 1735. Extrapolating from the rapid spread of horses amongst other tribes we could conclude that the horse spread west of the mountains relatively quickly, yet lack of concrete evidence and prudence keeps us from establishing an early dateline. We know that the horse was abundant by 1814, the question arises, how long does it take to establish an abundant herd? Other scholars have glossed over this question or ignored it completely. Haines has suggested a theoretical possibility of one pair of horses producing 300 offspring in a period of twenty years (Haines 1938a: 113). Of course, this is assuming maximum reproduction rate, no deaths by predators, not any other environmental restrictions. It is not likely that wild herds would have increased much at all.

Other tribes seemingly depended more on horse stealing than horse rearing to acquire new animals. Franchere noted a Spokane woman who had seen a Spanish town in her youth (Anastasio 1972: 163), Lewis and dark noted Spanish brands on many Indian horses, and other tribes likely traveled afar to raid horses as well (Spier and Sapir 1930: 222 noted that the Klickitat had traveled to California on slave raids and undoubtedly expeditions were made to acquire horses too).

Despite the difficulties horses spread quite rapidly to the Plateau and we would lean toward the assumption that their spread to the South Puget Sound area was not delayed greatly. If we are to believe Haines the Shoshone spread the horse over an area of 2,000 kilometers in approximately thirty years and the horse spread from the Nez Perce to the Yakima in five years. If the Yakima had the horse by 1735 wouldn’t we expect their neighboring bands (i.e., the Klickitat) to also have horses at around the same time or shortly after? Carrying this one step further, if the Klickitat were accustomed to making the trek over the mountain passes wouldn’t the horse be a welcome addition to these excursions? Based on these presumptions we are inclined to believe that the horse made its first appearance west of the Cascade Mountains by the mid-1700s.

The Plains of Western Washington

The seemingly incongruent physiography of parts of Western Washington has been noted from very early on (see Norton 1979: 175-176). Norton has argued that the plains, or prairies, of this area were man-made in origin. Her argument is that periodic burning was an aboriginal form of land management that produced important food plants that otherwise would have been choked out by the climax forest. She quotes Dr. J. G. Cooper, a nineteenth century observer, as stating that "the introduction of the horse, about the beginning of this century, was further inducement for burning…" (Cooper 1860: 23). How

Cooper came by this date is not made clear in his paper as he does not elaborate but the important part of his statement is that he thought the Indians burned to create pasturage for their horses as well as food for themselves. To paraphrase the age old chicken and egg question, which came first the horse or the prairie? The answer is obvious. Since burning was just as common without the area as within, especially among the Skagit, Quileute, Hoh, and Twana (Norton 1979: 179, 181) and likely others as well, it would suggest that the horse-using Indians found these prairies a desirable place to keep horses, there was rarely summer drought or harsh winter weather as was common east of the mountains, and thus began the westward movement of Sahaptins and horses, with the Nisqually and other Coast Salish gradually adopting their use.

We would tend to believe that the spread of horses to the Salish Indians was a slower occurrence than the spread of horses between groups in the Plateau. Taylor’s (1960: 404) statement seems to support this. Taylor quotes Gibbs (1855) as classifying the Nisqually as "equestrian," but in 1838-9 two Nisqually villages only possessed 24 and 28 horses for populations of 258 and 132 respectively. Yet, in 1855, one Nisqually individual, the Chief Leschi, owned over fifty horses (Meeker 190: 348), and the Nisqually treaty was written to stipulate that the Indians be allowed to run their horses on unclaimed lands

(Boxberger 1979: 116). It appears that the Salish were less enthusiastic when it came to adopting horses than were the Sahaptins. Gradually though, the Salish were converted.

The Post-Settlement Era

The importance of the horse to these people cannot be overstated. Gibbs noted in the 1850s that these tribes were equestrian in their habits (1877: 178) and designated them as "horse Indians" in his chart (Ibid: 241). Leschi owned fifty horses and horses were important enough to warrant mention in the Medicine Creek Treaty. Yet, in 1838 the Hudson’s Bay Company census listed the Nisqually as possessing far fewer horses than the Klickitat (Taylor 1960: 402- 403). We have suggested that the Sahaptins moved west of the mountains, with their horses, and the Nisqually and other coast tribes adopted their use. Some tribes, the Nisqually, Cowlitz and Chehalis, gradually adopted their use, while neighboring tribes never did. For example, "the Puyallup have long been thought of as a salt water and river people in distinction to the horse owning Nisqually" (Smith 1940: xi). It is expected that the environmental restrictions, i.e., the extent of the prairies, limited the usefulness of the horse and therefore limited the extent of its spread west of the mountains.

The Nisqually continued to increase their herds and their dependence on the horse through the 1800s:

Indians at Nisqually spend much of their time on horseback wandering from place to place sheepherding (ARCIA 1871: 275).

By 1873 the Nisqually had enclosed their entire reservation (4717-1/2 acres) to keep their livestock from straying (ARCIA 1879:151).

This dependence upon horses continued well into the present century and whether the taking of a great deal of the best pasturage for Fort Lewis in 1914 or the lessened dependence on horses by the population in general caused their decline is open to study.


It has been demonstrated that the appearance of horses west of the Cascade Mountains in what is now Washington state was a pro-contact occurrence. Sahaptin-speaking Indians moving over the mountain passes from the interior brought horses with them possibly as early as the mid-1700s. Gradually these Sahaptins established permanent residence on the west side of the Cascades and taking advantage of the abundant pasturage, increased their herd sizes. By 1800 horses had spread to the neighboring Nisqually, Chehalis, and

Cowlitz, Salish-speaking Indians, who gradually adapted to their use. Environmental restrictions kept the horse from spreading to other Salish tribes.


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[This article originally appeared as an essay in Western Washington Socio-Economics: Papers in Honor of Angelo Anastasio edited by Herbert C. Taylor, Jr. and Garland Grabert. Bellingham, Washington: Western Washington University, 1984]

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