by Ronald E. Diener - April, 1996

The Poppers, Frank and Deborah, proposed in 1987 that more than 139,000 square miles of the western Dakotas, western Nebraska and eastern Montana, plus additional lands in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming be set aside, for the development of an open range for wild animals to retake to themselves, chiefly the American bison. Basing their preliminary proposal on economic and demographic studies, they called this reserve Buffalo Commons.

The proposal reached its largest audience in an article by Anne Matthews in the New York Times Magazine on July 24, 1990. The heartiest support for it came from Sioux teacher and author, Vine Deloria, who saw the implications for the American Indians and their tribal lands.

The proposed Buffalo Commons follow, in broad outline but on a smaller scale, a proposal of George Catlin who formulated his plan one hundred fifty years earlier.

A native of the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania, Catlin was born in July 1796 in Wilkesbarre, when this area was still something of a frontier, representing "the West'' to those who lived in the large cities of the coastal seaboard. Starting his adult career as a lawyer, he pursued this profession for only five years, when he put down his Gladstone and took up brush and easel, to paint chiefly portraits in Philadelphia, Albany, and Washington D.C.

When he saw an entourage of a dozen or so Indians from the far west in Philadelphia, probably in 1829, he resolved that he would go to the frontier and beyond, to paint the Indian in his own surroundings. From 1832 to 1840 he painted 610 portraits of both famous and common Indians, as well as landscapes and scenes from Indian daily life.

To understand the man and the times, however, some historical context is needed. His seasonal painting days in the west occurred a little more than half way between the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the California gold rush.


Catlin repeatedly called for the government, courts, and military of the United States to protect the Indians from the white intruders and invaders into their treaty-secured lands. About thirty years after Catlin's western travels, the genocidal Indian policies of the U.S. culminated in the extermination of whole clans and almost whole nations of Indians. What the smallpox epidemics of 1837ff failed to accomplish, the rifles and artillery of the U.S. military forces did, slaughtering women, children, the aged, and the infirm as well as the Indian warriors both young and old. Catlin lived to see in the eastern and international press the gloatings and boastings of American military leaders over their expulsions and exterminations of the Western Indians: he died on December 23, 1872.

The major contemporary source of information about Catlin's western adventures are in his own words. Between 1830 and 1839, he serialized his "notes'' in the Daily Commercial Advertizer (New York). Later he wrote a lengthy introduction and compiled these articles into a two-volume collection, as he described his experiences and explicated his ideas about the American Indian. This collection's full title warrants careful reading:

Letters and notes on the manners, customs and condition of North American Indians, by Geo. Catlin. Written during eight years' travels amongst the wildest tribes of Indians in North America. In 1832, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38 and 39. In two volumes, with four hundred illustrations carefully engraved from his original pictures (London: published by the Author, at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. Printed by Tosswill and Myers, 24, Budge Row. 1841).
It was richly illustrated with steel engravings. Most extant copies of the work are mutilated, because the engravings have long been deemed of "framing quality.''

Catlin also wrote prolificly in American and European newspapers and magazines, thereby popularizing his ideas. He became well known on both sides of the Atlantic, including South America, as a proponent of Indian rights.

Beginning in 1839 he traveled with his paintings and collections of Indian artifacts, first in England where he began to prepare Letters and notes for publication, then in Paris for four years, returning to London in 1848. He called his exhibits "A Gallery Unique'' and "Catlin's North American Indian Gallery.'' He prospered from the gate receipts of these exhibits, as did several other western panoramists of his generation.

Perhaps victimized by speculators -- though he was quick to blame himself and his poor business sense -- in 1848 and 1849, he lost his modest fortune and had to borrow from John Harrison of Philadelphia to settle his accounts with creditors. With supportive associates, he tried to sell his collections to the United States in 1849: Daniel Webster and other lights of the U. S. Senate spoke eloquently in favor of the purchase. Brought to a vote, however, the measure was defeated: ironically it was the changed vote of Senator Jefferson Davis that turned victory into a tie, and hence a loss, for Catlin.

When he was unable to make good his debt, Catlin's major collections were turned over to the Harrisons in 1852. Later John Harrison's widow bequeathed them to the United States National Museum, later incorporated into the Smithsonian Institution.

From 1852 to 1855 Catlin traveled extensively in South America, then north along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, returning again to South America.

A later collection of "Copies and Illustrations'' (also called "The Geo. Catlin Cartoons'') became the property of Catlin's heirs. The misleading term "cartoon'' refers to the cardboard-like material Catlin painted on, not the content of his artistry. The collection included copies of earlier work as well as his paintings and drawings done in South America and the coastal west of the United States. In 1871 this complete, second collection was displayed in the Smithsonian Institution. Although afforded opportunity to purchase it, the Smithsonian did not exercise its option to acquire the "cartoons.''

Later, his heir and daughter delivered this collection to the American Museum of Natural History (New York), purchased on behalf of the museum by a major benefactor and profiteer of western gold, Ogden Mills.

The specific proposals he put forward after 1832 Catlin repeated without major alterations. His starting points were three in number:

The richest and fullest explication of Catlin's proposal is found in the second volume of his Letters and notes:
This strip of [buffalo] country, which extends from the province of Mexico to lake Winnepeg on the North, is almost one entire plain of grass, which is, and ever must be, useless to cultivating man. It is here, and here chiefly, that the buffaloes dwell; and with, and hovering about them, live and flourish the tribes of Indians, whom God made for the enjoyment of that fair land and its luxuries.

It is a melancholy contemplation for one who has travelled as I have, through these realms, and seen this noble animal in all its pride and glory, to contemplate it so rapidly wasting from the world, drawing the irresistible conclusion too, which one must do, that its species is soon to be extinguished, and with it the peace and happiness (if not the actual existence) of the tribes of Indians who are joint tenants with them, in the occupancy of these vast and idle plains.

And what a splendid contemplation too, when one (who has travelled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in future be seen, (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages. A nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!

I would ask no other monument to my memory, nor any other enrolment of my name amongst the famous dead, than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution.

An additional word is warranted to describe the devastation caused by the east-west trails through the plains. The settlers of new frontiers caused much destruction, to be sure; the gold-rushers were even worse.

Gold & Silver Discoveries, Rushes and Locations

Discovery - Rush - Place

1848 - - - - 1848 - - - California
1849 - - - - 1849 - - - Nevada
1850 - - - - 1857 - - - Colorado
1852 - - - - 1862 - - - Montana
1860 - - - - 1861 - - - Idaho
1874* - - - 1874 - - - South Dakota
1881 - - - - 1896 - - - Alaska

*Official discovery date; Francis Parkman knew of the gold deposits in the Black Hills in 1846 and published his journal in 1849.

The observations of travelers and trailriders illustrate the scale of the destruction of the three major trails.

The trail itself, through the plains, was the center of a belt between seventy and one hundred miles wide (thirty-five to fifty miles on each side). The wildlife was killed off, down to the smallest songbirds and lizards; the grass was eaten to the roots by draft animals and by the accompanying herds of horses and cattle, leaving a belt of desert where once the grasses grew to chest height.

Those who died were often buried in shallow graves, disinterred by wolves, leaving blackened human limbs, torsos, even heads, along the trails.

Cast off possessions, including whole wagons and carts, littered the landscape: furniture, chests, and shreds of canvas, cloth and hide were scattered to the sides of the trail; human wastes of every description lined the rutted pathways. The eyewitness accounts of the time do not jibe with the serene and tidy landscapes portrayed in many of the eastern newspapers and magazines.

Catlin fully appreciated the symbiotic relationship between the buffalo and the Indian. He also saw the beginnings of the extermination of the mighty beast of the plains.

The Fate of the Buffalo

To his critics, Catlin's proposals seemed to be unrealistic, naive, against progress and nature, and therefore anti-American. Francis Parkman, traveling through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota in 1846, living for extended periods with a band of "Ogillalah'' (sic) and enjoying their hospitality, wrote matter-of-factly about the breaking and scattering of the western Indians.

Great changes are at hand in that region. With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must be broken and scattered. The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky and overawed by military posts; so that within a few years the traveller may pass in tolerable security through their country. Its danger and its charm will have disappeared together. (The California and Oregon Trail (New York, George P. Putnam, 1849 [r1983]), p. 229.
Tike many another traveler and mountainman, Parkman killed many buffalo for the thrill and excitement of the hunt, taking only a few choice morsels from each or leaving the entire carcass on the plains for scavengers to clear up or simply to rot.

Parkman and Catlin represent a very interesting study in contrasts -- and similarities.

  • Parkman, a generation younger (born in 1823), preferred his education in the wild, much like Catlin. They both studied law: Catlin as an apprentice, Parkman at Harvard; neither one practiced law for any length of time. Both of them wrote studied and scholarly works as well as popularizations in the newspapers and magazines of the day.
  • Catlin was born of a lawyer/subsistence farmer who -- a lawyer himself -- suffered from the depredations of the law in the hands of clever, lawless men. Parkman was the grandson of the wealthiest businessman of Boston, Samuel Parkman, who benefited enormously from the protections that the law gave his enormous, assembled wealth.
  • Catlin lost his savings when the money economy of America and Europe crashed after the Panic of 1837; Parkman lived from the amassed familial wealth which grew and grew without tending on his part.
  • Catlin called on intervention by government to protect the Indian; Parkman saw the intervention under way and knew that protection by the government of the United States would lead to the exploitation and victimization of the Indian -- because the law favored wealth, property, and legislative connections which were in the hands of the white exploiters, not of the Indians.

    Twenty-four years after his original proposal of 1832, Catlin was traveling and painting in South America. Forced because of a war to abandon his occupation of painting the Indians, he determined to go to Patagonia -- to study the rocks. He exclaimed:

    My "Occupation (Again) Gone,'' I dwelt no more on Indians, but thought again of "Rocks.'' "How much more grand, how sublime! Indians are, after all, poor things, and soon to become extinct -- but rocks, rocks! the eternal landmarks and boundaries of the globe!'' (Last rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes [London, 1868], Ch. VIII)
    Here he gave evidence of the deep influence of Alexander von Humboldt on him. While he based himself between travels chiefly in Paris and London -- his journeys to America he treated like travel to any other ``foreign'' country -- he visited Baron von Humboldt when their schedules allowed and fell under the spell of this renowned German, Renaissance man of science. Catlin was fascinated with geology, volcanos, the glacier ``theory,'' and natural history. But he also gave utterance to the futility of protecting the Indians of all the Americas from the depredations of the white man's cupidity.

    There remains, however, a curious historical connection between Catlin and Yellowstone National Park.

    Hiram Martin Chittenden, who directed road construction at Yellowstone in the 1890s, published the first major history of Yellowstone National Park in 1895. His work went through several editions, the fourth and fifth under the direction of his daughter, Eleanor Chittenden Cress (1949ff). The original edition was re-issued and annotated by Richard A. Bartlett in 1964.

    Chittenden himself had little use for Catlin as an historian or narrator. In The American Fur Trade of the Far West (New York, Francis P. Harper, 1902 [reprint New York, Barnes & Noble {c1935}]), Chittenden declaimed:

    Catlin was a visionary enthusiast upon a single theme, the American Indians. He saw everything pertaining to the natives through highly colored glasses, and, as if that were not enough, he recklessly exaggerated his impressions when he attempted to record them with his pen or pencil. He was distrusted by those who knew him in the West and was more than once taken to task by his contemporaries. Audubon for example flatly insinuates that he was dishonest. Parkman characterizes him as a "garrulous and windy writer.'' It is regrettable that one who did so much work of real worth should have marred it by a characteristic which throws doubt upon the accuracy of it all. (pp. 637-638)
    Chittenden could not have said otherwise about Catlin in a book dedicated to the "forgotten heroes...who [bore] the standard of peaceful commerce to the remotest valleys of the Rocky Mountains'' whom Catlin had criticized so severely and whose descendants subsidized Chittenden's research.

    Chittenden concluded his discussion on the origins of the park idea with a startling statement: Catlin's idea was the same as that finally adopted by Congress (i.e., the act of March 1, 1872, for the establishment of the park) (1964, p. 79). He also asserted that In order to preserve, at least on a small scale, the native fauna of America and a remnant of the Indian races, he proposed that the government should set apart, in some suitable locality in the West, a large tract of land, to be preserved forever as a "Nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wildness and freshness of their nature's beauty.'' (1964, p. 78)

    While the initial statement by Chittenden left open the possibility that Catlin made other, more modest proposals -- Catlin was in Washington, D. C. in 1871 for the exhibit of his "cartoons'' at the Smithsonian Institution -- his quotation of the actual proposals of 1841 eliminate that alternative.

    Eleanor Chittenden Cress, in turn, eliminated the first eight paragraphs of this chapter, substituting a footnote.

    She attributed the Catlin origins idea to representations by D. E. Folsom (1949, p. 68ff), and she asserted that "Catlin's idea of a national park was solely as a home for Indians.'' She noted that Catlin had not even referred to "the geyser regions,'' and thus "his name cannot be considered in connection with those who originated the idea of Yellowstone Park.'' While she corrected her father's mistaken attributions to Catlin, she did so for all the wrong reasons.

    The definitive history of Yellowstone National Park, written by the official staff historian, Aubrey L. Haines (The Yellowstone Story [Yellowstone National Park: 1977-1982], in two volumes), also refuted the assertion that Catlin's was "the first, though unproductive, suggestion for 'a nation's park'...'' (I, 8), citing Letters and notes. He gave three bases for this position.

    First, he noted the critical flaw in the proposal itself: If nothing else, the foregoing [Catlin, Thoreau] are evidence that at least two thinkers had pursued the park idea to its ultimate possibility prior to the middle of the nineteenth century. But they overshot the practical limits, for such an environment would be unstable because man was included among the exhibits. (I, 162).

    For a government bureaucrat, the inclusion of Indians in the park idea led to "instability.'' When the humans involved were the likes of the Hamilton Stores in Yellowstone or the Rockefellers in Grand Teton National Park, that criterion of human involvement suddenly disappeared. Clearly, Haines wrote for his audience, the patrons of the Yellowstone National Park Museum and Archives, i.e., the Hamiltons and the Rockefellers.

    Second, he wrote off Catlin's thinking with a simple brush, saying: Catlin's suggestion was as sterile as it was impractical, and deserves no further comment beyond the fact that it may have stimulated Henry Thoreau.'' (I, 161)

    The argument of practicality and impracticality has appeared very frequently in public debate, public policy, and history of the west, especially when it came to the matter of honoring treaties with the natives of America and observing simple courtesies (to say nothing of rights) of access to land that was traditionally the Indians'.

    Third, he pointed out the major weakness in the claims for Catlin: The preservation rationale that is now an integral part of the wilderness park idea had been only tentatively suggested by George Catlin and Henry Thoreau, nor was there yet any particular public concern for endangered species. (II, 55)

    Haines either did not read, or misread, Catlin's work, particularly critically in Haines' assertion that Catlin and Thoreau expressed no particular concern for endangered species!

    In the end, Catlin himself despaired of the success of his own call for the protection of the Indians, the forced separation from the marauding whites. In his introduction (written after his journeys), he could do no more than signal the fate of "the unlucky [Indian] race...set upon by their fellow-man, whose cupidity, it is feared, will fix no bounds to the Indians' earthly calamity, short of the grave'' (I, 10). Could he have known how accurately he was prophesying the events of the decade of his own death, the 1870s?

    An alternative interpretation of Catlin's famous national park passage takes as its starting point the political situation in the United States, the knowledge and interest of Catlin in American politics, and Catlin's unwillingness to accuse or blame directly officials of the government who might be in a position to purchase his paintings and collections.

    First, in 1841 -- the publication date of Letters and notes -- the virtual reigns of terror by Presidents Jackson and Van Buren were not over for the southern Indians, who were expelled from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee -- many of them prosperous farmers, sent with what they could carry to dry, dusty Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The suffering inflicted on the participants of the Trail of Tears was well documented in the press. Reaction against the Indian policies was becoming sharper and more politically astute.

    The same President Jackson who thereby broke scores of treaties with the Indians of the south had also recently made a treaty with the Lakota, granting them what is now North and South Dakota "as long as the river flows and the grass grows.''

    The events of the American west were well covered in the European press, particularly of London and Paris, Catlin's base from 1839 to 1849. Catlin also traveled to and from Europe several times in this period. The criticisms by Europeans against American Indian policies were sharp and articulate: the official treatment and pronouncements by the United States government and military lent credence to the characterizations of American barbarism and uncivilized, cultural wasteland.

    Second, the reference to the land as being "useless to cultivating man'' was probably rooted in the Panic of 1837. Shortly after the inauguration of Martin Van Buren to the presidency, the results of Jackson's monetary and banking policies bore fruit.

    On the one hand, there was a failure of the grain crop in the east in 1836, caused in part by disease, in part by the movement of people to the west who left behind fallow fields, and in part by the shortage of currency. The shortages led to civic disturbances in the large cities of the east for lack of grain, flour and bread.

    The shortages were followed in the next four years by large agricultural surpluses. The prices of commodities in the west began to drop precipitously -- and continued to drop in the months and years ahead. The unquenchable thirst for land, Catlin was indicating, had already been extended to the point of uselessness: American farmers had already begun the process of chronic over-production, where the harvested crop -- at first in the west, but later throughout America -- was worth less than the time and capitol invested in them.

    Third, In the south and east, farm land that was at one time traded for $30 to $50 an acre was sold for $3 to $5 an acre -- when sold and not simply abandoned for the debts secured by the land. Furthermore, land was available for the settlements of debts -- or fractions of the debts as low as 10% to 12% of the total land-secured indebtedness.

    Meanwhile, shortages of currency followed in the early 1840s leading to interest rates as high as 50% annual for agricultural loans.

    The available lands in the south and east were much more suitable for farming, with better rainfall, proximity to marketing ports or urban destinations, and convenience to manufacture that supported agriculture.

    In conclusion, Catlin's message was saying that what happened to the Cherokee and Cree of the south should not happen to the plains Indians of the west. In the face of the extermination of both buffalo and Indian on land "useless to cultivating man,'' Catlin's was a "splendid contemplation'' (as opposed to the "melancholy contemplation'' of the end of the buffalo and hence also of the Indian) that this entire region be safeguarded, "preserved'' for their [the Indians' and the buffalos'] own sake, of course, but also as an indication of America's refinement both to its own citizens and to the world.

    Catlin's was a clever proposal, set in a politically acceptable framework, but ultimately ineffective against Manifest Destiny.

    Ronald E Diener


    A native of the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania, George Catlin was born in July 1796 in Wilkesbarre, when this area was still something of a frontier, representing ``the West'' to those who lived in the large cities of the coastal seaboard. Starting his adult career as a lawyer, he pursued this profession for only five years, when he put down his Gladstone and took up brush and easel, to paint chiefly portraits in Philadelphia, Albany, and Washington D.C.

    When he saw an entourage of a dozen or so Indians from the far west in Philadelphia, probably in 1829, he resolved that he would go to the frontier and beyond, to paint the Indian in his own surroundings. From 1832 to 1840 he painted 610 portraits of both famous and common Indians, as well as landscapes and scenes from Indian daily life.

    To understand the man and the times, however, some historical context is needed. His seasonal painting days in the west occurred a little more than half way between the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the California gold rush.


    1804/06 Lewis & Clark Expedition
    1832/39 George Catlin Journeys
    1848 California Gold Rush
    1874/76Lakota driven from Black Hills

    Catlin repeatedly called for the government, courts, and military of the United States to protect the Indians from the white intruders and invaders into their treaty-secured lands. About thirty years after Catlin's western travels, the genocidal Indian policies of the U.S. culminated in the extermination of whole clans and almost whole nations of Indians. What the smallpox epidemics of 1837ff failed to accomplish, the rifles and artillery of the U.S. military forces did, slaughtering women, children, the aged, and the infirm as well as the Indian warriors both young and old. Catlin lived to see in the eastern and international press the gloatings and boastings of American military leaders over their expulsions and exterminations of the Western Indians: he died on December 23, 1872.

    In 1834, in the company of the First Dragoons together with about thirty Indians (Osage, Cherokee, Seneca, and Delaware) marching along the upper Missouri River, Catlin described the wild horses of the northern plains. He also saw and detailed the methods used by the prairie Indians to break the wild horses for personal use (Letters and notes, II, 57 ff.):

    The tract of country over which we passed, between the False Washita and this place, is stocked, not only with buffaloes, but with numerous bands of wild horses, many of which we say every day. There is no other animal of the prairies so wild and so sagacious as the horse; and none other so difficult to come up with. So remarkably keen is their eye, that they will generally run "at the sight,'' when they are a mile distant; being, no doubt, able to distinguish the character of the enemy that is approaching when at that distance; and when in motion, will seldom stop short of three or four miles. I made many attempts to approach them by stealth, when they were grazing and playing their gambols, without ever having been more than once able to succeed. In this instance, I left my horse, and with my friend Chadwick, skulked through a ravine for a couple of miles; until we were at length brought within gun- shot of a fine herd of them, when I used my pencil for some time, while we were under cover of a little hedge of bushes which effectually screened us from their view. In this herd we saw all the colours, nearly, that can be seen in a kennel of English hounds. Some were milk white, some jet black -- others were sorrel, and bay, and cream colour -- many were of an iron grey; and other were pied, containing a variety of colours on the same animal. Their manes were very profuse, and hanging in the wildest confusion over their necks and faces -- and their long tails swept the ground see PLATE 160).

    After we had satisfied out curiosity in looking at these proud and playful animals, we agreed that we would try the experiment of "creasing'' one, as it is termed in this country; which is done by shooting them through the gristle on the top of the neck, which stuns them so that they fall, and are secured with hobbles on the feet; after which they rise again without fatal injury. This is a practice often resorted to by expert hunters, with good rifles, who are not able to take them in any other way. My friend Joe and I were armed on this occasion, each with a light fowling-piece, which have not quite the preciseness in throwing a bullet that a rifle has; and having both levelled our pieces at the withers of a noble, fine-looking iron grey, we pulled the trigger, and the poor creature fell, and the rest of the herd were out of sight in a moment. We advanced speedily to him, and had the most inexpressible mortification of finding, that we never had thought of hobbles or halters, to secure him -- and in a few moments more, had the still greater mortification, and even anguish, to find that one of our shots had broken the poor creature's neck, and that he was quite dead!

    The laments of poor Chadwick for the wicked folly of destroying this noble animal, were such as I never shall forget; and so guilty did we feel that we agreed that when we joined the regiment, we should boast of all the rest of our hunting feats, but never make mention of this.

    The usual mode of taking the wild horses, is, by throwing the laso, whilst pursuing them at full speed (PLATE 161), and dropping a noose over their necks, by which their speed is soon checked, and they are "choked down.'' The laso is a thong of rawhide, some ten or fifteen yards in length, twisted or braided, with a noose fixed at the end of it; which, when the coil of the laso is thrown out, drops with great certainty over the neck of the animal, which is soon conquered.

    The Indian, when he starts for a wild horse, mounts one of the fleetest he can get, and coiling his laso on his arm, starts off under the "full whip,'' till he can enter the band, when he soon gets it over the neck of one of the number; when he instantly dismounts, leaving his own horse, and runs as fast as he can, letting the laso pass out gradually and carefully through his hands, until the horse falls for want of breath, and lies helpless on the ground; at which time the Indian advances slowly towards the horse's head, keeping his laso tight upon its neck, until he fastens a pair of hobbles on the animal's two forefeet, and also loosens the laso (giving the horse chance to breathe), and gives it a noose around the under jaw, by which he gets great power over the affrighted animal, which is rearing and plunging when it gets breath; and by which, as he advances, hand over hand, towards the horse's nose (PLATE 162), he is able to hold it down and prevent it from throwing itself over on its back, at the hazard of its limbs. By this means he gradually advances, until he is able to place his hand on the animal's nose, and over its eyes; and at length to breathe in its nostrils, when it soon becomes docile and conquered; so that he has little else to do than to remove the hobbles from its feet, and lead or ride it into camp.

    The "breaking down'' or taming, however, is not without the most desperate trial on the part of the horse, which rears and plunges in every possible way to effect its escape, until its power is exhausted, and it becomes covered with foam; and at last yields to the power of man, and becomes his wiling slave for the rest of its life. By this very rigid treatment, the poor animal seems to be so completely conquered, that it makes no further struggle for its freedom; but submits quietly ever after, and is led or rode away with very little difficulty. Great care is taken, however, in this and in subsequent treatment, not to subdue the spirit of the animal, which is carefully preserved and kept up, although they use them with great severity; being, generally speaking, cruel masters.

    The wild horse of these regions is a small, but very powerful animal; with an exceedingly prominent eye, sharp nose, high nostril, small feet and delicate leg; and undoubtedly, have sprung from a stock introduced by the Spaniards, at the time of the invasion of Mexico; which having strayed off upon the prairies, have run wild, and stocked the plains from this to Lake Winnepeg, two or three thousand miles to the North. [fn: There are many very curious traditions about the first appearance of horses amongst the different tribes, and many of which bear striking proof of the above fact. Most of the tribes have the same story about the first appearance of horses; and amongst the Sioux, they have beautifully recorded the fact, by giving it the name of Shonka-wakon (the medicine-dog).]

    This useful animal has been of great service to the Indians living on these vast plains, enabling them to take their game more easily, to carry their burthens, &c.; and no doubt, render them better and handier service than if they were of a larger and heavier breed. Vast numbers of them are also killed for food by the Indians, at seasons when buffaloes and other game are scarce. They subsist themselves both in winter and summer by biting at the grass, which they can always get in sufficient quantities for their food.

    While on our march we met with many droves of these beautiful animals, and several times had the opportunity of seeing the Indians pursue them, and take them with the laso. The first successful instance of the kind was effected by one of our guides and hunters, by the name of Beatte, a Frenchman, whose parents had lived nearly their whole lives in the Osage village; and who, himself had been reared from infancy amongst them; and in a continual life of Indian modes and amusements, had acquired all the skill and tact of his Indian teachers, and probably a little more; for he is reputed, without exception, the best hunter in these Western regions.

    This instance took place one day whilst the regiment was at its usual halt of an hour, in the middle of the day.

    When the bugle sounded for a halt, and all were dismounted, Beatte and several others of the hunters asked permission of Col. Dodge to pursue a drove of horses which were then in sight, at a distance of a mile or more from us. The permission was given, and they started off, and by following a ravine, approached near to the unsuspecting animals, when they broke upon them and pursued them for several miles in full view of the regiment. Several of us had good glasses, with which we could plainly see every movement and every manoeuvre. After a race of two or three miles, Beatte was seen with his wild horse down, and the band and the other hunters rapidly leaving him.

    Seeing him in this condition, I galloped off to him as rapidly as possible, and had the satisfaction of seeing the whole operation of "breaking down,'' and bringing in the wild animal; and in PLATE 162, I have given a fair representation of the mode by which it was done. When he had conquered the horse in this way, his brother, who was one of the unsuccessful ones in the chase, came riding back, and leading up the horse of Beatte which he had left behind, and after staying with us a few minutes, assisted Beatte in leading his conquered wild horse towards the regiment, where it was satisfactorily examined and commented upon, as it was trembling and covered with white foam, until the bugle sounded the signal for marching, when all mounted; and with the rest, Beatte, astride of his wild horse, which had a buffalo skin girted on its back, and a halter, with a cruel noose around the under jaw. In this manner the command resumed its march, and Beatte astride of his wild horse, on which he rode quietly and without difficulty, until night; the whole thing, the capture, and breaking, all having been accomplished within the space of one hour, our usual and daily halt at midday.

    Several others of these animals were caught in a similar manner during our march, by others of our hunters, affording us satisfactory instances of this most extraordinary and almost unaccountable feat.

    The horses that were caught were by no means very valuable specimens, being rather of an ordinary quality; and I saw to my perfect satisfaction, that the finest of these droves can never be obtained in this way, as they take the lead at once, when they are pursued, and in a few moments will be seen half a mile or more ahead of the bulk of the drove, which they are leading off. There is no doubt, but there are many fine and valuable horses amongst these herds; but it is impossible for the Indian or other hunter to take them, unless it be done by "creasing'' them, as I have before described; which is often done, but always destroys the spirit and character of the animal.


    Being an Account of the successful application, in two recent Experiments made in England, of the expeditious method of Taming Horses, as practised by the Red Indians of North America.

    Communicated by Alexander John Ellis, B.A., of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1842.


    The object of the following pages is two-fold: first, to extract the account of the North American Indian method of Horse-taming, as given by Mr. Catlin in his new work, entitled Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, and to detail certain experiments which have been tried by the direction and in the presence of the Communicator; and second, to urge gentlemen, farmers, stable- keepers, horse-trainers, horse-breakers, and all others who may be interested in taming horses, to try for themselves experiments similar to those here detailed, experiments which are exceedingly easy of trial, and will be found exceedingly important in the result.

    The following is a detail of the experiments witnessed and directed by the Communicator:--

    During a visit in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the volumes of Mr. Catlin first fell under the Communicator's observation, and among other passages those just quoted struck him forcibly. Although he scarcely hesitated to comprehend the circumstances there detailed, under a well-known though much-disputed class of phenomena, he was nevertheless anxious to verify them by actual experiment before he attempted to theorize upon them. And he now prefers to give the naked facts to the public, and leave his readers to account for them after their own fashion. It so happened that, while staying with his brother-in-law, F. M., of M- Park, the Communicator had the pleasure of meeting W. F. W., of B-, a great amateur in all matters relating to horses. In the course of conversation the Communicator mentioned that he had read about horse-taming, and the detail seemed to amuse them, although they evidently discredited the fact. The Communicator begged them to put the matter to the test of experiment, and M., who had in his stables a filly, not yet a year old, who had never been taken out since she had been removed from her dam, in the preceding November, agreed that he would try the experiment upon this filly. The Communicator made a note of the experiments on the very days on which they were tried, and he here gives the substance of what he then wrote down.

    Experiment the First

    Subject: - A Filly, not yet a year old, who had never been taken out of the stable since she had been removed from her dam in the preceding November.

    Friday, February 11, 1842. - In the morning W. and M. brought the filly from the stable to the front of M.'s house. The filly was quite wild, and on being first taken out of the stable she bolted, and dragged W., who only held her by a short halter, through a heap of manure. W. changed the halter for a long training halter, which gave him such power over her that he was easily able to bring the little scared thing up to the front of the house. Both M. and W. seemed much amused, and laughingly asked E. (the Communicator) to instruct them in Catlin's method of taming horses. E. did so as well as he could, quoting only from memory. The experiment was not tried very satisfactorily, but rather under disadvantages. The filly was in the open air, many strangers about her, and both the experimenters were seeking rather amusement from the failure than knowledge from the success of their experiment. W. kept hold of the halter, and M., with considerable difficulty, for the filly was very restive and frightened, managed to cover her eyes. He had been smoking just before, and the smoke must have had some effect on his breath. When he covered her eyes, he blew into the nostrils, but afterwards, at E.'s request, he breathed; and, as he immediately told E., directly that he began to breathe, the filly, who had very much resisted having her eyes covered and had been very restive, ``stood perfectly still and trembled.'' From that time she became very tractable. W. also breathed into her nostrils, and she evidently enjoyed it, and kept putting up her nose to receive the breath. She was exceedingly tractable and well behaved, and very loth to start, however much provoked. The waving of a red handkerchief, and the presenting of a hat to her eyes, while the presenter made a noise inside it, hardly seemed to startle her at all.

    Saturday, February 12, 1842. - This morning the filly was again led out to show its behaviour, which was so good as to call forth both astonishment and praise. It was exceedingly tractable, and followed W. about with a loose halter. Attempts were made to frighten it. M. put on a long scarlet Italian cap, and E. flapped a large Spanish cloak during a violent wind before its eyes, and any well broken-in horse would have started much more than did this yearling.

    Experiment the Second

    Subject - A Filly, three years old, coming four, and very obstinate; quite unbroken-in.

    Saturday, February 12, 1842 - While the last experiments were being tried on the yearling, W. espied B., a farmer and tenant of M., with several men, at the distance of some fields, trying, most ineffectually, on the old system, to break-in a horse. W. proposed to go down and show him what effect had been produced on the yearling. The rest agreed, and W., M., and E. proceeded towards B., W. leading the yearling. On their way they had to lead her over a brook, which she passed after a little persuasion, without force. One of the fields though which she had to pass contained four horses, three of which trotted up and surrounded her, but she did not become in the least degree restive, or desirous of getting loose. When the party arrived at the spot, they found that B. and his men had tied their filly short up to a tree in the corner of a field, one side of which was walled, and the other hedged in. W. now delivered the yearling up to M., and proposed to B. to tame his horse after the new method, or (to use his own phrase) to ``puff'' it. B., who was aware of the character of his horse, anxiously warned W. not to approach it, cautioning him especially against the fore-feet, asserting that the horse would rear and strike him with the fore-feet as it had ``lamed'' his own (B.'s) thigh just before they had come up. W. therefore proceeded very cautiously. He climbed the wall, and came at the horse though the tree, to the trunk of which he clung for some time, that he might secure a retreat in case of need. Immediately upon his touching the halter, the horse pranced about, and finally pulled away with a dogged and stubborn expression, which seemed to bid W. defiance. Taking advantage of this, W. leaned over as far as he could, clinging all the time to the tree with his right hand, and succeeded in breathing into one nostril, without, however, being able to blind the eyes. From that moment all became easy. W., who is very skilful in the management of a horse, coaxed it, and rubbed its face, and breathed from time to time into the nostrils, while the horse offered no resistance. In about ten minutes W. declared his conviction that the horse was subdued; and he then unfastened it, and, to the great and evident astonishment of B. (who had been trying all the morning in vain to gain a mastery over it), led it quietly away with a loose halter. Stopping in the middle of the field, with no one else near, W. quietly walked up to the horse, placed his arm over one eye and his hand over the other, and breathed into the nostrils. It was pleasing to observe how agreeable this operation appeared to the horse, who put up its nose continually to receive the ``puff.'' In this manner W. led the horse through all the fields, in one of which were the four horses already mentioned, who had formerly been the companions of the one just tamed, and who surrounded it, without, however, making it in the least degree restive. At length W. and the horse reached the stable-yard, where they were joined by C. W. C. C., of S- Hall, and J. B. son of B. the farmer. In the presence of these, M., and E., W. first examined the fore-feet, and then the hind-feet of the horse, who offered no resistance, but, while W. was examining the hind- feet, leant its neck round, and kept nosing W.'s back. He next buckled on a surcingle, and then a saddle, and finally bitted the horse with a rope. During the whole of these operations the horse did not offer the slightest resistance, nor did it flinch in the least degree. All who witnessed the transaction were astonished at the result obtained. The Communicator regrets only that he is not at liberty to publish the names at length. This experiment of bitting was the last that W. tried, since the nature of the country about M- Park did not admit of ridings being tried with any prospect of safety. The whole experiment lasted about an hour. It should be mentioned that when J.B., to whom W. delivered up the horse, attempted to lead it away, it resisted; whereupon E. recommended J.B. to breathe into its nostrils. He did so, and the horse followed him easily. The next day, B., who is severe and obstinate, began at this horse in the old method, and belaboured it dreadfully, whereupon the horse very sensibly broke away. This result is important, since it shows that the spirit is subdued, not broken.

    These are all the experiments which the Communicator has as yet had the opportunity of either witnessing or hearing the results of, but they are to him perfectly satisfactory; the more so, that Mr. W., who made the experiments, was himself perfectly ignorant of any process of the kind until informed of it at the actual time of making the experiment. It may be considered over-hasty to publish these experiments in their present crude state, but the Communicator does so with a view to investigation. He will have no oportunity himself of making any experiments, as he is unacquainted with the treatment of horses, and neither owns any nor is likely to be thrown in the way of any unbroken colts. But the experiment is easy for any horse-owner, and would be best made in the stable, where the horse might easily be haltered down so as to offer no resistance. The method would, no doubt, be found efficacious for the subjugation and taming of vicious horses. The reader will, of course, have heard of the celebrated Irish horse-charmers. They never would communicate the secret, nor allow any one to be with them while they were in the stable taming the horse. It is agreed, however, that they approached the head. The Communicator feels sure that the method they employed was analogous to that contained in these pages. Persons have paid high prices for having their horses charmed; they have now an opportunity of charming horses themselves, at a very small expense of time and labour. Half an hour will suffice to subdue the most fiery steed -- the wild horse of the prairies of North America.

    The Communicator has no object but that of benefiting the public in the above communication. The method is not his own, nor has he the merit of having first published it; but he things that he is the first who has caused the experiment to be made in England, and the entire success of that experiment induces him to make the present communication, in the hope that he may benefit not only his countrymen by the publication of a simple, easy, and rapid method of performing what was formerly a long, tedious, and difficult process, but also the ``puir beasties'' themselves, by saving them from the pains and tortures of what is very aptly termed ``breaking-in.'' Mr. Catlin, indeed, speaks of the horse's struggles being severe, but hey were the struggles of a wild horse, just caught on a prairie, and not of the domestic animal quietly haltered in a stable. The process as now presented is one of great humanity to the horse, as well as ease and economy to the horse- owner. The only objections to it are its novelty and simplicity. Those who have strength of mind to act for themselves, and not to despise any means, however simple or apparently childish, will have cause to rejoice over the great results at which they will arrive. But the great watchword which the Communicator would impress upon his readers is, ``Experiment!''

    Magna est veritas et praevalebit.

    A. J. E.

    Note. - The above experiments, which the Author has supposed might be interesting to some of his readers, have been even more successful than he would have anticipated, having always believed that to bring about the surprising compromise he has so often witnessed by exchanging breath, the animal would be a wild one, and in the last extremity of fear and exhaustion. - The Author.

    This article was written by Ronald E. Diener historian and story-teller.

    Reflections on Wyoming
    Copyright 1997, Ronald E. Diener
    All rights reserved.