One of the first images that Miller placed in the boxed portfolio of sketches for Stewart to display in his Murthly Castle library was a drawing of his patron spotting a distant herd of running wild horses (CR# 447A). This watercolor is set in a different landscape and does not feature Stewart as spectator, but it captures all the excitement of that observed moment.
Miller recounted that the expedition came across herds of stampeding wild horses on several occasions. They seemed to appear and vanish in a flash. He said, as a consequence, that it was “almost impossible to catch some idea of such magic convolutions and secure the spirit of such evanescent forms.” (Rough Draughts, 144) Yet this work proves him up to the task. The lofty peaks in the distance suggest that this sighting occurred near the Wind River Mountains.
Peter H. Hassrick
In addition to supporting vast buffalo and elk herds, the valleys and prairies of the pre1840s upper Missouri River country were also the domain of immense herds of wild horses. In this painting Miller attempted to capture the beauty and grace of these animals as they move across the floor of a mountain valley. After his party’s encounter with these majestic animals on the 1837 trek to the mountains, Miller penned this description:
Among the wild animals of the west, none gave us more pleasure or created more excitement … The beauty and symmetry of their forms, their wild and spirited action, long sweeping manes and tails, variety of colour, and fleetness of motion, all combine to call forth admiration from the most stoical.
Origins of the North American Wild Horse:
Archaeological fossil studies in North and South America provide strong evidence that a majority of the biological evolution of the prehistoric horse, into an animal that is readily recognizable as its modern counterpart, took place in the western hemisphere. A large variety of horse species developed over time and a great number migrated to the grass land areas of the eastern hemisphere by land bridges that connected North American continent to Asia or northern Europe. This same archaeological evidence shows that, until 10,000 years ago, the modern type horse was widespread throughout North and South America. Then, for an as yet unknown reason, the horse of the western hemisphere mysteriously went extinct.
The “re-introduction” of the horse to the American continents took place with the arrival of the Spaniards in Christopher Columbus’s second voyage of 1493 which included horses and mares shipped by the Spanish crown to establish breeding ranches on recently colonized islands in the Caribbean. During the first half of the sixteenth century, horses were supplied from Jamaica and Cuba to all the American main lands that were explored and colonized by Spain.
As the Spanish colonized Mexico and the grassland areas to the north that would later become Texas and New Mexico, their cattle and horse populations grew. By the late seventeenth century many of these animals had become feral and spread throughout the western prairies. These undomesticated cattle remained mostly in the southwestern areas, but wild horse herds spread both north and west throughout the North American Great Plains.
Mountain Men Encounter the Wild Horse:
James Ohio Pattie and his father lead a group of fur trappers into the Santa Fe country in the early 1820s. He commented on the number of wild horses they encountered:
We left this encampment on the 26th, and through the day met with continued herds of buffaloes and wild horses, which, however, we did not disturb. In the evening we reached a fork of the Platte, called Hyde Park … In the morning we began to ascend this stream, and during our progress, we were obliged to keep men in advance, to affrighten the buffaloes and wild horses from our path. They are here in such prodigious numbers, as literally to have eaten down the grass of the prairies.
Zenas Leonard went west in 1831 as a member of the Gantt and Blackwell Fur Company but soon joined Joseph Walker’s trapping party, working primarily as a clerk. His commentary included:
These prairies are in many places swarming with wild Horses, some of which are quite docile, particularly the males, on seeing our horses. They are all very fat, and can be seen of all colors, from spotted or white, to jet black; and here, as in the land of civilization, they are the most beautiful and noble, as well as the most valuable of the whole brute creation.
Indians Method for Catching Wild Horses:
Thomas James, a member of the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company from 1809 to 1811, observed firsthand the native method for catching wild horses:
The Indians use their fleetest horses for catching the wild ones, and throw the lassoo with great dexterity over their necks, when by turning quickly round and sometimes entangling their feet in the rope, they throw them on the ground, and then tie their legs together two and two, after which they release the neck from the tightened noose which in a short time would produce death by strangling. The sport is attended with the wildest excitement, and exceeds in interest and enjoyment all other sports of the chase that I ever saw.
James, Thomas, Three Years among the Indians and Mexicans
Leonard, Zenas, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard
Pattie, James O., The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie
Roe, Frank G., The Indian and the Horse
Wyman, Walker D., The Wild Horse of the West
UR: Stampede of Wild Horses
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; The Boatmen’s National Bank of St. Louis, MO; Bank of America, New York, NY; present owner, 2013