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      The Nez Perce became especially sophisticated horsemen, and their mounts, which included many spotted individuals, were prized and envied by other tribes. Historians believe they were the first tribe to breed selectively for specific traits - intelligence and speed - keeping the best, and trading away those that were less desirable 

The spotted horse received it's name "Appaloosa" in the 1870's from white men.  It stems from 3 words - a Palouse horse. The Nez Perce' tribes inhabited the Palouse River country of central Idaho and Eastern Washington. Thus the horses became known as "the Palouse"; subsequent slurring of the word produced "Appaloosa". 

When Lewis and Clark happened upon the Nee-Me-Poo people almost a century later 

" They appear to be of an excellent race, lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable; many of them appear like fine English coursers; some of them are pied (see *NOTE below) with large spots of white, irregularly scattered, and intermixed with a dark brown bey; the greater part, however, are of an uniform color, marked with stars and white feet, and resemble in fleetness and bottom, as well as in form and color, the best blooded horses of Virginia." 

February 15, 1806
Meriwether Lewis

*NOTE for those of us who THINK we know what "Pied" in the early 1800's meant - I have included a dictionary definition. Realize this was the ONLY one I could find and was written 22 Years AFTER Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery. 
Webster's 1828 Dictionary
"PI'ED a.
Variegated with spots of different colors; spotted. We now (as of 1828) apply the word chiefly or wholly to animals which are marked with large spots of different colors. If the spots are small, we use speckled. This distinction was not formerly (pre-1828) observed, and in some cases, pied is elegantly used to express a diversity of colors in small spots."

 Lewis and Clark branded and castrated their horses among the Nez Perce Indians on May 14, 1806 near Kamiah, Idaho.  Lewis and Clark knew good horsemanship when they saw it. Lewis reports  that the Nez Perce method of castration was superior to his own. Lewis’s men were accustomed to tying off the scrotum after castration. The Nez Perce let the wound bleed freely.

  “I am convinced that those cut by the Indians will get well much soonest and they do not swell nor appear to suffer as much as those cut in the common way,”  

May 23, 1806 
Meriwether Lewis

 Later he was even more admiring: 

I have no hesitation in declaring my beleif that the indian method of gelding is preferable to that practiced by ourselves.” 

June 2,  1806
Meriwether Lewis

 These Nez Perce Indians took great care with their horse herds. Almost alone among all the native peoples on the continent the Nez Perces practiced selective breeding. No one knows how they acquired the skill, although it has been surmised that one or more of the far-ranging members of the tribe may have spent some time among the Spaniards in the southwest. In their own region, they were the only Indians who became horse breeders, and they did so remarkable quickly.

Knobby taken 1928 he was of pure Nez Perce stock

Appaloosa was used many ways:

 TheAppaloosa-WesleyDennis.jpg (8715 bytes)He was a hunting horse. He was taught to catch a running herd of buffalo and put his rider alongside for the kill. The moment he heard the twang of the arrow leaving the bow,  it was his cue to move in close and "cut" the mortally wounded animal from the herd. This was very dangerous, one wrong move meant certain death for horse and rider. The Appaloosas  quick feet and strong muscles and intelligence is what kept him alive.

He was a sure footed horse also,  Ross Cox tells how the Indians rode the narrow trails, "In some places the path wound along the almost perpendicular declivities of high hills, on the banks of the river, and was barely wide enough for one horse at a time. yet along these dangerous roads the Indians galloped with the utmost composure; while one false step would have hurled them down a precipice of 300 feet into the torrent below. Even walking along these dangerous declivities, leading my horse, I experienced an indescribable sensation of dread on looking down the frightful abyss."  

He was a land race horse as well. Le Bleu was the great blue roan Appaloosa stallion belonging to the Spokane stable in 1813. Now back then The Pacific Fur Company was an American company and in competition with Northwest Company, a British concern. The following quotation is given just as Cox wrote it, telling of the famous race into the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains of what is now the northern Idaho panhandle:

  • " In the spring of 1813, while I was stationed at Spokane House with Mr. Clarke (the factor), he received a letter from Mr. Farnham, who had charge of the party sent to the Flat-heads, stating that he had arrived at the Flat-head portage, a distance of 72 miles, where he should be obliged to remain a few days to recruit his horses; that his trading goods were exhausted, and he was entirely out of tobacco; that a large party of Flat-heads were following them with a quantity of valuable skins; that his rival, Mr. M'Donald, was also unsupplied with tobacco; that whichever of them got the first supply of that article would, by treating the Indians to a grand smoking match, succeed in getting the produce of their hunt; and in that order to attain that object, it was absolutely necessary the tobacco required should be with him that night, otherwise the natives would all go over in a body to Mr. M'Donald, with whom that had been longer acquainted than with him.    

        " It was eleven o'clock in the forenoon when this letter reached us, an Mr. Clark thought it impossible for any horse to go a distance of 72 miles during the remainder of the day; at all events he knew that none of the Company's horses were fit for such a task; and was about to give up the idea as hopeless, when I offered to undertake it with a celebrated horse of his own, called Le Bleu. The case was important: a blow was necessary to be struck; and although he prized the horse above all his chattels in the Indian country, he at once determined to sacrifice his private feelings to the interests of the Company. Two men were selected to accompany me, and orders were given to catch Le Bleu. He was a noble animal, being between fifteen and sixteen hands high, seven years of age, admirably built, and deriving his name from his colour, which was a dappled white and sky-blue. He was also a prime racer, and had beaten all competitors on the turf.

    "Owing to the delay occasioned by catching the horses we did not start till twelve o'clock. I remained in company with the men for the first two hours at a slight canter, after which I took the lead in a hard gallop, and quickly lost sight of them. i followed an excellent well-beaten pathway for upwards of sixty miles through the plains; but late in the evening it brought me to a thick wood, through which it runs for a distance of ten miles, when it terminates at the portage.

    "Shortly after entering the wood, night overtook me; and I several times lost the pathway, which, owning to the darkness and the quantity of fallen trees and brushwood, became extremely intricate. The sagacity of my horse, however, extricated me from these obstacles, and a little after eight o'clock I emerged from the forest, and was delighted at the cheering appearance of a range of fires along the banks of the river. Le Bleu, who had for some time been drooping, on seeing the light, knew that his task was at an end, and galloped up in fine style to Farnham's tent, when he was immediately let loose to regale himself on the prairie."

    Cox goes on to describe the trading. his company did beat the British and got all the Flat heads furs. then he concludes the story, "We returned to Spokane House by easy stages; but I did not ride Le Bleu. In less than a week after he was perfectly recovered from the fatigue of his journey, and in the summer of the same year he beat the fleetest horses of both Companies on the race-course."

 Calvary vs. Nez Perce

White observers visiting the Nez Perce camp at Lake Tolo just before the war began estimated that from a third to a half of all the Indian horses at the camp were Appaloosas. Since the non-descript colored were used largely as pack animals, this would indicate that well over half the war horses were of the famous spotted breed. Among them were Ebenezer , Chief Joseph's famous spotted racer, and Ebenezer's slightly flashier half-brother which was used in parades.

Ebenezer was famous enough that newspapers in Walla Walla and Lewiston Washington would mention when Chief Joseph rode him into town. He was a light-red roan with blood-red spots on his rump. He was noted for his speed and frontiersmen remembered how he won all his races by large margins against the best horses of the regions. When Chief Joseph surrendered he rode a black horse.

If you can remember your history, you might remember General Otis Howard gave The Nez Perce 30 days to bring the People, their belongings, and their vast herd of horses back to the reservation. 

  • In a council next day General Howard informed us in a haughty spirit that he would give my people thirty days to go back home, collect all their stock, and move on to the reservation, saying, "if you are not here in that time, I shall consider that you want to fight, and will send my soldiers to drive you on."

    I said:" ...I cannot get ready to move in thirty days. Our stock is scattered, and Snake River is very high. Let us wait until fall, then the river will be low. We want time to hunt our stock and gather our supplies for the winter."

    General Howard replied, "If you let the time run over one day, the soldiers will be there to drive you on to the reservation, and all your cattle and horses outside the reservation at that time will fall into the hands of the white men."

    Chief Joseph

ChiefLookingGlass.JPG (26171 bytes)The chiefs had agreed to move onto the reservation. What were their alternatives? Noncompliance would only bring the cavalry down on them. And the chiefs knew they stood no chance in prolonged combat with the U.S. Army. Joseph, White Bird, Husishusis Kute, and Looking Glass picked out their allotments on the reservation. Chief Looking Glass (Photo taken in 1871)

The Nez Perce rounded up what horses they could, packed camp and crossed the Snake River and joined other non-treaty bands on the way to the reservation. A few young warriors, distraught and angry, killed some white settlers. Joseph and other chiefs, their hands now forced, then led their people - a group of 250 Nez Perce warriors,  500 women and children, on a most impressive trek across I,400 miles of the most rugged terrain, in an attempt to reach Canada. They hoped to join Sitting Bull and his people, already there. 

The non-treaty Nez Perces, in the matter of military leadership, the fighting men of the Walla band looked to Rainbow, Five Wounds, Toohoolhoolzote, Looking Glass, Lean Elk, and above all, to Ollikut.  Chief Joseph was a man of unquestioned bravery, his usual duties during the battles were to protect the camp and to move the non-combatants to safety.


   The Nez Prece rounded up their herd and drove them to the turbulent Salmon River. Here they were hitched to rafts and pulled the women and children, all their belongings they needed across the 1/4 mile stretch. Many times they did this trip to get all 300 Nez Prece across the Salmon river.  Only to turn around the next day and re-cross the same river, several miles downstream, in order to avoid the U.S. Calvary. 

How easy it is to write that the Indians crossed and re-crossed the river, and how casual such crossings might seem to those unfamiliar with the Salmon River at flood stage, raging down its steep, rocky bed. Across this swollen torrent the Nez Perce had to carry their families - old people, cripples, invalids, little children - and hundreds of packs of camp goods. They lost several hundred horses, but almost never a rider, in such crossings.

"We want to cross to the north side of the Salmon again. Some of the command have been working all night to build a raft for the purpose of ferrying us over... I know Joseph has crossed this God feared boiling caldron five times....We can't cross it once...."

Capt. Robert Pollock
July 6, 1877

Rafts made of tightly-rolled skins lashed together were light and buoyant for a short time. Such rafts carried the packs and the old people. Four good horses with their naked riders towed each raft, being swept 100 yards or more down the stream before they could gain the opposite shore and safety.cheifpush.gif (6897 bytes)

It takes a beautifully conditioned horse to carry the weight of his rider, and at the same time, pull a heavy object through the "white water". The Appaloosa has that kind of strength!

The rest of the band rode across on their sturdy, range-bred horses, with the very young children strapped to their mothers' backs. The spare horses were brought  down to the shore at a gallop and were all well on their way across at the first plunge. In an hour the whole band could be safely across, the pack animals re-loaded, and the column on its way.

These sturdy horses chalked up one impressive win after another against the US Calvary. They brought victory to the Nez Perce with only a handful of warriors lost vs. thousands of Calvary men. In order to avoid more blood shed, Chief Joseph turned his tribe towards the Bitterroot Mountains and Idaho. 


Chief Joseph's Retreat

More than 1,500 miles of mountainous terrain, fighting off or evading troops at every turn, only to be halted near the Bear Paw Mountains, just forty miles from the safety of the Canadian border.

(Map courtesy the makers of THE WEST.)


Lolo Trail.jpg (59413 bytes)They had to cross Lolo pass, brutally rugged, covered with dense forest and rising 7200 feet. A switchback trail went over the pass. The trail was so narrow that one misstep could plunge both horse and rider to death. Fallen trees blocked the way in many places, a cold torrential rain (typical of that altitude) added danger and kept the trail oozing with mud.

It should have been a physical impossibility for these battle weary horses to successfully complete their 250 mile trek. But they did it, carrying the warriors, the wounded, the Nez Perce belongings and families.

His misery was worsened by little rations, criss-crossing the terrain, caring heavy loads, and little rest, yet he still managed 16 miles a day. Each day saw a few abandoned horses because of sprained or broken legs, tender feet, or sore backs. Some replacements were picked up along the way, including  173 mules from General Howard's baggage train, captured at Camas Creek, so the Nez Perce still had over 1,000 head at the time of their surrender. 

The US Calvary wrote this about the spotted horse " Joseph and his tribe on extremely fine horses engaged 10 separate US commands in 13 battles and in nearly every instance either defeated them or fought them to a stand still."

It is interesting to note that while the Appaloosas and the Nez Prece had been wagging their war, the public had been reading newspaper accounts of the campaign. These folks on the home-front placed their bets in favor of the plucky,  spotted horses and the Nez Prece. There wasn't a horseman who wouldn't have traded his "Sunday horse"  for "one of them 'paloosies'".
photo  taken c. 1905

The Nez Perce came within 40 miles of the Canadian border before an unexpected military force from the east intercepted them at what is now Chief Joseph Battlefield near Chinook. 

10-5-1877  Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce with these words handed over his gun and his people:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before    I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Too-hul-hul-sit is dead. Looking Glass is dead. He-who-led-the-young-men-in-battle is dead. The chiefs are all dead. It is the young men now who say 'yes' or 'no.' My little daughter has run away upon the prairie. I do not know where to find her-perhaps I shall find her too among the dead. It is cold and we have no fire; no blankets. Our little children are crying for food but we have none to give. Hear me, my chiefs. From where the sun now stands, Joseph will fight no more forever."

(He-who-led-the-young-men-in-battle was his brother, Alikut.)

Joseph and 87 men, 184 women and 147 children subsequently surrendered to General Howard. 

True to Indian custom, Joseph had not spoken for White Bird. That night (10-5-1877) Chief White Bird with close to 200 Nez Perce, under cover of darkness, fled and finally joined Sitting Bull in Canada. 

The Nez Perce  were banished to the reservation.   The Nez Perce were eventually taken to Fort Keogh and then shipped to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, A year later they were relocated in the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.  Joseph was banished to Nespelem, where he later died. The Redheart Band were marched as prisoners of war to Columbia Barracks, Vancouver, Washington.

"General Howard maintained he had made no specific terms, he had had no authority to make any, it had been a matter entirely with the Secretary of War and the President; and that Joseph had violated the terms of surrender in permitting White Bird to escape to Sitting Bull the night of the surrender."

"General Miles objected to the sending of the captured Indians to a strange and unwholesome region, and continually contended that he himself had specifically promised they should go back to their own country. All that I know of General Miles' statements, in his book or otherwise, show that the claim that he was the great champion of these unhappy prisoners of war is correct. He was, and no one respects him for it more than I do."

Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood
eye witness to The pursuit and capture of chief Joseph 

The government ordered the confiscation of the tribe's beloved horses. Colonel Miles mentions over 600 head of loose stock in addition to the animals used to carry the packs and drag the travois from Bear Paw to Fort Keogh. A large portion of these were Appaloosa. Not only were the Appaloosas shot and trapped, their horses were sold at auction. At the auction the bidding was brisk.

Ironically it is the buyers of these horses were the downfall of the Appaloosa breed. They bred them to anything "to throw a little color on them". Those spotted horses that were swifter, savvier, tougher and more sure-footed than the mounts of the cavalry, were near extinction. The Appaloosa was bred into oblivion as a pure breed. He remained in pitiful obscurity until the early 1920"s.

sources: Know the Appaloosa Horse written by Lee Arlandson
Western Horseman March 1954 (various articles)
"Appendix" in Chester Anders Lee, Chief Joseph: The Biography of a Great Indian 1936
Ross Cox, Adventures on the Columbia River written 1811-1832 publ.
Lewis and Clark Journal entries
The Flight of the Nez Perce - A Timeline
Horse of Many Colors by Susan Fadler
song by Bobby Wayne - Ballard of the Appaloosa

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