APPALOOSA and the NEZ PERCE
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
February 15, 1806
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
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
“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
Later he was even more
no hesitation in declaring my beleif that the indian method of
gelding is preferable to that practiced by ourselves.”
June 2, 1806
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
was used many ways:
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
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
" 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.)
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
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."
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.
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,
"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
"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
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
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