Despite the popularity of horse racing among Native people of the Plains, Miller produced only three works depicting this sport, this, another early wash drawing at the Beinecke Rare Book Library (CR# 183) and a later, larger watercolor now in the Gilcrease Museum (CR# 182A). Both men and women enjoyed the game that combined equestrian speed and human agility, but Miller appears to have favored men in these few works on the subject.
This wash drawing, part of a numbered portfolio of works that the artist put together for his patron between 1837 and 1839, features Stewart and another mounted rider, a Sioux guide who appears in many of the early sketches, as spectators. They are joined by an audience of seated Indians in a setting that resembles the rendezvous site. Stewart’s horse lifts his left front leg and rears back on his haunches, seemingly poised to enter the race. But Stewart holds him back, preserving his role as an observer and leaving the contest and fun to the three racers.
Peter H. Hassrick
As in modern times, racing horses was a popular sport among many Native American tribes. It was also a popular event at the mountain man rendezvous. Trapper Warren Ferris saw his share of horse races: “Horse racing is a favourite amusement, with the Flatheads. In short races they pay no attention to the start, but decide in favour of the horse that comes out foremost. Sometimes in long races they have no particular distance assigned, but the leading horse is privileged to go where he pleases, and the other is obliged to follow until he can pass and take the lead. These races generally terminate in favour of bottom rather than speed. Occasionally they have club races, when they enter such horses, and as many of them as they please, run to some certain point and back, when the foremost horse is entitled to all the bets. These games and races are not peculiar to the Flatheads, but are common to all the tribes we have met with in the country.”
While traveling along the Spokane River, American Fur Company clerk Ross Cox observed an exciting competition between Coeur d’Alene and Spokane racers during the summer of 1815: “We had also some good horse-racing in the plains … In addition to the horses belonging to those tribes, we had a few from the Flat-heads, and several from the Chaudiere Indians. There were some capital heats, and betting ran high. The horses were ridden by their respective owners, and I have sometimes seen upwards of thirty running a five-mile heat. The course was a perfect plain, with a light gravelly bottom, and some of the rearward jockeys were occasionally severely peppered in the face from the small pebbles thrown up by the hoofs of the racers in front.”
Author Washington Irving noted that the tribes of the Pacific Northwest were considered to have the best horses, such as the Nez Perce, who were well known for their fine steeds: “Their first-rate horses, however, were not to be procured from them on any terms. They almost invariably use ponies; but of a breed infinitely superior to any in the United States. They are fond of trying their speed and bottom, and of betting upon them. As Captain Bonneville was desirous of judging of the comparative merit of their horses, he purchased one of their racers, and had a trial of speed between that, an American, and a Shoshonie, which were supposed to be well matched. The race-course was for the distance of one mile and a half out and back. For the first half mile the American took the lead by a few hands; but, losing his wind, soon fell far behind; leaving the Shoshonie and Skynse to contend together. For a mile and a half they went head and head: but at the turn the Skynse took the lead and won the race with great ease, scarce drawing a quick breath when all was over.”
In 1843, William Drummond Stewart made his final excursion into the Rocky Mountains, traveling to the Wind River Range that he enjoyed so much. Newspaper reporter Matthew Field accompanied Stewart’s extravaganza and reported on three days of horse racing on the flatlands above the Green River Valley. Field’s chronicle of one sprint revealed the intensity of the sport: “The nags started off finely – Indian Tom yelling – all arms flying – whipping, yelling and dust flying – at the judges stand it looked like limbo broke loose – spirits bursting from smoke – Tom, the half-breed, rode naked (or three cornered breeches, made out of a red handkerchief) and bare-backed, coming in 30 yards ahead, like a bronze mercury in a state of supernatural animation! Never saw a more beautiful picture – a loud roar of admiration burst from all present. Brown Bess fell on passing the pole, broke her rider’s collar bone.”
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Cox, Ross, Adventures on the Columbia River
Field, Matthew C., Prairie & Mountain Sketches
Irving, Washington, Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A.
Ferris, Warren A., Life in the Rocky Mountains
UL: 70. Verso: Indian Race
The artist; Sir William Drummond Stewart, 1839; Frank Nichols, [Chapman’s, Edinburgh,1871]; Bonamy Mansell Power; willed to Edward Power, 1900; by descent to Major G.H. Power, Great Yarmouth, England, 1966; [Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, NY, 1966]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1973