Symbolic of the true wilderness in the Far West during Miller’s 1837 visit, the wild horses of the prairie carried a special American message of freedom, independence and vitality. Other visitors to the western plains in these years commented on the mustang’s status. Josiah Gregg in 1844 wrote of them as “by far the most noble” of beasts on the prairies (Gregg, II, 206 — 207) and George Catlin, who tried to catch some in 1834, claimed that there was “no other animal on the prairie so wild and so sagacious as the horse.” (Catlin, II, 57)
As part of Miller’s first portfolio of drawings assembled for Stewart at the end of their western adventure, the artist produced this spirited swirl of horseflesh. The horses are presented at play, nipping and kicking, bucking and rearing. Yet for all their vivacious and corporeal presence, for all their noisy frolicking, they were also famously fleeting in their habits. Miller wrote that they could vanish as quickly as they were seen. So, being able to record them with such fidelity was a serious tribute to the spontaneity and efficaciousness of his observational powers.
Miller would later, in 1852, turn this scene into a chromolithograph (CR# 904).
Peter H. Hassrick
North American Wild Horse:
After becoming extinct 8,000 years ago, the horse made its return to North America with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus. The Spanish colonialization of Mexico and southwestern North America relied on the breed of horses brought over by the Conquistadors. The breeds most preferred as war horses by these conquerors were closely related to the Iberian and Barb breeds. There are two theories on how large herds of wild Spanish horses came to roam the plains of the western U.S. by the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. One thesis credits the animals lost by either the Hernando De Soto Expedition of 1539 or Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s 1540 expedition as being the source of the wild horse herds. However, the probability of this theory is challenged by the records of these explorers. Coronado’s account of the expedition listed only 2 mares in the entire expedition cavayard of 588 horses and no horses were reported lost. De Soto’s expedition report showed that all 200 of his horses had to be killed and eaten in order for the men to survive. The most plausible explanation for the spread of the wild horse lies in the native uprising in Colonial Spain known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The death and destruction inflicted on the Spanish settlements during the rebellion resulted in thousands of the settlers’ horses being set free. These animals would provide the seed stock for the vast herds of wild horses seen by Miller and the mountain men on the western prairies in the early nineteenth century.
The Spanish horse which populated the western plains originated from breeds of a smaller body type, being only 13 to 14 hands tall. These animals however, were also said to possess physical endurance and the ability to survive on scant feed resources. Western explorer, Benjamin Bonneville provided this description of horses belonging to the Nez Perce tribe: “Above all, they are celebrated for owning great numbers of horses; which they mark, and then suffer to range in droves in their most fertile plains. These horses are principally of the pony breed; but remarkably stout and long-winded. They are brought in great numbers to the establishments of the Hudson's Bay Company, and sold for a mere trifle … the horses are generally about 14 to 14½ hands high, stout built and upon which the Indians will gallop all day.”
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Edwards, Elwyn Hartley, The New Encyclopedia of the Horse
Irving, Washington, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A.
Pickeral, Tamsin, The Encyclopedia of Horses and Ponies
The artist; Sir William Drummond Stewart, 1839; Frank Nichols; [Chapman’s, Edinburgh, 1871]; Bonamy Mansell Power; Edward Power, 1900; by descent to Major G.H. Power, England, 1966; [Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, NY, 1966]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1973