Cowboys and Indians

I spent the other evening relaxing, as I usually do, by watching an old western movie.  This one, The Searchers, was complete with several of the skirmishes between cowboys and the local indian tribe that are common to movies of the western genre. In the end of this particular movie, as in most of them, the cowboys came out on the top and the ‘savage’ indians were sent packing back to their warrior lifestyle. Though the Hollywood movies and television shows I grew up watching and enjoying would have us believe cowboys and Native American tribes frequently fought each other in the early days of the American West, I’ve come to learn this simply wasn’t true.  Indians weren’t generally known to attack wagon trains heading west and cowboys moving cattle weren’t distrustful of local indian tribes. In fact, it’s been said a man on a wagon train was more likely to die drowning at a river crossing or having a mishap with his own gun than in a fight with an indian.  

So, how did we come to believe there were so many battles between cowboys and indians? What were the early interactions really like for cowboys and the native peoples? Let’s take a few steps back in time. After the US completed the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, larger numbers of people headed westward into what they believed was mostly empty, open country. To their surprise, native people had been living on these lands for many centuries. Many, like the Cherokee, had already been pushed further west from their original lands many years earlier, and now were experiencing more westward expansion of the United States. But still, these interactions were generally calm and friendly, but for a bit of trepidation. If one is looking for evidence of conflict between Native Americans and those moving westward, they would have more luck in finding it between cavalry soldiers and indians given the former’s role in enforcing the accommodation of expansion and settlement of the west. Although, even those battles weren’t nearly as common as Hollywood would have us believe. The majority of soldiers serving in forts and outposts of the old west never fought indians and some never even saw an indian!

As for the working cowboy, the days of the early American West were busy ones with 20 million cattle being driven by cowboys on horseback from Texas to the northern railheads where railroads started or ended. The price for cattle in Texas was very low, while people in eastern cities like Philadelphia, New York or Boston would pay much more for beef. That desire for quality beef made it worthwhile for ranch owners to hire cowboys to drive their herds 1,000 miles or more along trails such as the Chisolm Trail or the Goodnight-Loving Trail. From there, cattle could then be shipped by train to the east where the ranchers could make more money selling them.

The major cattle trails of the American West. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

So, instead of the stereotype from the movies of fighting cowboys and indians, the real story was very different. Cowboys were busy moving cattle from one point to another, and indians were busy, well, living the lives they had for thousands of years. The cattle trails, where most cattle were driven, were distinct pathways used time and time again, and while not the luxurious superhighways of today, they were at least definitive paths cutting through vast expanses of land occupied by native tribes. The chances of a cattle drive encountering an indian tribe were so very low precisely because of the relatively small trails cutting through such large expanses of rangeland. And, the two groups had little reason to interact with each other. In fact, one cowboy who did see indians wrote, “The people we saw, scattered about in small villages or begging [for beef] from us, were not the ‘savage foes’ of lore but a sorry lot of starving human beings.”

So, I reflected back to the movie I had just watched and pondered the imbalance between entertainment and what I knew to be true, namely that cowboys and indians, for the most part, got along fine on the few occasions when they did interact. Watching the movie did, however, remind me of my youth when my friends and I would play the popular playground game of “cowboys and indians” so many times. Chasing each other around and waiting for one to attack the other, we fumed with our faux hatred and distrust for the other. I remember it as a fun game, and chasing each other around certainly burned a lot of energy, but it seemed as though the cowboys almost always won and the hapless indians lost each time I played, not unlike the movies I enjoyed. Now, in fairness, I’ve played both the role of the cowboy and the role of the native while getting into character each time, although in the case of the “indian” it was the character I learned from watching lots (and lots) of western films. Regardless, the preference for me was generally to play the cowboy because my chances for victory were better. Fair? Perhaps not. But, understand that’s just how the game was taught to us.

Now, certainly in the early days of the American West, there were conflicts involving Native Americans to be sure. There are reported battles between warring tribes, and between tribes and merchants scattered through the history of the 18th and 19th centuries. Even the Comanche Wars are notable for standing as a long-running conflict between Spanish, Mexican, and American militaries and the Comanche. But, of all of these conflicts they were rarely with cowboys. So, what should we know about these native peoples that seem so menacing in the westerns?

“When The Plains Were His” by Charles M. Russell, 1906

One of the things that I am most struck by in thinking about the proud people that have called North America their home for more than 10,000 years is their reverence for the horse. The acquisition of horses by indians in the early 18th century altered the lives of most tribes between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, and began the great horse culture of the Native Americans. And, while the indian acquisition of the horse lasted a little over a century, ironically, the equines that originated in North America became extinct here while they continued to thrive in Asia after crossing the Bering Straits. A few horses got into native hands before the 1680 revolt against the Spanish in the area that is now New Mexico. This revolt against encroachment has been counted as the greatest setback exacted by native people on European expansion in North America and released a large number of horses into the wild. Over the next three-hundred years, horses and equine culture for native people spread quickly northward across the whole Great Plains area and far into Canada. So much so, that starting in the early days of the partnership between the horse and the Native Americans, horses were treated with the utmost in respect for their abilities in hunting and in warfare with other tribes. Early Native Americans even called horses “God dogs,” which the name alone indicates the reverence they had for this majestic animal.

As a result, almost overnight, native tribes found a much more effective way to hunt buffalo, the main staple of life in the vast, untamed area of the Great Plains. And, the indian embraced a horseback riding culture enthusiastically. With a good horse under him, a hunter could go faster than a buffalo, which gave him an enormous advantage in providing food and comfort for the tribe. Since the buffalo herds moved great distances during each season, those who depended on them for their food and sustenance also had be able to move great distances, and the horse made this all the easier. Before the early 1700’s, the great tribes of Plains Indians depended on dogs or human beings for transporting equipment. The grand herds of buffalo were exceedingly difficult for them to hunt because, as you can imagine, bison are swift and move much faster than a man on foot. And, on the vast plains there was little cover where hunters could effectively hide. With the acquisition of horses, however, indians quickly found a way to outrun a buffalo and carry much greater loads farther and faster than a dog or a human. Horses became an integral part of Native American society, just as they have and are for cowboys.

“Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”

– Native American proverb

But, as with other societies, the horse was also a mixed blessing because it could also be used as a military tool in warring against other tribes, and a source of conflict between the have’s and have not’s — the constant battle between tribes that had horses and those that did not. Given all of that, though, and while the glory days of mounted Native American horsemen lasted little more than a century, the picturesque culture of these proud, nomadic people horseback provides a different viewpoint into the Native Americans of the American West. One that is based on the reality that indians loved and respected horses, and avoided conflict with cowboys. And, indians and cowboys shared a love of horses then, as they do now while seeking to avoid conflict with each other then, as they do now.

So, perhaps when we perceive conflict in modern times, in our lives, and with those we encounter that are different than us we can think about what binds us together rather than what divides us. For the cowboys and indians of the early west, the horse was that binding. Revered in both cowboy culture and in the great horse culture of the American Indian, horses now, as then, provide that glue that forever binds cowboys and indians together, although not for the reasons Hollywood would have us always believe.

Using the words of one of my favorite Apache blessings, “May the sun bring you new energy by day, may the moon softly restore you by night, may the rain wash away your worries, may the breeze blow new strength into your being, may you walk gently through the world and know it’s beauty all the days of your life.”

And, until next time, happy trails! ★


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