Prior Horsemanship

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'

Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

One-side of a horse pack

A canvas bundled tied with thick rope and long knots

Display at Fort Walla Walla Museum.
Photo ©2015 by Kris Townsend. Used with permission.

Small Pack Saddle

A saddle with boards, leather belts, and buffalo hair blanket

©2017 Kris Townsend, used with permission.

The Expedition did not bring saddles and pack saddles. Nor is it likely they had enough buckles and rope to make the well-rigged saddles and packs shown in these two figures. They would need to make, or purchase from the Indians, their own rigging. For examples of Indian rigging, see Horse Trading: The Prices Paid.

—Kristopher Townsend, ed.

A Lack of Preparedness?

How did the corps measure up in horsemanship? Tracking their hoofprints reveals a curious mixture of ingenuity and instinctive skill adapted to the circumstances—but also ineptitude, incompetence, and at times inexplicable negligence. It was not until the winter at Fort Mandan (1804–5) that the need for horses began to dawn on them. Previously, the two captains could hardly have realized the extent to which they would become horse traders, horse managers, horse doctors, horse breakers, horse trainers—horse factotums!

Once in possession of these animals, from the Shoshones onward, the men were constantly frustrated in managing them. Rarely did a day pass while moving on the trail when one or more of the horses had not been lost, strayed, stolen or injured. Untold hours were wasted searching for missing animals, or recovering from accidents. Could these troubles have been avoided? Did the horse problems result simply from the circumstances of the voyage, the weather, the geography? Was the corps properly prepared with the needed skills, know how, plans for dealing with the circumstances?

The Unforeseen Need

Consider first the pre-expeditionary planning for the journey: neither Lewis nor Jefferson appear to have foreseen any compelling need for horses or for training their men in horse management. Remember, however, that the Rocky Mountains weren't there yet! The "height of land" notion still prevailed among geographers who looked to the unknown West. Conventional wisdom presumed a continental divide, comparable to the Alleghenies in the East, offering only a relatively narrow rise, not too formidable, separating the watersheds of the Missouri and the Columbia. Jefferson's message to Congress of January 18, 1803 proposing the Expedition contemplated continuing navigation on the Missouri River "possibly with a single portage from the western ocean . . ."2 By implication, any need for horses would be merely incidental and transitory.

Jefferson's Opinion of Horses

Besides, Jefferson seemingly had little use for horses. As early as 1785 he had expressed his disdain:

The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man; but I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey as an enfeebled white does on his horse; and he will tire the best horses.3

One wonders if Jefferson would want to eat those words 25 years later on reading the Lewis and Clark journals, learning how horses had saved the expedition from disaster, or imagining Lewis's all night ride after the Thro Medicine fight.

As for Lewis, he most likely felt no need for horse competence beyond what he already possessed. He had lived and traveled as an army officer, a paymaster serving units in the Ohio Valley for years on horseback—a fitting career for a young man born and reared in Virginia, the land of renowned horseflesh. The same would have been true of his co-leader. Clark had had military experience with horses under General Anthony Wayne's command in Ohio in the 1790s, leading pack trains of several hundred animals through the wilderness, and he certainly must have been at ease on horseback in his Kentucky environs. But could either captain have foreseen the unique problems for coping en masse with the restless, semi-wild animals of the natives on the prairies and in the mountains, so unamenable to the disciplined pack train requirement for expedition purposes?

Horses en Route

Lewis's brand on a keg of hulled corn

Rectangular box with Lewis's name burned in wood and written in pencil, 'Hulled Corn'

Photo ©2013 by Kris Townsend taken at Fort Mandan, North Dakota. Used with permission.

It comes then as no surprise that there is but one mention of horse-related items in the record of Lewis's preparation before his embarkation from Pittsburgh on August 31, 1803: listed for shipment from the "U.States Military Dept." 1803, March 21–June 30:

1 Packg Boxes for Horsemans Cloths-$1.4

It is not clear from the journals how or when these "cloths" were used en route . . . Lewis had also arranged for shipment of a saddle from Monticello on leaving there for Pittsburgh. Jefferson wrote to him July 11, 1803: "your bridle left by the inattention of Joseph in packing your saddle is too bulky" to go by post.9 Did the bridle ever catch up with him, and did the saddle and bridle accompany him to Mandan and beyond? There seems to be no record to this effect. In any case, these minimal references in the otherwise voluminous documentation of items taken on the Expedition show scant attention to thoughts of horse travel in the Great West. Nor is there any mention in the cargo shipment references of Lewis's branding iron, often assumed as intended for branding horses such as those left in the custody of the Nez Perces in the fall of 1805. It can be doubted, however, that Lewis's iron, found in 1892 and now in possession of the Oregon Historical Society, was actually used to brand horses. [See especially, Note 14 at end of this article.] Lewis did use it at the Marias on June 10, 1805 "to put my brand on several trees" near the stashed red pirogue.

Between Pittsburgh and Fort Mandan

A few domestic horses did play a part in the voyage down the Ohio from Pittsburgh, thence to St. Louis, and later from St. Louis to Fort Mandan, most notably as follows:

  • Lewis hired local farm horses on several occasions to pull the keel boat over sand bars in the Ohio River, then at record lows.
  • At Camp Dubois near St. Louis in the winter of 1803–04, local animals were used for courier rides between the city and the camp.
  • Two horses were acquired to accompany the party up the Missouri. These steeds helped tow the keel boat over difficult places and were occasionally used by the hunters roving on shore; one such episode figured in the near tragedy of 18-year-old Shannon getting lost on the trail—"missing in action" for 12 days and having to abandon one of the two horses. The remaining horse was shortly after stolen by the Teton Sioux.
  • While with the Mandan in winter's grip the captains borrowed or hired local horses several times to pack buffalo meat in sleighs across snow fields; in another encounter with the Sioux two of these horses were stolen.