Out of the devastation of Hurricane Florence last week came a bit of good news. The wild horse herds of the Carolina barrier islands had weathered the storm in pretty good shape.
On barrier islands from Cumberland Island, Georgia, to Assateague Island of Virginia and Maryland, herds of wild horses are found.
I first heard of those wild horses when my grandmother visited Chincoteague Island, Virginia, in the late 1950s and brought my brother and me the book “Misty of Chincoteague.” The book is the famous story of a wild pony descended from Spanish ponies that survived a shipwreck off Assateague Island in the 1500s.
The wild horses there and on the other Atlantic islands actually do trace their ancestry back at least 300 years into colonial times.
Though no such wild herds are now found in the Black Prairie, this area was once home to large herds of similar horses of Spanish descent. They were the herds of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, once noted for their horses — Spanish Mustangs descended from horses brought from Spain by the early explorers. What is now known as the Black Prairie was once prime horse country.
It was known as the savanna between the Choctaws and Chickasaws, and was considered among the finest grazing land in the world. Indian ponies raised in the Black Prairie were recognized across the South in the 1700s and early 1800s as being some of the best horses anywhere.
By the 1760s, the Chickasaw had large herds of horses and John Smyth wrote in 1784 that the Chickasaw were a nation who were “very careful of preserving a fine breed of Spanish horses they have long preserved.”
In his “History of the American Indians,” published in 1775, James Adair wrote that “the Chikkasah (Chickasaw) and Choktah (Choctaw) horses are Spanish barbs, and long winded, like wolves.”
Henry Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote in 1785 the Chickasaw horses “are generally esteemed as good horses as any in America.”
One of the more interesting horse references appears in court records pertaining to the estate of William Cooper, a free black man working and trading along the Tombigbee during the 1790s in what is now Mississippi and Alabama. In 1791, he sold John Turnbull of Natchez and Baton Rouge 20 horses at $15 a head. Around 1793, Cooper also traded Turnbull his horse known as “Cooper’s Grey” for Turnbull’s “mulatto servant,” Medlang, who Cooper then took as his common law wife.
George Gaines moved into the Tombigbee River Valley in 1805 and, while serving as factor at the U.S. Choctaw Trading House, became friends with John Pitchlynn. According to Gaines, Pitchlynn, U.S. interpreter for the Choctaw Nation, “had about 500 horses in the range.” He continued: “The Colberts (in the Chickasaw Nation north of Tibbee Creek) also had many horses. Horses of various Colours looked splendid in the prairies — settlers sold ponies at $10 to $50 — better kind of horses $50 to $100 — drove them to New Orleans, Pensacola, and Mobile.”
When Pitchlynn died in 1835, he still had more than 100 horses in his estate. In his estate file, there is an accounting which includes the sale of his horses.
His horses — when described as Sorrel, Gray, Bay and Roan — sold for a low $15 and a high $75. Most sold for $50 to $60. Horses described only as work horses sold for $50 each, while those described only as stock horses sold for $30 each.
In Noxubee County, east of Brooksville, flows Horse Hunter’s Creek, and the large prairie that spreads out east of the creek was named Horse Hunter’s Prairie. The tradition in Noxubee County is that the creek and prairie were named after Horse Hunter, a Choctaw who lived there and was noted for raising horses. In fact, the 1831 Armstrong Roll (Choctaw Census) shows a Choctaw by the name of Horse Hunter living and cultivating three acres on Tobacco Creek in what is present day Noxubee County.
H.B. Cushman, who was born at the Mayhew Indian Mission and lived with the Choctaw in the 1800s, described the Choctaw horse as a “chubby little pony.” According to Cushman: “The famous little Choctaw pony was a veritable forest camel to the Choctaw hunter. …His unwearied patience, and his seemingly untiring endurance of hardship and fatigue, were truly astonishing … and proving himself to be a worthy descendant of his ancient parent, the old Spanish war-horse.”
Interestingly, Cushman commented that the Choctaw did not use horses in battle, always dismounting to fight. The Choctaw used horses both for riding and as pack horses and would suspend a little bell from the neck of each horse.
The Chickasaw and Choctaw horses were, and are, a colorful and people-friendly breed of horse noted for their stamina and endurance.
Those traits were horribly tested during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s when thousands died alongside the Chickasaws and Choctaws on the inhumane winter time Indian Removal treks of some 550 miles from Mississippi to the western Indian Territory. Today there are efforts underway, mostly in Oklahoma, to preserve that special breed of horse with its ancient and historic lineage.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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