Genealogy or genomics?

The genealogy of the Nokota horses in particular and wild bred horses in general, is as interesting as it is difficult. There is no reasonable doubt that the Nokota horses can be claimed to have a significant genetic influence from the horses that were confiscated from the Lakota and Tatanka Iyotake at his surrender in 1881 at Fort Buford, North Dakota. Occasionally questions and doubts arise from different sources, which call for an open and constructive debate.

All breeds of horses have a history of historical facts and tales, more or less supported by evidence. The connection between the Nokota horse and Tatanka Iyotake (Buffalo-Bull-Who-Sits-Down, also known as “Sitting Bull”) is a spectacular story. The story itself does not make the Nokota horses superior or inferior in any particular way, but it sometimes puts the Nokota horses in the spotlight as a symbol, for an endless line of reasons I may return to in many blog posts in the future. Powerful symbols have a tendency to be caught in crossfire between righteous causes and less gracious sides of human character.

Tatanka Iyotake himself was a controversial person during most of his life and his legacy still is. Most written stories and movies about him are based on the work of Walter Campbell (alias Stanley Vestal) and his interviews of the betrayers that were responsible for the murder of Tatanka Iyotake. The true story “Sitting Bull – his life and legacy” is written by Ernie LaPointe, great grandson of Tatanka Iyotake.

Hence, it is important to explain and verify the history of the Nokota horse as clearly as possible. This is our interpretation based on simple human logic and deep appreciation and affection for horses. There may be better explanations than ours, more facts and evidences, so take it for what it is.

First it may be appropriate to define the value of evidence. There are at least three ways to approach the question whether a fact can be claimed to be true; mathematical verification, juridical proof and scientific theory. A mathematical verification is untouchable, like 1+1=2 meaning there is no room at all for interpretation. A juridical proof is to prove something “beyond reasonable doubt” which is achieved thru evaluation of technical evidence, circumstantial evidence and statements by eyewitnesses. A scientific theory is to express the best available knowledge thru logical reasoning, statistical or experimental evaluation.

One attempt to state mathematical evidence against the Nokota horses proposed connection to Tatanka Iyotakes’ horses goes something like this; there must have been a million horses passing thru the Little Missouri Badlands area, only 250 of them were Sitting Bulls horses. (the horses acquired by De Mores at the time of Tatanka Iyotake’s surrender at Fort Buford 1881) 250 out of 1 000 000 is 0,025% or virtually no genetic connection at all. This seems like a perfect proof, but that does not prevent it from being completely false! Let me explain;

First: “one million horses in the area” how is “area” defined? Did anyone actually count 1 000 000 horses, where and during what timeframe? The Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is professionally managed by the National Park Service who by their best standards and knowledge states that the area can only sustainably support 70-90 horses in the park’s 70 500 acres. Secondly: the proposed mathematical calculation states that the genetic variation among one million horses is perfectly mixed together, like pouring a cup of tea in a pond. You may believe in the almighty creator, Charles Darwin, or both; either way it is a deep misunderstanding of how biological processes work. Five hundred years after the first horses set foot on the American continent there are still horses of Spanish Colonial type living on open range in several different locations that show insignificant deviation in conformation from the original Spanish horses. With other words; wild horses don’t mix and blend like water.

A strong juridical proof in favor of the Nokota horses could, hypothetically of course, be if a genetic match would exist between now living Nokota horses and a verified DNA sample from one of Tatanka Iyotake’s horses. This is of course not possible since no such known sample exists.

It is however possible to point out a significant genetic difference between the Nokota horses and other horses in the area, which strengthens the hypothesis that Nokota horses (by that I first and foremost mean the fully foundation traditional type of Nokota) are primarily of Spanish colonial heritage and only insignificantly a mix of later domesticated influence. It is important to understand the circumstances under which the Nokota horse developed thru time.

The horses brought to the American mainland by the Spaniards from 1519 and forward, was primarily Andalusian. The Andalusian type of horse was basically a mix of Arabian, Berber and Northern European horses. As the horses spread across the American continent over the centuries and adapted to the environment they roamed, the composition of their genes changed thru natural selection. Not later than 1730 wild horses lived in what today is known as TRNP, proved by oral Lakota tradition and written documents by explorers like Louis and Clarke. These horses lived in an environment and climate that differed considerably from what their Spanish ancestors came from. This is an important circumstance, because what happens is that the process of natural selection leads to an enhancement of the properties, or genes, that are better adapted to the new environment. Meaning; cold harsh winters favored the genes inherited from their Northern European ancestors. So traditional Nokota horses should have more genes associated with Scandinavian and Northern European breeds, than their Spanish Colonial type of relatives in the southwest. This is exactly what was found at a DNA analysis recently reported for a Nokota horse called Nisa! (The genome of the sample horse is compared to standard genomes that represent different breeds or types. The percentage of matched positions is then put in order of magnitude 1st, 2nd and 3rd) These were the results:

1st percentage: Nordic Fjord Icelandic

2nd percentage: Irish breeds

3rd percentage Non Arabian Oriental (read Berber)

This is of course just one single example, but there will hopefully be more and more results coming in from private horse owners in due time.

Furthermore other properties that might be expected to be enhanced are the roan coat colors, which are better at absorbing heat at winter and reflecting heat at summer. Tough environments and harsh climates always favor smaller individuals, though taller horses have an advantage in deep snow.

All this leads to a very special horse conformation, which by the way perfectly coincides with a fully foundation Nokota horse. The reason I want you to consider this description of natural selection is to present a circumstantial evidence. What does this prove? Nokota horses does show significant differences that connects them to the Spanish Colonial type of Indian pony used by the Lakota and disconnects them from those one million domesticated horses said to have roamed the area.

So I have now pointed at technical evidence in the form of DNA analysis as well as circumstantial evidence that supports that Traditional Nokota horses are not, more than insignificantly, crossbred with domesticated type of horses. But there is more.

After the Battle of The Greasy Grass (also known as the Little Big Horn) Tatanka Iyotake and 3000 of his Lakota people settled in The Land of the Grandmother (also known as Canada). This was a five year struggle against the elements and starvation of enormous proportions. In 1881 only 186 surviving Lakota and their horses returned to surrender at Fort Buford. The remaining horses were the reduced band of the toughest horses out of tens of thousands of the best Indian ponies ever selected by the foremost horse culture that has ever existed.

These 250 horses were obtained by Marquis De Mores. After the terrible winter in 1886 Huidekoper bought 60 of these horses from De Mores when he left America for good. A couple of decades later when Huidekoper got out of business, the descendants of these original 60 (or 250) horses continued to roam the Little Missouri Badlands. A cautious conclusion would be that these horses, descendants of Tatanka Iyotake’s horses, were among the best fitted horses of the area and that they continued to genetically dominate among other Spanish Colonial type of horses that roamed the Little Missouri Badlands and eventually formed into the breed called The Nokota Horse.

Other horses of domesticated types that strayed into the area were not equally adapted to the tough life on open range and could not always communicate successfully among the well structured wild horse population, though several different wild horse bands probably existed in different parts of the rugged area and some bands were more influenced than others, which in part would explain the difference between the Ranch type and the Traditional type within the Nokota horse population.

It must also be understood that a few external mares can only have a small impact on the genome of an existing horse population. A single stallion could, if successful however have a larger impact, but an intruding tender footed domesticated stallion have virtually no chance of conquering a single mare from existing wild horse stallions.

It is my opinion that this brief explanation meets both the standards of juridical proof beyond reasonable doubt as well as scientific theory, to state that Nokota Horses in fact are significantly genetically influenced by, and therefore descendants of, the horses confiscated from Tatanka Iyotake at Fort Buford in 1881.

Another issue is whether Tatanka Iyotake and his Lakota people were exceptionally good horse breeders, which would make the Nokota horses in any way superior to other horses?

The question really makes no sense at all. Correct me if I am wrong, but our European/American conception of “breeding” and “superior” do not exist in Lakota culture or their view of the world and its creatures. Horses are family and nobody is superior or inferior, only different. Breeding is a word for improving. In Europe we have been breeding horses for thousands of years; where did that leave us? The sharpest horses are found among the wild horse populations in North America, like the Nokota horses. I believe that the Lakota people knows that only nature itself can improve (breed) horses. They were nomadic hunters not ranchers, they simply picked out the horses they liked from the existing wild horse bands they came across, or bravely conquered from their enemies.

The difference between how The Nokota Horse Conservancy and other wild horse populations are managed, is that the NHC works to preserve the natural genetic variation already existing within the breed, while others try to improve their population towards better saddle stock thru selective breeding and infusion of external blood lines as in traditional, by the book, breeding.

It is my hope that the NHC will continue their successful struggle for wild horse preservation and beware against lesser goals. To use Tatanka Iyotake’s own words; “Great men are usually destroyed by those who are jealous of them”.


West Coast Lighthouses

View from Hamneskär - The medieval fortress Carlsten on Marstrand

Our Nokota horses emigrated from the prairies of North Dakota to our small horse ranch on the west coast of Sweden in late November and are now true members of our ancient seafaring Viking tribe.

Thinking about these three Nokota horses and how they truly light up our lives, it crosses my mind that there are three other light sources not so far from our ranch that’s had an important impact on the life at the Swedish west coast for a long time.

I had the rare opportunity to visit some of the lighthouse islands along the coast a few years ago when I was involved in doing some technical designs for various building restoration projects including reverse osmosis fresh water systems (turning sea water into drinking water) and other HVAC installations. I had the chance to take some photos and now I cannot resist sharing them as a way to show you the surroundings, which we share with our Nokota horses.


The lighthouse Pater Noster is situated on the island of Hamneskär at the coast, north of Gothenburg. It belongs to a group of 97 islands known by the medieval mariners to be particularly difficult to navigate, full of treacherous reefs and strong currents. Thus requiring many a prayer for a safe passage, thereof the name Pater Noster. It is still only possible to land in calm weather. At one time we had to use a helicopter to reach the island at an urgent construction inspection. 

The lighthouse was thoroughly restored a few years ago and the island is open for visitors. The old buildings contain a small conference center and a hostel.

View from Hamneskär - The easternmost part of the North Sea

Pater Noster - The lighthouse was recently renovated

View from the Pater Noster lighthouse

The buildings on Hamneskär as seen from the Pater Noster lighthouse

Nidingen - the old twin lighthouses

Nidingen is the next lighthouse island, situated 5½ nautical miles off the coastline, which is just a few miles from our horse ranch.

Nidingen is a small flat grass covered island surrounded by treacherous sand reefs that has always been a danger for mariners. Built by the Danes in 1635 as the first twin lighthouse in the world. In 1645 it became the first Swedish lighthouse. The stones from the old lighthouses is believed to come from the medevial fortress of Varberg.

Nidingen is also an important bird watching station and every year 10 000 birds are ringed. Nidingen is a nature reserve and the only place known in Sweden where there are nesting kittywakes (Rissa Tridactyla). It is however open for visitors and has a modest conference center and a hostel. Highly recommended for any visitor.

Nidingen - the newer lighthouse is still operational

Nidingen - well kept buildings

Tylön lighthouse - as seen from the mainland

Tylön, the final lighthouse island situated 70 miles south of our horse ranch, just off the coast from Halmstad. The Tylön island is mainly covered by green meadows and is a nature reserve well known among nesting birds like eider, black-backed gull and herring gull. Tern, eared owl and peregrine falcon are also among the visitors.

The lighthouse was built 1870 but is no longer in use, it was closed 1968. The island was used by fishermen during the seventeenhundreds and there are also ancient remnants on the island dating back to the bronze age.

Visits to Tylön is prohibited during most of the year for the protection of the birds and the buildings are more or less decaying.

Our transportation the Sea Rescue vessel - coming in to Tylön

The shores of Tylön

Tylön - Birds only

Tylön - residence of the former lighthouse keepers

Tylön island with the lighthouse

The lighthouse on Tylön

Home of our horses

Wild Prairie Rose and her fellow nokotas are living with us at our ranch Sotardalen Nokota horses in Fjärås, built on grounds with a thrilling ancient history.

Fjärås is the name of a village that rests by a thirteen thousand years old moraine ridge that runs from north to south like a dorsal stripe through the landscape, formed during the end of the latest ice age. East of the ridge is the short end of a twenty mile long lake, Lygnern. West of the ridge is the atlantic ocean, but nowadays there is a flat farmland between the ocean and the ridge.

On the west slope of the ridge is Scandinavias largest grave field from the iron age (Wiking age). It is called Li and it harbours 127 Bauta rocks, one of them is almost 16 feet tall and is said to mark the grave of the Danish King Frode.

On top of the ridge runs an ancient road Via Regia (now called Gamla Gällingevägen and Förlandavägen), up until the seventeen hundreds it was the main road in the southwest of Sweden. It was the only way to get from Denmark in the south to Norway in the north, and the ridge was controlled by an ancient Scandinavian tribe, the Fjaeringar. They were known as far as by the Alexandrian scholar Ptolemaios in Egypt. The road ends at our house a mile and a half south of the lake and continues south as a horse trail through a forest.

Just fourteen years ago remnants of an ancient settlement was discovered half a mile north of our ranch, when the exploitation of a gravel deposit was expanded. Evidence of a large permanent settlement during the bronze age, and at roman iron age, was excavated. At least twelve longhouses could easily be recognized , One of the buildings was 55 yards long.

We intend to unveil more of the stories about this place and the horses as we travel through space towards summer.

Comments you must read

Thanks to everyone for all comments!

This evening we received some very fine comments by Seth Zeigler that adds some  precious background info about the Nokota’s you really can’t afford to miss, if you’ve read the latest posts on this blog.

You’ll find Seth’s comments at the bottom of the posts that was posted in  2012-02-11 and also on the one posted 2012-02-10.  

Nokota story – 6

Sotardalen Nokota horses - Sweden

This the sixth and our final part of this story about the Nokota horses. After the ranchers’ era came to a close in the beginning of the 20th centry, the age of wildlife preservation would emerge and out of the mists came the wild horses.

The wild horses

The settlers that came into the Badlands area had a hard time trying to grow crops in the poor dry prairie soil and after the drought during the nineteen thirties depression most of the claims were returned to the government and eventually the National Park Service.

In the remote parts of the Little Missouri Badlands, herds of wild horses had roamed for centuries. Some Spanish Colonial horses wandered free from the south, some had belonged to Spanish Conquistadors and American Indians at some point in history. Most of them were Sitting Bulls Lakota horses that De Mores’ and Huidekopers’ had lost or left behind, some were crossbred with Huidekopers Percherons and maybe some occasional stray horse in the area. They had all one thing in common though; they were strong survivors, tender footed weaklings didn’t last for long in that part of the North West.

The Badlands north unit - photo by NPS

The rough Little Missouri Badlands, carved out in the Missouri Plateau, is a deeply eroded country along the Little Missouri River that stretches from Bowman County north to the confluence with the Missouri River. The wild horses lived a tough life in this remote and undisturbed area for decades through dry summers and long devastating cold stormy winters. But the robust horses had endured hard conditions for centuries and were used to take care of themselves, so they managed to survive.

Our horses in Sotardalen, Sweden

The variation in the horse population in combination with the harsh environment and extreme inland climate conditions were a perfect base for what the biologists call “natural selection”. The extreme winters and droughts that must have occurred may have reduced the population at some points in time which led to some kind of uniformity of winning characteristics, with other words; The Little Missouri Badlands itself formed a special breed of horses. It began when the first horses came to the area about 300 years ago and continued into the twenty first century.

The wild horses had an overall effective athletic conformation built for climbing, strength and low energy endurance. Their ability of solving problems and use strategic thinking to outsmart predators and figure out how to get to the best grazing places and wind shelters was vital for their survival. They were equipped with excellent coats, often red and blue roans that were darker in the winter to absorb sun heat and lighter in the summer to reflect the heat. The long broom tails were an important weapon to keep insects away, standing in a circle with the heads in centre swinging their tails. Their eyes and ears were bigger, sharper and better. The wild horses on the northern prairies were slightly taller than their cousins in the south because long legs were an advantage in deep snow and when climbing hillsides or jumping over gorges. The legs and hooves were strong and had some protective feathered fetlocks so they could dig through deep snow crusts to find enough old grass to survive during winter and they could knock holes in thick ice covered streams and waterholes. The wild horses actually helped the critters to survive, contrary to some cattle “experts” that claimed the wild horses to be a free-grazing-nuisance. The cattle could follow the wild horse trails through the deep snow and graze were the horses had already removed the snow crusts. And so the horses roamed free in the inaccessible Little Missouri Badlands and thrived without interference by humans.

At the bondary between pasture and forest in Sotardalen

The National Park

In the 1940:s the civilization grew closer and herds of private livestock needed to use more and more public land so the free grazing wild horses became bad for business. Federal authorities were set under pressure so anything that was bad for business must be exterminated; soon the once large herds of wild horses that roamed all over the northern plains were gone. But the remote Little Missouri Badlands were useless for livestock, so in honor of the former president Teddy Roosevelt, former rancher in the area, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park was established in 1947. (Today the park´s 110 square miles (285 km²) is managed by the National Park Service and was renamed; Theodore Roosevelt National Park .) Soon miles and miles of fences were built all around the Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - photo by NPS

By fortune some of the wild horses found themselves surrounded by a protective fence and nobody knew they were there, at first. The goal for the National Park was to preserve wildlife for visitors to see how it once was before the Europeans came. Horses came to America by the Spanish Conquistadors so they did not belong in the National Park; consequently the goal was to exterminate any trace of wild horses. Luckily it was easier said than done, these horses had been Lakota buffalo runners and dog soldiers for a hundred generations so they knew how to stay out of reach. 1971 a law was enforced to prevent horse slaughter, “Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act”, unfortunately that only applied to public land governed by Bureau of Land Management (BLM), not the National Park Service. So the hunt for wild horses within the National Park continued unrestricted by law.

When the first explorers like Louis and Clark pushed through the West they sat on the backs of Indian ponies they had traded from the Shoshone people and they saw large herds of wild horses everywhere they went, so wild horses was definitely already a part of the landscape when Theodore Roosevelt lived in the area.

Little Missouri River - photo by NPS

In the seventies public pressure led to a reconsideration of the non horse policy so finally a small herd for demonstrational purposes was accepted in the National Park (140 horses  in 110 square miles). But the oppression of wild horses was not over by that, because you see, the appearance of wild weather-beaten Indian ponies was not fancy enough. Some genius Park Service associate came up with the dazzling idea to change the appearance of the horses. So they began “removing” the stallions and replaced them with more “modern” breeds of horses, like Quarter horses, Arabian, Shire- and Thoroughbred-crosses. Again the toughest wild horse stallions proved to be difficult to wipe out and besides the stable fed newcomers did not impress the wild mares much at all. Not until the roundup in 2003 the last traditional Nokota horses were removed from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Well, nowadays that is history and I’m sure most National Park Service employees have an admirable awareness, ambition and expertise to preserve all wildlife including wild horses, but unfortunately it’s one human generation too late. I wish their devotion to preserve wildlife within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park would have included the original wild horse of the northern plains. It would have been a breath taking sight to see, hear and feel big herds of wild Nokota horses (instead of the present surrogate) running free in their rightful environment . Maybe it will be possible in the future. It feels good to know that some people are working for it.

The Kuntz brothers and the Nokota® horse

The two brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz were competing in the Great American Horse Race, a cross country race in extremely rugged terrain. Like everybody else they used Quarter horses and Thoroughbred horses and they had problems with durability, the horses just didn’t last. They searched for something stronger. Every now and then there was a round-up at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park to keep the horses in manageable low numbers and excess horses were sold at auctions. In 1979 Kuntz’ bought a few horses at one of the first auctions at the National Park. Soon they understood that these unnamed horses where really special and realized under what circumstances the horses existed. They bought all pure bred horses they could get at the auctions, trying to save what was left.

Horse roundup at TRNP - photo by NPS

Leo Kuntz named them Nokota, after North Dakota. In 1986 Dr Castle McLauglin began a research project on the horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Soon she joined forces with the Kuntz brothers and the efforts to save the Nokota horse became more intense, they worked hard to restore the breed to a safe number. More people joined in and the Nokota horse was recognized by the state as The Honorary Equine of North Dakota.

1999 the Nokota Horse Conservancy was founded and a breed registry was established. Today the Kuntz families care for about 500 Nokota horses on 7000 acres of North Dakota prairie. Nokota is now a Registered Trademark of The Nokota Horse Conservancy.

The Nokota horse is still to be regarded as an endangered breed and totally depending on voluntary and private supporters. Nokota horses are now beginning to be spread all over the US and on our side of the big pond there is a small but growing number of Nokota horses in France at the ranch of la famille Marchal, and here in Sweden under the wings of the Zeigler family in northern Sweden.

So in a way you might say the big circle is closed, some of the descendants of the horses that once migrated to America has returned to Europe and they are stronger than ever.

Sotardalen Nokota horses - on the west coast of Sweden

This was the sixth and final part of our story about the Nokota horse. In writing this story I have been restricted to use input information as a foundation for all conclusions, as in all historical essays the writer is seldom of sufficient experience or age, no matter how old and wheater-beaten, to tell everything accurately and wisely out of own life experiences. So don’t be too harsh on me if something is utterly misinterpreted. Among the sources of information I recall, are the following references:

The Nokota Horse Conservancy

The Zeigler’s

Papers and articles by Dr Philip Sponenberg and Dr Castle McLaughlin

State Historical Society of North Dakota

US National Park Service

Books by Hope Ryden, Dee Brown, Gawani Pony Boy, …

Wikipedia and other internet sources

Nokota story – 5


The rancher’s era

At the time of Sitting Bulls surrender at Fort Buford in the summer of 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad had already reached the Little Missouri River, which opened up new possibilities for better or worse. During the year of 1883 about 10 000 buffaloes was killed and skinned roundabout the Badlands area and before the winter came just about all buffaloes were gone. The hides were shipped out from Sully Springs and Dickson on the Northern Pacific Railroad. For years to come the bones were collected from the prairie and shipped east to fertilizer factories.

Some saw an opportunity to breed cattle in North Dakota and soon the longhorn cattle drives came up from Texas to the vast open northern prairies. The base for a new beef industry to feed the fast growing population of America was laid out.

Amédée Marie Vincent Manca de Vallombrosa Marquis de Morès et de Montemaggiore, a complicated name of a likewise complicated man, usually called Marquis de Mores, born in France 1858. At the age of 21 he graduated from St Cyr military academy, continued to Saumur cavalry school, and after that he was assigned to the French colony of Algeria in North Africa. At the age of 24 he resigned, married Medora von Hoffman the daughter of a New York banker, and they traveled to North Dakota, claimed 45 000 acres near the Little Missouri Badlands to begin a ranching venture.

Marquis De Mores

Sitting Bulls horses that had been confiscated at Fort Buford had to be disposed of, so they were sold to whomever and whatever. “Indian ponies” were not popular to say the least, after all the horses were associated with the American Indians and many families had bad memories and sorrows from decades of Indian wars and disputes. As always misconceptions, preconceptions and generalizations follow in the footsteps of ignorance and human herd behavior.

As good horsemen and curious newcomers Marquis De Mores and his wife Medora saw the qualities in the little tough Indian ponies that others despised. So when Sitting Bulls horses were sold or disposed by the US Cavalry, De Mores took the opportunity to buy 250 of the Lakota Indian horses. An act of impulse that later proved to be one of the most crucial steps ever taken for the preservation of the horse that later were to be called the Nokota horse (and probably the most prosperous undertaking De Mores ever achieved). De Mores and his wife were good riders and became very affectionate of the horses and kept them away from crossbreeding.

The prairie town of Medora was founded by De Mores in honor of his wife and a packing plant was built to process, pack and ship beef to consumers in Chicago. The Chicago beef trust managing corn raised cattle in the stockyards of Chicago was not happy about the competition so their connections in the North Pacific Railroad did their best to keep up the prizes for De Mores railroad transportations. De Mores was involved everywhere and by everything and at one occasion he and some of his men were involved in a gunfight against three hunters or rustlers and one of them was killed. De Mores was trialed for murder twice but was cleared both times.

Theodore Roosevelt came to Little Missouri in September 1883 to hunt buffalo and elk in the Badlands. He liked the life on the open range and decided to go into cattle business. He made a deal with S Ferris and W Merrifield and they started out with 400 cattle and within a year they brought another 1000 heads of cattle from Iowa and the year after that another 1500 heads. Still he was not one of the biggest ranchers in the area. Roosevelt and De Mores were ranch neighbors and often visited each other.

Theodore Roosevelt

As common in those days the ranches were located on government or railroad land, so most ranchers were squatters and did not actually own any land. Cattle from different ranches roamed free on unfenced open range, some strayed in to the neighbors range and blended together. Every year the ranchers held two roundups to gather the cattle. The cattle were separated among the neighbors according to ownership, calves were branded and vendible cattle were shipped by railroad, or driven to slaughter at De Mores packing plant in Medora. A team of about 50 cowboys was required to do the job and each of them had a string of about 8 horses. First a team of men drove the cattle ahead to a gathering place near the river where the cutting took place (separation of individual cows). The cutting was a job for the most skilled and experienced horses and cowboys.

The devastating winter

Throughout the summer of 1886 more herds of cattle were driven into the crowded ranges. (Every steer needed about 20 acres to graze.) The summer was hot and dry, so grazing was poor. In November a really bad snow storm rolled in, after that there was a short period of mild weather so some of the snow melted and froze to a hard ice crust. The cattle could not get through to the grass so they starved badly. Then more snow storms and lower temperatures hit the open ranges. Not until early March the Chinook winds came down from the Rockies to break the winter.

The disaster was a fact. At the summer roundup only 25% of the cattle were still walking on the northern plains. Another rancher in the Badlands district, A.C. Huidekoper, wrote: “We had about the same number of cattle as when we had started (in 1881). We had done years of hard work, for no profit.”

Teddy Roosevelt and De Mores were among the many ranchers that lost almost everything and had to give up their ranches. The packing plant in Medora closed for good in 1887 and many moved out. Soon it was almost a ghost town and so was the Little Missouri village.

De Mores sold out and went back to France and then to China in 1888 to build a railroad to the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, but the project was turned down. Back in France again he was involved in various political blunders including a pistol duel against Alfred Dreyfus. In 1896 he went to Tunis to unite the Arabs in northern Africa against the British. His escort of Touareg tribesmen led him into an ambush and after a courageous gunfight he finally fell. He was buried in Paris, France.

Back in the Badlands, only a few ranchers continued, among them the Huidekoper’s at HT Ranch. When De Mores sold out Huidekoper bought 60 of the horses that De Mores had acquired from Sitting Bull.

A.C. Huidekoper

The wealthy Pennsylvania farmer Arthur Clarke Huidekoper came to Medora in North Dakota the same year as Sitting Bulls surrender at Fort Buford. He bought several sections of railroad land and set up fences that also closed off unclaimed land. He started up a ranch business and raised cattle until the devastating winter of 1886-1887 after which he lost most of his cattle like everybody else. Huidekoper sold his remaining cattle and gave up the cattle business.

Arthur Clarke Huidekoper

However his horses had survived almost without any losses so he began raising horses and called his ranch Little Missouri Horse Company under the HT brand (Huidekoper and Tarbell). He imported 35 Percheron mares from France and 6 stallions. A few Thoroughbred stallions from Illinois were bought to cross with the Oregon mares he had. He bred horses and sent the yearlings to his farm in Pennsylvania where they were trained and then sold to various companies as draft horses. The full blood Percherons and Thoroughbreds were held in three fenced pastures about 8 square miles each.

As mentioned he also bought 60 of Sitting Bulls horses from de Mores. “Some of these ponies had bullet holes through their necks, received in the Custer fight”, Huidekoper wrote in his memoires. The horses were bred in open pasture in a 100 mile square or more and they fed themselves.  The horses didn’t mind the cold winters, as he wrote; “I have seen colts running around playing, with the thermometer in 40 below zero.” He cross bred some of the horses and sold them as polo horses for a good profit. The idea to breed in some Percheron into the Lakota ponies proved to be A.C. Huidekoper’s stroke of genious!

At the end of the 19th century the Little Missouri Badlands were opened to be claimed by homesteaders and that put an end to the era of open range ranchers. In 1906 Huidekoper was charged to have fenced land he didn’t own and was ordered to open it up for homesteaders, he was stubborn of course and had to spend a few days in jail. Soon after that he retired and sold his ranches and his horses, the finest range bred herd in the whole country.

HT Ranch

How many horses that were actually sold is unknown. Probably there were a whole lot of horses that never were gathered at all when Huidekoper left, but simply stayed free out on the open range. The next part of this story will be about what happened after the big ranchers left and the horses once again were left to themselves up in the Little Missouri Badlands.

See you all later on down the trail!

Nokota story – 4

This is the fourth part of the story about the roots of the Nokota horse. We will now find out how the Spanish Colonial horse was adopted by the American Indian and shared two hundred years, for better or worse.


 How the American Indian got on horseback

The Spanish Conquistador Juan de Onate set out north on an expedition from Mexico in 1598 and founded a settlement in New Mexico, bringing a large number of mares and stallions. The agricultural Pueblo Indians, (probably the Taos tribe) learned to handle horses as they worked for the Spanish ranchers, occasionally some of them got away with some horses or maybe some horses were lost out on the range. The word spread among the tribes and by time herds of horses were bred. In 1659 it was recorded that Navajo Indians in northwestern New Mexico made raids to steal horses from the Spanish settlements.

In the 1680 Pueblo Revolt the Indians forced the Spanish colonists to retreat and they captured thousands of horses. Soon the horse culture among the American Indians was established among the tribes of the southern plains and in 1690 horses were common among the tribes all over Texas.

The American Indian on the northern plains

We now choose to follow the Sioux people, since their history is interconnected with the Nokota horse. The Sioux is short for the French word Nadouessioux, which is a French spelling of the word Natowessiw (rattlesnake), used by the Ojibwa as a rude joint word for the Dakota/Lakota tribes. The Sioux consists of three groups with similar dialects:

Santee (Isáŋyathi, means “Knife”, from the name of a lake in Minnesota) Also denoted the Eastern Dakota.

Yankton (Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ, means “Village-at-the-end”, living by the Minnesota River) Also denoted Western Dakota. Has wrongly been classified as “Nakota”.

Teton (Thíthuŋwaŋ, means “Dwellers on the Prairie” the westernmost Sioux) Teton is old-fashioned since long ago and the correct name is Lakota (Lakhóta) Later they were divided into seven separate sub-tribes; Sicaŋgu (Brulé, Burned Thighs), Oglala (Scatters Their Own), Itazipco (Sans Arc, Without Bows), Huŋkpapa (Camps at the End of the Camp Circle), Mnikoju (Planters by the Water), Sihasapa (Blackfoot Sioux), Oóhenuŋpa (Two Kettles)

By the end of the 17th century the Lakota people lived by the Great Lakes. The dog was their companion and helper. To move their camps and belongings, two sticks were crossed to form a travois and tied to a dog. A dog could drag maybe 40 pounds for 5 miles per day and they fed on meat. Dogs were also helpful when hunting deer and small game, but without horses hunting buffalos was hard and dangerous. As the Spanish Colonial horse spread from the south the Native Americans soon learned to appreciate the friendship of the horse. The Shoshone tribes in Wyoming were known to have horses at the turn of the century. Around 1730, the Lakota people got in contact with the horse by their neighbors and allies the Cheyenne and that changed their way of life in a profound way.

The horse could carry five times more load than a dog, travel five times longer in a day and the horse only needed grass to feed on. They called the horse šuŋkawakaŋ,”dog of miracle”. The horse became a precious family member to every Lakota Indian. One reason why the Indian horsemanship was so successful was their attitude to the whole environment including the animals. Because they literally saw the horse as a brother or sister, not as a subordinate animal to be controlled, they managed to quickly gain the horse’s absolute trust.

The Plains Indians hunted both elk and antelope but the buffalo, or the bison, was their specialty. Before the time of the horse the hunt for buffalo was hard. A technique they used was to herd the buffalo through a mile long narrowing drove way that ended up in a corral or confined rock formation, where the buffalo could be killed. Another way was for a brave hunter to hide under a buffalo hide, imitate the call of the buffalo and then make a kill from short range. As the Lakota got horses they had the speed to run alongside a stampeding herd of buffaloes and shot arrows from horseback, an ultimate test of skill and guts. The bow and arrows were superior to the early rifles, because rifles were too heavy and much to slow to reload.

The Indians were hunters and gatherers and life was tough for humans as well as their horses. Their camps were moved along with the seasons, everyone had its share of work so even children and young horses must carry heavy loads.

East of the Sioux were the hunting grounds of the Ojibwa, Cree and the Hohe Nakota (called Assiniboines by the French). The French traded furs for guns to the Ojibwa and promised the Ojibwa not to sell guns to the Sioux. That was bad for the Sioux because the Ojibwa invaded Sioux hunting grounds. Then the French also began trading guns to the Cree and Assiniboines so the Sioux reacted 1736 by attacking the French trading post Fort St Charles on an island in the lake Lac des Bois killing twenty Frenchmen. The Ojibwa then went to war against the Sioux and forced them to withdraw westwards out on the prairie to face the tribes of the plains.

In about 1740 the Sioux lived at the present border between South Dakota and Nebraska near a place that now is called Yankton. In the north between White Earth River and Mouse River the Assiniboines were settled near the Hudson Bay Company trading post. But the path to the Missouri River was blocked by the Sioux-speaking Hidatsa and Mandan tribes, and also by the Arikara related to the Pawnee. Not until the smallpox epidemic around 1782 the Missouri tribes were weakened enough so the Sioux could push through to the Missouri River.

The Sioux expanded westwards for new hunting grounds and conflicts with other tribes were inevitable. The Crow were defeated and had to leave the northern Black Hills. Even the numerous Arikara were also driven north. Around 1840 there were hard fights between Sioux and Assiniboines over the northern plains between Yellowstone River and White Earth River. By 1845 the Lakota had total control over an area from the Yellowstone River in the North and the Niobrara River in the south, and from the Missouri River in the east and the Black Hills in the west. All victories also meant that the Sioux gained control over all horses in all of the northern plains and they could choose the horses of their liking, which is one of the reasons the Sioux even to this day has a widespread reputation as the number one horse culture the world has ever seen.

In Minnesota the Santee and Yankton were surrounded by American settlers and more came along the Oregon Trail and the buffalo became rare, so the Sioux, Arapaho and others had to steal cattle which led to incidents and some settlers were killed. In 1845 troops were sent to Fort Laramie to protect immigrants on the Oregon Trail. After a year Pawnee and Crow appeared in the area as the buffalo had diminished on their usual hunting grounds and the Sioux were on the move for buffalos and trespassed on Shoshone land but were forced back. The following year the Sioux attacked settlers known to cooperate with the Pawnee and 216 settlers were killed. Between 1849 and 1851 the gold rush increased the crowding on the Oregon Trail and in 1854 the buffalo was entirely gone east of Black Hills.

In the same year near Fort Laramie, a lame cow belonging to a Mormon traveling along the Oregon Trail strayed into a camp of 4000 Lakota, mainly Oglala, Sicangu and Miniconjou. The cow was of course slaughtered. The Mormon reported it and the newly graduated second lieutenant John Grattan was ordered to set off with 28 soldiers to get the suspect to a hearing at Fort Laramie. The inexperienced Lt. Grattan barged into the camp, acting rude and obstinately against the Sicangu chief Mato Wayuhi. Lt. Grattan’s more experienced subordinates became nervous and made their guns ready. When Wayuhi gave up the discussion and got up to walk away, a nervous soldier shot him in the back. In the following gunfight Lt. Grattan and his 28 men were killed. This incident became known as the Grattan massacre by the press and became the starting point of a row of attacks and massacres on the Sioux, like the “Battle” at Ash Hollow where 26 American soldiers, but also 86 Brule’ Sioux men, women and small children were brutally killed.

Then followed ten years of peace and the Sioux avoided contact with the Americans that poured into Sioux territory. 1866 there was a meeting in the Powder River area, where the Sioux and other tribes lived, the Americans wanted to set up forts to protect the trail that passed through the area. Red Cloud, Standing Elk and Man-Afraid-Of-His-Horses declared that the Sioux was not willing to give up their hunting grounds because of a road for the white men, and that not as much as a horse shoe would be left if the soldiers invaded their land. Fort Reno, Fort Kearny and Fort Smith was already being built, and soon the “Red Cloud war” was at hand in which the Sioux was very successful.

The Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes surrounded and held Fort Kearny under pressure for two full years. Finally peace negotiators came from Washington and for the first time in American military history the only demand was peace. The forts were abandoned and burnt down to the ground. In the peace treaty 1868 it said something like; “No white man shall be allowed to settle in this land (the Black hills) or pass through the area without permission from the Indians”.

Four years later Black hills were invaded by gold diggers. One thousand soldiers under the command of General Custer marched into the forbidden mountains and years of war and broken promises followed. In 1876 General Custer and his soldiers were defeated to the last man at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The war escalated and the Indians split up. Sitting Bull and his Lakota people escaped north to the Yellowstone River area. The rest stayed and eventually had to give up.

At a peace negotiation at Fort Laramie “The great Sioux Reservation” was presented for the Lakota Sioux. It included the West River area, the western parts of South Dakota that later became Boyd County in Nebraska. At the next negotiation the reservation became much smaller and the Black Hills was overtaken by the United States.

In the springtime 1877 Sitting Bull was tired of running and his three thousand Lakota moved to find refuge in Saskatchewan, Canada. Life was hard, buffalo scarce and there was no help from the Canadian authorities. In the harsh winter of 1880 a large number of horses froze to death and many Lakota gave up.

To meet half ways is a peaceful and wise way to reach justice, but if you meet half ways more than once, you’ll soon end up with nothing. At some point you must make a stand. Sitting Bull always knew this was true.

July 19th 1881 Sitting Bull and his 186 remaining Lakota surrendered at Fort Buford in North Dakota and their horses were confiscated as a last humiliation.

Those horses were the last survivors of the finest horses that had ever walked the northern plains. At this point in history the paths of the Lakota people and the horses which were to become the Nokota horses went in different directions.

When different cultures meet, problems are inevitable but they are also soluble, if we listen to the horse inside us and not the predator.  

In the next part of this story we will find out about the ranchers in south west North Dakota that saved Sitting Bulls horses from a worse destiny.