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!